The Best Places to Celebrate Mardi Gras Outside of New Orleans
The Big Easy might get all the fame, but places from Alabama to the south of France also know how to party before Lent
Nearly every year since the first official Mardi Gras parade in 1837, New Orleans has carefully marked the days until Easter, erupting into a colorful bacchanal when the calendar hits 47 days out from Easter Sunday. A melting pot of French, Spanish and Caribbean cultures, New Orleans is the perfect place for a Mardi Gras celebration, a party that signals the culmination of Carnival, the season from the Epiphany (January 6) to Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Literally translated to "Fat Tuesday," Mardi Gras is meant to be a final celebration before the austerity of Lent, and has been celebrated since Medieval times (though it might also have roots in pagan rituals honoring fertility and the coming of spring).
New Orleans might be the biggest Mardi Gras celebration in the country, attracting some 1.4 million visitors each year, but it's not the only place that celebrates the beginning of Lent with a raucous party (it's not even the oldest party in the United States). Here are seven other places around the United States—and the world—that throw a Mardi Gras to rival the Big Easy.
New Orleans might boast the biggest Mardi Gras, but just two hours east, Mobile, Alabama, hosts the country's original Fat Tuesday. Mobile first hosted a Mardi Gras celebration in 1703, predating any celebration in New Orleans by at least a decade. Settled as the capital of the French Louisana territory, Mobile hosted celebrations and parades until 1718, when the capital of French Lousiana was moved to New Orleans (Mobile, locals feared, was too susceptible to destruction by hurricane).
The celebration began again in Mobile in 1866 and continues today. In the weeks before Lent, some 40 parades run through the streets of Mobile, and the celebration attracts 1 million visitors each year.
St. Louis, Missouri
Outside of New Orleans, St. Louis claims to host the United State's largest Mardi Gras party. Founded by the French some 250 years ago, the Soulard district—a historic French district and the city's oldest neighborhood—hosts a series of parties throughout Carnival and leading to Mardi Gras. The largest parade is the Grand Parade, which features more than 100 floats and attracts thousands of visitors each year.
Humans aren't the only ones that get in on the Mardi Gras fun in St. Louis—the city hosts a pet parade that boasts hundreds of animals and over 70,000 two-legged participants. St. Louis also pays homage to its German-influences with a dachshund race known as the Weiner Dog Derby.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Mardi Gras, in reality, is but a single day in the weeks long party known as Carnival—and when it comes to Carnival, no place does it quite like Rio de Janeiro, which has long been known as "Carnival Capital of the World." The celebration draws half a million visitors each year—and those are just the ones coming from outside of Brazil. All told, some 2 million people take part in Rio's Carnival, which officially lasts for five days before Mardi Gras.
The highlight of Rio's Carnival is the Samba parade, which takes place each year at the Sambodromo, a special stadium built specifically to house the annual parade. Samba schools—social clubs consisting of 3,000 to 5,000 members, which represent a particular neighborhood in Rio—spend all year preparing for the parade, and compete with other schools based on their dancing, costumes and music. The competition takes place over several nights, with five or six schools parading each night.
Nice, tucked away in France's Riviera along the Mediterranean coast, is the birthplace of French Carnival—it was here in the 1294 that the Count of Provence Charles d'Anjou celebrated the "joyous days of Carnival," the earliest mention of a Carnival celebration in France. Now one of the largest Carnivals in the world, Nice introduced decorative floats and processions into its festivities in 1873.
Carnival is the main winter event in Nice, which, thanks to its location, enjoys moderate temperatures during the winter months. For 15 days, the city hosts parades that feature over 1,000 performers and musicians. Each year, the city chooses a theme for Carnival that is used as inspiration for floats and costumes throughout the festival and during the Grand Parade that signals Carnival's beginning (2018's theme is "King of Space").
The Battle of the Flowers is another feature of a Nice Carnival; throughout the festival, during various parades, two costumed performers toss thousands of flowers into the audience. Over the course of the festival, some 100,000 flowers are thrown into the crowds.
Each year on the Tuesday before Lent in the Belgian town of Binche, masked men known as Gilles rove the streets all day as part of a Unesco-recognized festival, the Carnival of Binche. Though the town of Binche begins celebrating seven weeks before Lent—with dancing and music each Sunday—the Carnival truly comes to life in the three days before Lent, culminating with Mardi Gras, when Gilles are permitted to wear their costumes—consisting of a tunic, an ostrich feather hat and a wax mask—from sunrise to sunset (though they are forbidden from leaving Binche while in costume). The day begins with the ceremonial dressing of the Gilles, who then lead a procession through the town, followed by participants dressed as peasants and harlequins, as well as musicians. The parade ends outside of Binche's Grand Place, where the Gilles dance beneath a firework-lit sky. The festival attracts thousands of participants, though only men born and raised in Binche (or those who have been residents for at least five years) can dress as a Gille.
The festival dates back to the 14th century, though its origins are unknown. According to author Martin Dunford, the unique costume of a Gille might date back to 1549 and be inspired by the outfits worn to celebrate the addition of Peru to the Habsburg Empire (the costumes, Dunford claims, are a 16th-century representation of a traditional Incan garb).
As anyone who has wandered beside the twisting canals of Venice knows, Carnival doesn't necessarily begin or end with the Epiphany or Lent: decorative masks hang from shop windows year-round, almost as ubiquitous a symbol of Venice as striped gondoliers or the twisting spires of Saint Mark's Basilica. For a city that once was home to notorious figures like Giacomo Casanova, Carnival offers perfect blend of historic opulence and raucous fun.
Venetian Carnival is thought to have originated as a celebration of a 12th-century military victory, wherein the vanquished Ulrich II of Treven was forced to pay annual tribute to the city of Venice by giving the city 12 loaves of bread, 12 pigs and one bull. The bull—serving a stand-in for Ulrich— was publicly slaughtered in the Piazza di San Marco around the Thursday before Lent in remembrance of the victory. Around the 13th-century, written records show that Venetians were wearing masks to the celebration. Today, as in centuries past, Saint Mark's Square remains the focal point of Venice's Carnival, with a costume competition being held in the square during the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras (the final winner is chosen on Mardi Gras itself). Saint Mark's Square is also the site of the famous Volo dell' Angelo ("Flight of the Angel"), when a young woman known as the "Colombina" zip-lines from the top of Saint Mark's Basilica to the square below.
In Sydney, Mardi Gras is more than a celebration before the beginning of Lent—it's a chance for Australia's LGBTQI community to come together to "inspire the world to love each other by celebrating the power and beauty of diversity." Today, the event is widely popular both within and outside of the LGBTQI community, drawing thousands of visitors to Sydney in the weeks before Mardi Gras to take part in city-wide celebrations. But the first event in 1978 faced violent police opposition, as Sydney police arrested and allegedly beat 53 participants in the first Pride Parade.
The violent reaction toward the parade helped influence a series of civil rights legislation, with the parliament of New South Wales revoking a piece of legislation that had allowed the arrests to be made and replacing it with a new Public Assemblies Act that allowed Sydney residents to gather in demonstration without a permit. The act paved the way for the modern Mardi Gras celebrations and parades, which gained popularity throughout the early 1980s.
Today, the highlight of the event is the Mardi Gras parade, always held on the first Sunday in March. The parade is one of the world's largest LGBTQI events, with around 10,000 participants and nearly 150 floats. After the parade, the city hosts a party that has been known to end at 8 a.m.