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Living it up at Mardi Gras

There's no celebration quite as colorful or wildly impressive as Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Filled with parades, beads, ornate costumes and music, Mardi Gras meshes a rich history with a modern-day celebration of life. Visitors can dance at the balls, bring their kids to the parades and dig into Cajun cuisine.  Before you take to the streets, be sure to park your Louisiana rental car at the hotel. Don't miss this year's Fat Tuesday, called the Greatest Free Show on Earth.

The origins of Mardi Gras

The New Orleans Mardi Gras, which means Fat Tuesday in French, started as a Carnival season leading up to the fasting of the Lent, with the climactic celebrations landing on the day before Ash Wednesday. The celebrations trace back to medieval Europe with ties to Rome and Venice during the 17th century that lead up to the French House of the Bourbons. The traditions were carried to the French colonies, and a tiny early settlement located 60 miles south of New Orleans called Fort Louis de la Mobile celebrated the revelry of "Boeuf Gras" in 1703, marking the fist-ever American Mardi Gras. However, it wasn't until the 1830s that the first parade was celebrated in 1837, and after that the first krewe formed to call themselves the Mystic Krewe of Comus. They set a number of precedents for Mardi Gras, including themed floats, mystical namesake, costumed riders and masked balls.

When the Duke of Normas visited in the late 1800s, reigning in the official colors of purple, green and gold. Purple stands for justice; green for faith and gold for power. During this week of light-hearted shenanigans, you can see big bands blowing their horns from atop floats decorated in flowers and ornaments. Following them are people riding horses, and at night, the floats become ablaze with neon lights as the riders toss candy to the crowds. Some of the main traditions are bead throwing, mask wearing and coconut painting.

What to expect

At its heart, Mardi Gras is a giant parade and street festival. Throughout the day there will be floats, masked riders and crowds strolling down the French Quarter. Of course, Bourbon Street is the main attraction. Above the colorful masses buzzing between bars, there are onlookers on balconies enjoying the sights and sounds, and dropping beads down to the guests. The atmosphere at night is no less rowdy, with attendees taking to the bars for drinks and food at all hours.

There are several stages with music ranging from blues to jazz to folk. Enthusiastic fans swarm the streets with drink in hand, listening to tunes truly representative of the NOLA spirit. Attendees who want to partake in drinking can enjoy alcoholic beverages on the street (as long as they are in a plastic can or cup - no glass or bottles allowed).

Tips for celebrating

When parking your New Orleans rental car, avoid double parking or parking in driveways, medians or in front of water hydrants. If you find a spot on the street, make sure that the car is tucked close to the curb to avoid fines and parking tickets. Also, check ahead of time to make sure that the vehicle is not on the parade route within three hours of the parade. It's also a good idea to find a spot for parade viewing up to four hours head of time, since crowds swell very quickly, especially before the evening parades.

Since Mardi Gras typically takes place in February or March, the weather can vary dramatically, so you'll want to check the local forecast. During some celebrations, it has been warm enough to wear short-sleeves, while other years have left visitors wearing several layers under their costumes.

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