By Angela Caraway-Carlton
In 2018, everything in New Orleans will be even bigger and better as the Southern city celebrates its 300th birthday. From three female chefs dominating the food scene, to experiencing Mardi Gras like a local, and a buzzy new hotel steeped in history — New Orleans is a right-now destination.
Mardi Gras to the Max
As if showy floats topped with costume-clad krewes slinging beads, and booming bands blasting music that’ll make your body vibrate, isn’t impressive enough — when Mardi Gras rolls down the streets of New Orleans in 2018, the epic extravaganza will be even bigger and better.
Not possible? Go see for yourself. While the colorful city never needs a reason to party, 2018 marks New Orleans’ 300th birthday, and you can bet there won’t be another celebration around the country to rival Mardi Gras during a tricentennial year. Carnival will kick-off with a huge bang on King’s Day (Jan. 6) with grand fireworks illuminating the sky, and non-stop parades and parties will last until the final crescendo on Fat Tuesday (Feb. 13).
“2018 will be a shining moment for New Orleans,” says Kristian Sonnier of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Several of the larger Mardi Gras krewes will incorporate a tricentennial theme into their parades with additional floats and revelry.”
More than a million partygoers are expected to pack the streets, with most arriving the weekend before Fat Tuesday. “If you want to avoid the crowds, plan your trip for the two weeks before Mardi Gras Day when there are still parades, but not as many visitors,” advises Sonnier, who also recommends making hotel reservations months in advance. “My advice is to get out early, pick a spot to watch the parade, get close enough to feel the din of the marching bands, catch lots of beads, and enjoy something you’ve never eaten before.”
Where & What to Watch
Most of the city’s parades march through Uptown along St. Charles Avenue and Downtown along Canal Street, and some of the best views are from ticketed grandstands that put you eye-level with the floats, or viewing stands offered by hotels like the upscale Intercontinental Hotel which has a prime spot (many hotels also offer parade packages).
For a truly unique experience, snag passes to iconic Gallier Hall where city officials toast with the kings and queens of Mardi Gras, or locals-in-the-know flock to the viewing stands at Superior Grill on St. Charles for margaritas and a show. There are 34 carnival parades, and depending how long you’re in town, you could hit a different grandstand zone each day. “For a more local crowd and space to stretch out, I would choose St. Charles Avenue — the median is one of the best spots to catch the city’s biggest parades,” says Sonnier of the family-friendly area.
While beads and doubloons (coins) are staple throws, certain krewes offer more covetable catches. “Each krewe tries to do something special,” says Sonny Borey, captain of the Krewe of Orpheus, which prides itself as one of the prettiest parades of Carnival and throws ornate masks. “Krewe of Muses throws ladies shoes, if you’re lucky enough to catch one, and Zulu tosses beautiful hand-painted coconuts.” Borey’s best advice for a prime catch? “Make eye contact with krewe members.”
Explore like a Local
To really immerse yourself in the true beauty of New Orleans, spend a morning at picturesque City Park (which is bigger than New York’s Central Park) where you’ll grab a café au lait and powdery beignets at Morning Call, then wander over bridges and under canopies of moss-draped oak trees, venturing on through the free sculpture garden or botanical gardens. neworleanscitypark.com
Hop on the clanking St. Charles Streetcar for an authentic ride to the city’s residential gem known as the Garden District that’s dotted with charming antebellum homes and well-manicured gardens. Book a walking tour with Tour New Orleans whose knowledgeable guides will point out the homes of celebs like John Goodman, Sandra Bullock, and writer Anne Rice, along with offering an interesting history lesson on the surrounding architecture and the city’s fascinating burial practices (like how they fit more than 30 family members inside one tomb). tourneworleans.com
From there, move on to trendy Magazine Street for six miles of locally owned boutiques, antique shops, and art galleries. (It’s also a major parade route.) magazinestreet.com
Drinking is an art in New Orleans, and at French 75 (inside iconic Arnaud’s restaurant in the French Quarter), tux-clad servers will present you with some of the best drinks in the city in a Mad Men-era setting. Order a sparkling French 75 and ask for a tour of the little-known Germaine Wells Mardi Gras Museum tucked away on the second floor. With cocktail in hand, peep at a collection of ornate gowns and costumes worn by Germaine Wells, who ruled over 22 Carnival balls. arnaudsrestaurant.com
In the Garden District, elevate your cocktail game at Hot Tin Rooftop Bar at the chic Pontchartrain Hotel, where you’ll sip the sweet-and-spicy “Skyliner” while soaking up their striking 270-degree views of downtown and the Mississippi River. hottinbar.com
For a totally unique experience, have a buzzy good time learning about the history of New Orleans’ classic cocktails at DrinkLab. Craft cocktail pioneer Daniel Victory will school you on how to mix and muddle the Sazerac, which was created in New Orleans, along with the original Hurricane, which looks and tastes much different than what you’ll see sloshing around in the French Quarter. Drinklabnola.com
Music that Moves You
From street performers to impromptu concerts popping up around the French Quarter, it’s not hard to find soulful music — but some of the best music in town can be found along the three blocks of Frenchmen Street, where you can pop into different venues depending on the sound that strikes you. Serious music lovers will want to reserve a spot at storied Preservation Hall which has been around since the ’60s. This is a real-deal experience — think no AC and tight quarters — but the 45-minutes of traditional New Orleans music and entrancing artists full of character are worth it. preservationhall.
In NOLA, you never miss a meal — and you won’t want to miss a chance to dine at Chef Emeril Lagasse’s newest restaurant, MERIL, his fourth eatery in the city. Named after his youngest daughter, the high-energy restaurant is a departure from Creole cooking and showcases some of Lagasse’s favorite dishes. Expect small plates featuring everything from candied pork ribs to Spanish-inspired croquettes and Mexican-style street corn. emerilsrestaurants.com/meril
For inventive regional cuisine, belly up to the second oldest bar in New Orleans at Toups South run by Bravo’s Top Chef alum Isaac Toups. You’ll indulge in the best sourdough biscuit of your life (accompanied by rich crab fat butter) and dishes like goat tamales, braised local rabbit and Heritage pork boudin. The restaurant is attached to the Southern Food & Beverage Museum which is worth a quick gander and even offers cooking classes on certain days. toupssouth.com
If you want to escape the typical Southern fare, try the weekend dim sum brunch at trendy Southeast Asia-inspired Maypop, where you’ll nosh on creative bites like octopus shumai, spicy lamb dumplings, and steaming head cheese and blue crab soup dumplings. maypoprestaurant.com