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New Orleans: Mardi Gras on a Budget

photo: PhelanRiessen

The excitement of New Orleans during Mardi Gras is not to be missed. The season begins 12 days after Christmas and ends on Fat Tuesday the day before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. Mardi Gras in New Orleans is full of tradition, parades and parties. If you are planning a trip to New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras, here are ideas to organize your adventure. Budget and not-so-budget options have been included, pick and choose as you like.

Things to do

Parades are quite possibly the largest attraction during Mardi Gras. Beginning this year on Sunday, February 20th, parades of all sizes take place throughout the city. Early in the season, the parades are low-key and localized. School marching bands are on hand, picnics set up in neutral ground and kids are calling for treasures. Later on, as the excitement builds, the parades become more frequent, and by Saturday, March 5th, they are in full swing building towards Mardi Gras on Tuesday, March 8th. For complete maps and routes, as well as royalty, throws and special guests, check out Arthur Hardy’s Mardi Gras Guide. And track your favorite parade with the Experience Mardi Gras app, available for Apple or Droid mobile devices, with schedules and start times, routes plotted on Google maps and up-to-the-minute listing of Mardi Gras events.

Spend time exploring the French Quarter, the heart of New Orleans. Free tours are provided daily by National Park Service rangers; meet at 419 Decatur by 9am to ensure you nab a spot on the tour. Or just wander on your own, up and down the picturesque streets. Poke your head in here, grab a snack there; its all good.

Along the river arcade, enjoy retail therapy at the Farmer’s, French and Flea markets. Perhaps you will find the perfect souvenir to take home. Window shop along Royal, Chartres, Bourbon and the narrow French Quarter streets for antiques, collectibles and curios. Even Voodoo potions! More shopping can be found on Magazine Street, 6 miles of art galleries, funky clothes, vintage accessories, and stores to help you find your special look for the Mardi Gras festivities.

Take a swamp tour at nearby Jean Lafitte National Park – walk the boardwalk and dirt trails through the Barataria Preserve, and see if you can spot an alligator. Remember, don’t feed the alligators, they are fast and dangerous, and it is wise to leave them alone. If you are in the mood for a canoe or kayak paddle, contact the reserve visitor center 504-689-3690 ext. 10 to find out about local rental companies (admission to the preserve and park is free, self-guided tours are free; boat rental extra).

Food

Cajun and Creole cuisine are staples in New Orleans. Paul Prudhomme has described Cajun as very old, with deep French origins, whereas Creole originated in New Orleans and is a fusion of French, Spanish, Italian, American Indian, African and other ethnic groups, “Creole cooking is more sophisticated and complex than Cajun cooking – it’s city cooking”. Prudhomme points out that most restaurants do not differentiate between the two, so he calls the whole thing Louisiana cooking.

During Mardi Gras, you will find many traditional dishes including jambalaya, seafood gumbo, dirty rice, po-boys and red beans and rice. King Cake, also called Twelfth Night Cake, a sweetened-yeast bread baked in a ring shape, hides a plastic baby or bean signifying the Christ child. Whoever finds this treasure in their piece of cake is blessed with good luck for the year (Traditional King Cake Package from Haydel Bakery, $40.49).

There are thousands of restaurants in New Orleans, serving traditional Mardi Gras, Cajun and Creole food, as well as most every other kind of cuisine you might want. On a budget, check out Café Beignet in the French Quarter for traditional Cajun (average $13/person), Domilise’s Po-Boys ($14/person), Ruby Slipper for breakfast, brunch or lunch ($17/person), or 13 Monaghan for eclectic late-night snacks ($15/person).

Spend a little more and visit New Orleans classics such as Commander’s Palace (average $64/person), Galatoire’s ($61/person) or the Acme Oyster House ($26/person). And please don’t forget to visit Café du Monde for café au lait and beignets. You might feel as though you are stuck in a tourist trap, but this experience is essential New Orleans. Look for Aunt Sally’s praline shop next door and pick up a box for home (boxes of pralines start at $12.99).

Where to stay

New Orleans has many lodging options including Bed & Breakfasts, short-term apartments and traditional hotels. For budget travelers, check out a hostel (not just for students any more!), India House Backpackers (beds from $17/night) or Marquette House New Orleans International Hotel (beds from $17.70/night).

For more good deals, check out the Central Business District, across Canal Street from the French Quarter. Close to attractions, and offering good deals for business travelers, this area is a good budget find. Examples include Le Pavillion (rooms from $135/night), Best Western St. Christopher (rooms from $129/night), and Lafayette Hotel (rooms from $99/night).

For ambiance (at a price) during Mardi Gras check out one of the many smaller, boutique hotels in the French Quarter. Well located for easy walking tours of the district, you are also very close to Café du Monde for breakfast beignets. Examples include Soniat House (rooms from $245/night), The Dauphine Orleans (rooms from $149/night), Le Richelieu (rooms from $120/night), and Monteleone. (rooms from $179/night).

For more information on New Orleans, visit the New Orleans Convention and Visitor Bureau.

Laissez le bon temps rouler: Let the good times roll!

Gudrun Enger is a travel, food and lifestyle blogger based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find her @kitchengirl on Twitter.