Oftentimes ruled out of consideration for student trips or field trips due to the infamous party scene stigma, the festival known as Mardi Gras is actually an excellent time to allow your students to experience culture, tradition, and history all in one!
Tracing back to religious obligations of the past surrounding the season of Lent, Mardi Gras is actually weeks long, though the main celebration takes place on Fat Tuesday, or Shrove Tuesday (shrove is derived from shrive, meaning ‘confess’). The first official celebration of this season took place in 1857, when the first ‘krewe’, or private group that organizes thematic parades, was established. There were informal foot and horseback parades even decades before this date, but things didn’t get really official until 1879 when an all-male krewe by the name of Rex crowned a ‘King of Carnival’ and set the official colors of the festival (green, gold, and purple).
A visit to New Orleans and the Jefferson Parish area with your student group will enlighten them on other cultures and immerse them into that tradition, this area’s Mardi Gras influenced by Caribbean, Spanish, and French influences heavily. The masks and grandiose celebrations are an essentially French tradition, giving your students an easy historic, religious, and cultural connection to make right off the bat.
So what should you actually do with your student group during your visit? Here are 10 great suggestions by our Adventure Student Travel experts.
- Watch the Parade
Of course, you are going to want to catch a glimpse of all the vibrantly magnificent floats, characters, costumes, and beads along the parade route with your students, just maybe without all the uh, lack of clothing? Well have no fear, there are actually plenty of designated spots for ‘family-friendly’ parade viewing, our favorite choice being St. Charles Avenue, a spot with picnics and games lining the route. Just be sure to be ready to face large crowds and be out here early, the festivities begin at 8 am!
- Make a Mask
One of our favorite places to send students in New Orleans is Mardi Gras World, an expansive, educational, and entertaining working warehouse totaling 300,000 square feet where some of the biggest and most colorful floats are made. This spot is your opportunity to make a mask with the pros, with all the material and know-how you will need, plus some really great history and personal experience stories from the float and costume makers themselves. (Be sure to do this activity the day(s) before, as they are closed the day of).
- Eat King Cake
You simply MUST eat a slice of King Cake (or three) while in New Orleans, a delicious tradition with religious roots. This cake serves as a symbol of the gifts given to Christ by the three wise men during the twelfth day after Christmas, explaining why you will today find a tiny plastic baby inside the cake. While there are TONS of places to find this traditional festival sweet, we suggest you head to Haydel’s Bakery, a classic NOLA installment serving up classic cakes that you can’t beat! They also have some newer more inventive versions like the Cajun Kringle (pecan praline).
- Visit Jackson Square
Outside of the bustling parades, crowds, and bead-strewn streets are also several iconic New Orleans spots to visit and learn more about the city itself, and the people that inhabit it. Visit Jackson Square, the most photographed spot in the city that mixes history with culture in an easy green space setting. Take some photos, have a picnic lunch, or just people watch, whatever you decide to do with your group Jackson Square sure to be a safe spot to be on Fat Tuesday!
- Eat Beignets At Cafe Beignet
Pretty straightforward, right? Cafe Beignet is a highly traditional local establishment that has been serving the best beignets for over 200 years now. Steeped in the European tradition, Cafe Beignet serves crowds of eager guests some of the most delicious, delicate, crisp beignets around, the perfectly golden squares dusted with powdered sugar and made with centuries of experience. You should definitely show your student group what this French pastry meets American doughnut is really all about while visiting New Orleans!
- Learn History Inside the Presbytere
Established here in 1813, this architectural icon within the French Quarter faces Jackson Square and is right next to the equally iconic St. Louis Cathedral. One half of the collection inside this stunning landmark is dedicated to the history of Mardi Gras, giving your student group the chance to learn details about the rituals of the past, follow the festival's roots back to the Middle Ages through artifacts and exhibits throughout, and even climb around on a few parade floats from the past. An additional educational benefit from the Presbytere is that the other half of the collection covers the impact of Hurricane Katrina, an important part of this community's past and present.
Stop In Café Du Monde
Much like the iconic eatery stop mentioned before for beignets, this place is essential to visit before leaving New Orleans. You better have plenty of room for coffee and pastries all day, because you really won’t find any better than here, during the iconic festivities. Grab a parade beignet and chicory coffee breakfast, a midday pastry pick me up, or a late night cup of smooth joe to keep the party going! Remember during your visit that this spot is also very historic, first opened here on Decatur Street in 1862.
- Shop The French Market
If you go just a little bit down the street you will find the French Market, another spot we always suggest student groups visit before leaving. This massive marketplace takes up 6 city blocks and holds over 3 centuries of history, one of the most educational spots when it comes to culture, economy, and local growth. Considered to be both a farmer's and flea market, your student group will be able to find anything their hearts desire here, from local Mardi Gras specialties to great souvenirs and apparel.
- Explore French Quarter/Bourbon Street
This option on our list is just that: highly optional. We say that because it will be very hard to protect your student group from nudity around this area, so if that is an issue you may not want to explore around here (though to be quite honest, a few sights will be seen just about anywhere in NOLA as far as that goes).
That being said, we believe that this is one of the most beautiful and historic sights in the city, meaning we really think your student group would love to see it. The French Quarter, or Vieux Carre, is the oldest neighborhood in New Orleans, developed by Jean-Baptiste in 1718. Classic architecture, classic culture, and most importantly, classic celebration thrives among the French Quarter and Bourbon Street, making it hard to not stop by for a visit.
- Explore Frenchmen Street
In case you haven’t gotten enough cultural education during your visit we thought we’d send you to explore Frenchmen Street, a jazz and blues infused neighborhood with a tradition reaching back to this cities roots. This popular street is considered to be an official New Orleans live music and entertainment district, with the best live music New Orleans has to offer. Your group can also find some of NOLA’s best restaurants, bars, shops, and galleries all within this thriving 3 block area.
Fun Fact: Did you know that in the 150 years of Mardi Gras the celebration has only been canceled a dozen times, for instances such as yellow fever, the Civil War, and both World Wars?