When I first visited New Orleans in August of 2016, I knew little of this southern city famed for it’s Fat Tuesday celebrations, French Quarter strolls with a drink or two in hand and of course Café du Monde for beignets- the French pastry made from deep-fried dough, and topped with powdered sugar.
When I mentioned I’d be visiting NOLA to a few people, I was met with some surprise that I was going outside of Mardi Gras, “oh, you should have gone for Mardi Gras, it’s so much fun then.“ and “there probably won’t be much else to do.” at this time of year. I started to doubt the timing of my visit a bit, thinking that I’d be missing out on the best of what the city has to offer.
Flash forward three summers and five visits later, none of which have occurred during Mardi Gras or Essence Music Festival- a celebration held over the Fourth of July weekend filled with music performances and inspirational speakers about gender, race, culture and art, as well dozens of vendors selling a variety of things from local eats, to artisanal goods, and I have zero regrets or FOMO about not visiting the city during those events. To commemorate my fifth visit to the “Big Easy, here are five reasons to visit outside or Mardi Gras or Essence Fest.
Fewer Crowds: This is perhaps the biggest factor in why I haven’t been to New Orleans during Mardi Gras or any other festival. I simply don’t like being around large amounts of people and always prefer to travel off-season when crowds are less, especially if it’s my first time visiting. The thought of walking down Bourbon Street or other parts of the French Quarter, surrounded by hundreds of other people is not my ideal holiday/vacation, including having to wait longer at restaurants or bars for service.
On this most recent visit, I met a woman from Brooklyn, NYC who had recently moved to New Orleans because she was over the large crowds in the city, and to her slight chagrin she happened to make the move during Mardi Gras and likened it to walking around Times Square in the middle of a busy day. Suffice to say, she was much happier when the festivities were over.
Time to explore: If the main reason you’re visiting NOLA is Essence Festival or Mardi Gras, chances are your itinerary is going to revolve around those events, which is fine. I mean you’ve already purchased tickets for Essence Fest or you want to immerse yourself in the full experience of Mardi Gras- catch some beads, drink too many daiquiris or hand grenades
and be around the jovial mood of the festival, so naturally, that will be your main focus. But that won’t leave time for much else, like visiting one of the many art galleries such as Studio B,
browsing through the historic French Market which has been in operation for 300 years,
visiting one of the many above-ground cemeteries that are both historic and haunting beautiful or even heading to the swamps to do an airboat tour and see some gators. There’s always plenty of museums to visit such as the Ogden or the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Lower Prices and more availability: This is a no-brainer as it’s common knowledge that hotels and even Airbnbs hike up their rates during big events. My first summer in NOLA, I stayed at Aloft hotel and it was decently priced between $90-$100 a night (it is worth mentioning that I stayed a few weekdays, which are typically lower than weekend prices) but the following year, when I was looking for accommodation around the 4th of July period, which is when the Essence Festival occurs, the prices were higher and they had no availability until the day after I arrived.
That year I stayed at the Renaissance hotel in the Warehouse District before checking into Aloft for the remainder of my stay. Spending less on accommodation means more coins towards activities when in town or money saved for another trip.
Take a day trip: If crossing off more than one destination during your trips is up your alley, then having an itinerary free from festival-related events might suit you. Last summer I rented a car to drive to Orange Beach, Alabama, a recommendation from a creative friend of mine, Jaye, who currently lives in the city and always makes the time to meet up with me when in town. I didn’t make it to Orange Beach because of the forecast, but I did make it to Pass Christian Beach in Mississippi. I’d also recommend Biloxi Beach in Miss. Why not take a break from the city and enjoy some sand and ocean?
Ride the St. Charles Street Car: I bet you didn’t know that this historic streetcar (costs less than $2 to ride and you can get a day pass for around $3 or $4) is the oldest continuously operating streetcar, not only in the U.S but also in the world! It’s been in operation since 1835. Talk about taking a ride on a piece of history.
Recommended stops along the line are Magazine Street, Audubon Park, and Lafayette Cemetery No.1. Sure, you can ride the car during Mardi Gras and Essence, but it’ll probably be more crowded than usual.
Now, don’t take any of the above reasons to visit NOLA outside of Mardi Gras or Essence Festive to mean never attend those events.
I for one plan to attend Mardi Gras soon and perhaps Essence Fest, and enjoy the city from that perspective but if you are looking to have more time to thoroughly enjoy a wide array of what the city has to offer, then I certainly recommend planning your trip to the Crescent City outside of those events, or arriving earlier or staying afterwards.
As always, thanks for reading. Drop any comments or questions below. Peace and love.