When it comes to Mardi Gras, it’s widely accepted that New Orleans has no equal. But while there’s no city likely to pip the carnaval crown anytime soon, the party isn’t exclusive to New Orleans.
A growing number of cities are ramping up the volume to 11, and a surprising bunch has been forging their own unique Mardi Gras traditions for decades. If Louisiana is a little too far for you this year (or too expensive), try one of these exciting alternatives.
From costumed pet parades to secretive society balls, these are the best places to celebrate Mardi Gras outside New Orleans.
St Louis, Missouri
It may be almost seven hundred miles from New Orleans, but St. Louis is firmly at the top of the Mardi Gras alternative list. The celebration itself takes place in the Soulard neighborhood – a French name meaning “drunkard” – so it fits the bill pretty well.
The city gets in the festival spirit in January, kicking off with a family-friendly Winter Carnaval so the kids can taste the experience. From there, each weekend gets increasingly wild and features Cajun cookoffs, 5k bead runs, pub crawls, and the highlight – the world’s longest costumed pet parade and wiener dog races. The Mardi Gras ball is legendary too.
Much closer to the world-famous Nola festivities is Mobile, Alabama. Far more than an alternative, it’s suggested the carnaval found here was the original. Locals have celebrated Mardi Gras in Mobile since 1703, resulting in the non-stop barrage of over forty parades working through the town.
The city takes its celebrations seriously, with homes decked out to match the floats and the usual balls and festivities rocking the area from the 3rd to the 21st of February. Mobilians even have their own special celebration called Joe Cain Day. Joe Cain was supposedly the man who led the first parades through the streets of mobile over three hundred years ago.
Another surprise alternative on the list is Detroit, Michigan. While it’s featured on a technicality, the unique nature of its festivities makes it more than worth its place. The city doesn’t technically celebrate Mardi Gras, but its citizens enjoy a similar festival, Marche du Nain Rouge, slightly later in the year.
The festival centers around a folk tale of the same name, literally “Red Dwarf” in English, and it’s said the Nain Rouge appears at pivotal moments in the city’s history –, particularly bad ones. In fact, it’s suggested the dwarf appeared to Detroit’s founder, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, shortly before he fell into financial ruin.
The celebrations involve dressing up as your alter ego so the Nain doesn’t recognize you and parading through the streets to scare it out of the city and prevent any further harm. Naturally, food, booze, and fun are integral to the situation. If you’re tight on time for the traditional Mardi Gras, Marche du Nain Rouge is an excellent experience.
San Francisco, California
Just because you live on the west coast doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy Mardi Gras. San Francisco’s celebrations have been growing in size for the last four decades. Launched in 1979, the city’s festivities aren’t drawn out across the entire period like in other areas but packed into a two-day extravaganza.
Each year’s celebration is themed and centers around one huge carnaval parade. The 2023 parade is focused on the event itself, named “45 Years of Music and Movement.” Throw on your most colorful outfit, snag a good spot, and get wrapped up in the excitement.
Lafayette’s Cajun Country location offers a unique spin on the season and a slightly more family-friendly event than its Louisiana counterpart, New Orleans. While most of the traditions, like King Cake, parades, gumbo, and of course, bead collecting, are all similar, it’s a markedly more sedate experience than Nola’s.
One of the more exciting aspects of the Lafayette version is the Courir de Mardi Gras. The “courir” is a group of masked paraders who work their way through the city, collecting ingredients for a huge gumbo. Its origins stem all the way back to medieval France, and it’s carried on today. It’s not something you’ll find in New Orleans.
Family Friendly – Universal Studios Orlando
Universal Studios has you covered if your family isn’t ready for the chaos of a real Mardi Gras. Take a trip to the Orlando theme park and enjoy the daily Mardi Gras parades that work their way around the park. It’s nowhere near the real thing, but it’s an excellent option for an easy intro to the festival.