Stay off Bourbon Street.
No, really. If you want more than the most obvious Mardi Gras experience, stay off Bourbon Street. On Fat Tuesday, Feb. 16 this year, and the gloriously chaotic days prior, that fabled party route is tacky, loud, crowded and smelly.
There is no question that New Orleans is worth a Mardi Gras visit.
But there also is no question that it is a waste to experience it in the same drunken manner on the same drunken street as a bunch of drunks.
So, what is a better Mardi Gras? There is no one answer, but here are a few tips that presume a trip beginning Saturday and continuing through Tuesday.
SATURDAY AND SUNDAY
You will be less inclined on Monday and Tuesday, so watch a parade or two from the residential streets of Uptown and the Garden District. Magazine Street (cozy and eclectic) and St. Charles Avenue (stately and regal) are good bets to watch the parades that roll a few miles southwest of the French Quarter.
The weekend also is a time to acclimate. The Quarter is the hub of the action, so walk those fabled streets and watch the masses: a card-twirling street-corner magician, a woman on thumb piano, men bearing signs promising hell for "drunkards," "rebellious women" and "liberals," among others. It's all part of the show, so enjoy.
A trip to New Orleans ideally includes live music, and these are good days for that, too.
Lundi Gras is a wonderful day of slow-burning joy (as opposed to Tuesday's full-tilt joy). Last-minute touches are under way in all directions, such as at Fifi Mahony's, one of the nation's finest costume wig shops, where saleswomen fluidly unpack wigs of every color and shape for customers who slide into salon-style chairs for primping.
Mardi Gras veterans usually don't settle for adorning themselves in beads; they assemble costumes that rival Halloween.
The Orpheus parade on Tchoupitoulas Street is a favorite for its dazzling lights. In the Marigny neighborhood, east of the Quarter, the Noisician Coalition is a percussive band of noisemakers that ushers in Fat Tuesday most years on instruments ranging from toy tambourines to PVC pipe. Last year, they started about 11:30 p.m. at R Bar on Royal Street and spent nearly two hours invading bars and restaurants to stand on chairs, tables and counters and make their blessed racket.
Whatever you do - don't stay out too late, says Joel Dyer, 64, who has lived in New Orleans for 23 years. "The amateurs will get drunk tonight and get up tomorrow at noon. They think Mardi Gras is a night party. It's not. If you're up at noon, you missed the party."
On Mardi Gras day, the most adventurous rise with the sun and the Mardi Gras Indians, a band of black revelers who dress in feather-rich and handmade costumes and wander the streets with their various tribes. The other great African-American tradition starts soon thereafter, when the Zulu parade leaves Central City. It's one of the largest and most beloved Carnival parades, where beads are plentiful, but the most prized throw - the things float riders throw at the masses - is a painted coconut.
The nearby Bywater neighborhood offers a dizzying highlight: the St. Anne walking parade. The costumes are precise and ostentatious - duck suits and chicken suits, kings, queens and court jesters, Dr. Seuss characters and blue wigs beside green wigs beside purple wigs. Some people are barely dressed at all.
It's a joyful walk through largely residential streets and the French Quarter. It's one of the few parades to journey through the Quarter.
FIRST-TIMER'S PARTY GUIDE TO CARNIVAL
Mardi Gras is Feb. 16, but the parties and parades begin at the end of January. Here's how to get in the spirit:
1 Don't wear beads everywhere you go. It is OK not to wear beads while out for dinner. Just because you're not wearing beads doesn't mean you're not having fun.
2 Catch, don't buy, beads. Every shop in the French Quarter will try to sell them to you, but resist. There is a reason the people on floats spend thousands of dollars on that plastic junk. They want to throw them to you, and that exchange between tosser and receiver is among the holiday's great joys.
3 Venture beyond Bourbon Street. It's worth a brief visit for sociological reasons, but the few famous blocks northeast of Canal Street are the tackiest real estate in New Orleans. The most interesting things during Mardi Gras happen away from Bourbon Street.
4 Venture beyond the French Quarter. The vibrant Uptown, Garden District and Marigny neighborhoods are good bets.
5 Don't watch the parades from Canal Street, on the edge of the French Quarter. You could watch Zulu there (the stunningly elaborate and fervent parade), but the neighborhoods it passes through offer a richer experience.
6 Stay in a smaller hotel. While it is worth staying in the French Quarter, the smaller hotels are cheaper and more intimate. And the odds of hearing a fool yell, "What happens at Mardi Gras stays at Mardi Gras" are lowered significantly.
7 Don't call the whole weekend Mardi Gras. The event actually is called Carnival. Mardi Gras is only Fat Tuesday.
8 Listen to WWOZ. "New Orleans' Jazz and Heritage Station," 90.7 FM and streaming wwoz.org, chronicles the Crescent City's musical roots all year, but during Carnival, the city has no better soundtrack.