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Destinations

2017 New Orleans festivals: Mardi Gras and beyond

Your expert guide to a year of the Big Easy's best celebrations and cultural events.

by Elana Kreiger-Benson

It’s impossible to say “New Orleans” and “festival” without everyone immediately thinking of Mardi Gras. Don’t get me wrong: Mardi Gras is unlike anything I’ve seen, and definitely worth braving the crowds to experience at least once; but there’s so much more to the New Orleans festival scene. While the bulk of the city’s festival season happens in the spring, there are celebrations year round worth taking in. Whether you’re looking for food, music, arts or some combination, you’ll find the festival for you (in fact, you’ll probably find several!).

If it’s local music you’re after, French Quarter Fest, Jazz Fest and Satchmo SummerFest are good places to start. Voodoo Fest and BUKU Fest offer a broader range of genres: Voodoo has a little bit of everything, while BUKU is known for its electronic dance music. Hankering for some New Orleans cuisine? Have more than your fill of po’ boys, oysters, gumbo or Creole tomatoes (and tomato-based delights) at the aptly named Po’ Boy Festival, Oyster Festival, Tremé Creole Gumbo Fest or French Market Creole Tomato Festival. Anyone looking for the arts: head to Art for Art’s Sake, a festival dedicated to highlighting local visual artists, check out the artisans’ stalls at Bayou Boogaloo or witness live art creation at BUKU Fest. Or maybe you’re just after a good ol’ party in the street, complete with elaborate costume parades, sidewalk barbecues or “second line” brass bands: if so, get your fix at the Easter parades, St. Patrick’s Day (really St. Patrick’s Week) and, of course, Mardi Gras. While our fest-list is certainly not exhaustive, get a sense of our experts’ favorites and the most famous, enjoyable and unusual celebrations that the city has to offer.

Expert tips:

  1. Whichever festival(s) you choose, make sure to book travel and accommodation early -- particularly critical for the larger events. Browse top hotels across the city.

  2. If you want to beat the crowds, make sure to go early, especially to the better-known events.

  3. Always check out the smaller stages: it’ll not only give you a break from the crowds, but there’s usually some terrific local musicians featured there.

  4. Don’t be shy: get to know the people around you in the crowd! You’ll inevitably end up chatting with someone local who can give you insider perspective on what you’re experiencing or, better yet, who might just invite you to a neighborhood crawfish boil (“berl”).

1
Mardi Gras
January 6-February 28, 2017

New Orleans’ most famous attraction, Mardi Gras festivities kick off festival season with more than a month of parades and parties that deserve their own article, if not several. While Mardi Gras (“Fat Tuesday”) itself is one day, Mardi Gras celebrations are held for over a month across the city and involve much more than the bead-throwing debauchery for which the holiday has become known. Mardi Gras parades are definitely the highlight of the festivities, organized by the city’s famous “krewes” or social clubs, some of which have incredibly long and rich histories. Among the most prestigious and interesting are the parades of the Krewes of Rex, Zulu, Bacchus, Endymion and Orpheus. The costumes and floats are truly above and beyond. Take advantage of the carnival atmosphere to dress up yourself -- you’ll definitely have more fun if you’re in costume.  

Expert tip: Talk to people in the crowd and take a little time to learn about the different “krewes” that march in the parades: there’s a lot of interesting cultural history and significance in those costumes and floats! Claim your parade-viewing spot early with a picnic blanket or deck chair. And while the famous (or maybe infamous) Bourbon St. is definitely worth experiencing, it tends to be much more of a tourist scene than the rest of the city. In contrast, Uptown is generally a more family friendly scene. And if you aren’t into crowds, the portion of the parade route along St. Charles Ave. between Jackson Ave. and the highway is often slightly less crowded than Uptown or Downtown.

Mardi Gras
2
BUKU Music + Art Project
March 10-11, 2017
Mardi Gras World, 1380 Port of New Orleans Place, Lower Garden District

This riverfront music festival lives up to its name -- from the French “beaucoup, meaning “plenty” or “a lot” -- with electronic music, hip-hop and indie rock on multiple stages. The event also features a number of “urban art” installations including the annual live gallery, in which pieces are created during the festival and auctioned off for charity. With a different vibe from many New Orleans street festivals and parades, BUKU offers a chance to dive into New Orleans’ subculture and alternative arts scene.

BUKU Music + Art Project
3
St. Patrick's Day
March 10-18, 2017
Irish Channel neighborhood

Why celebrate for one day when you could have an entire week of Irish-heritage festivities? New Orleans’ raucous St. Patrick’s Day celebrations take place across the city in an explosion of green complete with parades, green-tinted beer and, of course, music. Enjoy parades in the “Irish Channel” neighborhood between Magazine St. and the river, Metairie and the French Quarter. In the Irish Channel, stop in at The Irish House for some traditional grub. Or head to mid-city and check out Finn McCools 73, which hosts one of the largest St. Patrick’s Day parties in the city. As during Mardi Gras, Uptown tends to be a more family friendly scene.

Expert tip: Watch out for flying cabbages and potatoes at the parades: tokens of good luck for anyone who catches them, but not so pleasant if you aren’t expecting them. Make sure to wear green to the festivities or you are liable to get pinched — the traditional punishment for anyone inadequately displaying their St. Paddy’s Day spirit.  ​

St. Patrick's Day
4
French Quarter Festival
April 6-9, 2017
French Quarter

This music festival, held in venues across the city’s historic French Quarter and billed as the largest free festival in the U.S., is definitely worth experiencing at least once. French Quarter Fest highlights Louisiana music styles, among them jazz, blues and zydeco, brought to you by over 1,700 local musicians. There’s also a sumptuous array of local culinary specialities from top local restaurants and food vendors to keep you energized.

Expert tip: While the headlining shows are always exciting, escape the throngs to explore the Quarter and check out the smaller stages: there’s a lot of great stuff from up-and-coming musicians. And while you’re in the neighborhood, try and make time for a beignet at the iconic Cafe Du Monde 83.

French Quarter Festival
5
Easter Parades
April 16, 2017
French Quarter

Celebrate Easter New Orleans-style with a day of parades around the iconic French Quarter. There’re several parades throughout the day including the Annual Chris Owens French Quarter Parade celebrating iconic burlesque dancer Chris Owens (make sure you get a glimpse of her at the front in a specially designed Easter outfit!) and the Gay Easter Parade. Join the merriment after an Easter brunch in the Quarter at one of the terrific options in the neighborhood serving up special brunches for the holiday like Arnaud's Restaurant / French 75 Bar 88 or Sylvain 81. Or enjoy the festivities from above with a balcony table at Muriel's Jackson Square 80. Make sure to book ahead!

Easter Parades
6
9th Ward Festival
April 2017
4219 Urquhart St., 9th Ward

One of the city’s smaller music festivals, the 9th Ward Festival is a chance to celebrate the post-Katrina resilience of the community and its cultural scene, and a great way to enjoy a street festival without the massive crowds that some of the more famous events typically draw. Head to the 9th Ward to enjoy local music and tasty New Orleans food in a friendly, block-party atmosphere.

9th Ward Festival

© Sean Ambrose

7
New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
April 28-May 7, 2017
Fair Grounds Race Course, 1751 Gentilly Boulevard

One of the city’s best-known music festivals, NOLA Jazz Fest is an enormous “cultural feast” held annually since 1970 celebrating the indigenous culture of New Orleans and Louisiana through music, food and crafts. Join 400,000 other visitors in honoring the area’s extremely diverse and unique cultural heritage. While the official festival spans two weekends, the city celebrates longer, with shows in the spirit of the festival in the days before and after. Knowing people are in the mood for good music, venues across the city book extra-special lineups around the time of Jazz Fest. Anywhere you wander may have something great, so I’d recommend grabbing a sno-ball or a margarita, hitting the town and just seeing what you come across.

Expert tip: Go early! Be prepared to wait for food, but it’s worth it. Get into the spirit of the city and talk to people while you’re waiting -- you may just snag an invite to a neighborhood crawfish boil (“berl”).

New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
8
Bayou Boogaloo
May 19-21, 2017

Soak up local music, food and arts at this laidback, three-day outdoor festival along the banks of scenic Bayou St. John in Mid-City. Sit on the water’s edge and enjoy some fresh-cooked jambalaya or a po’boy, get your boogie on at one of several stages set up around the bayou and peruse local artisans’ works in craft booths set up along Jefferson Davis Parkway.

Expert tip: While you’re in the area, hit up Parkway Bakery & Tavern 83 -- a local favorite for quick, classic New Orleans cuisine (but be prepared to wait!). If the line is too long, you can always grab your meal and/or drink to go (a takeaway Bloody Mary, complete with pickled okra, is a personal favorite for a stroll in the neighborhood).

Bayou Boogaloo
9
Oyster Festival
June 3-4, 2017
Woldenberg Park (next to the Entergy Giant Screen Theater/Aquarium)

Oyster fans rejoice: this free, outdoor event celebrates all things oyster (but don’t worry, there’s still plenty of live music!). Try oysters prepared 20 different ways, watch oyster shucking and eating contests and browse oyster-themed handicrafts like shucking boards and oyster-shell jewelry. Proceeds from the festival help support organizations working to restore and preserve the Louisiana coastline and coastal species -- so it’s almost immoral not to have another round of oyster shooters, right?

Oyster Festival
10
French Market Creole Tomato Festival
June 10-11, 2017
The French Market, French Market Place (in the French Quarter between Decatur St. and N. Peters St.)

This quirky festival celebrates the annual creole tomato harvest, symbolic of the city’s broader creole culinary culture. Held in the French Market 78 — the oldest market square in the country — the event features a Creole Tomato Parade, cooking demonstrations, lots of delicious, local culinary specialties (not just tomatoes) and, of course, live music. This festival is a must-visit for creole food fans.

French Market Creole Tomato Festival
11
Satchmo SummerFest
August 3-6, 2017
French Quarter

Locals and visitors alike turn up in huge numbers to this unique, early-August festival celebrating the life and legacy of world-renowned jazz trumpeter -- and New Orleans native -- Louis Armstrong (nicknamed “Satchmo,” in case you were wondering about the festival’s name). Three days of live music, seminars, jazz-related exhibits, a Trumpet Tribute and lots of great food and drink honor the musician and celebrate his city around the date of his birthday (August 4). Festival events of particular note include the “Satchmo Club Strut” down Frenchmen St. -- a club crawl that takes you to some of the city’s pre-eminent music clubs -- and a Sunday morning Jazz Mass at the historic St. Augustine Church in Tremé.

Satchmo SummerFest
12
Art for Art’s Sake
October 7, 2017
Julia St., Magazine St. and the Warehouse Arts District

Take a break from the usual festivals and soak up the local art scene during Art for Art’s Sake. Hundreds of galleries and shops along Julia St., Magazine St. and the Warehouse Arts District open their doors for this classy street fest held on the first Saturday of October. Cash bars pop up outside many galleries. In the evening, the Contemporary Arts Center 83 hosts a reception and party ($10 admission). There are lots of great restaurants in the area, so might as well make a day of it with lunch or dinner at Shaya 82, The Rum House Caribbean Taqueria 74, Coquette 86 or Joey K's Restaurant & Bar 79’s, or satisfy your sweet-tooth at Sucre 83.

Art for Art’s Sake
13
Oak Street Po-Boy Festival
October 2017
8100 to 8800 blocks of Oak Street, Carrollton

Celebrate a New Orleans staple at this friendly, festive street fair in the historic Carrollton neighborhood. Sample over 50 types of “po’ boy” sandwich, from soft shell crab, to pastrami brisket, to barbecued oyster; browse handicrafts at the “Where Y'Arts Market”; and soak up music brought to you by top local bands. And as the organizers emphasize: “costumes encouraged.”

Expert tip: Know the po’ boy lingo: get them “dressed” -- with lettuce, tomatoes, onions and mayo -- or “naked,” without all that. ​

Oak Street Po-Boy Festival
14
Voodoo Music + Arts Experience
October 2017
City Park, 1 Palm Drive

One of the city’s biggest and best-known music festivals, “Voodoo Fest” is a highlight of the fall. This three-day festival in New Orleans City Park 94 features world-famous musical artists from a range of genres. Past headliners have included Outkast, Skrillex, Eminem, Pearl Jam, Nas and Lauryn Hill. The festival is separated into four distinct areas designed to showcase different sides of the city’s diverse culture: “Le Ritual” features mainstream music, “Le Plur” has electronic/dance music, “Le Flambeau” offers New Orleans musical styles and “Le Carnival” features indie bands, burlesque and circus acts. There are also carnival rides, art installations and a camping area, as well as a killer food lineup.

Expert tip: The whole city gets in the spirit of Voodoo and venues across the city host awesome lineups, so if you have time to spare, don’t constrain yourself to City Park! ​

Voodoo Music + Arts Experience
15
Tremé Creole Gumbo Festival
November 2017
Louis Armstrong Park

A weekend of festivities honoring the long heritage of what’s known as the oldest neighborhood of free African Americans in the nation, Tremé’s Creole Gumbo Festival is a truly unique celebration. Gumbo-lovers delight the dozen versions of this iconic stew served up fresh. And while the gumbo is certainly a highlight, there’s plenty of excellent live music as well. After all, Tremé is known as the birthplace of jazz, so you’d expect nothing less. Appearances by renowned jazz musicians, many of whom grew up in this historic neighborhood, do not disappoint.

Tremé Creole Gumbo Festival
16
Christmas Eve bonfires
December 24, 2017
All along the Mississippi between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, but the best spot is the levees in Gramercy, Lutcher and Paulina in St. James Parish

Experience a Christmas Eve tradition unlike any other with a visit to the bonfires on the levees of the Mississippi, lighting up the winter night from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. The highest concentration of bonfires -- and best place to spectate -- is in St. James Parish, along the levee through the communities of Gramercy, Lutcher and Paulina. The whole affair has the casual, communal feel of a tailgate or block party. Bring a picnic or grab some grub from one of the stalls that locals set up by the levee.

Pyrophobes take warning: these bonfires are large and the fireworks embedded inside them are, well, pretty explosive. I wasn’t sure whether it was comforting or worrying that the local Fire Department was there...sponsoring a bonfire of their own!

Christmas Eve bonfires
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