6 Famous Mardi Gras Celebrations in America and Abroad

By Audrey W. | Arcadia Staff
Mardi Gras began thousands of years ago as a Roman festival that commemorated the coming of spring. It has since evolved into one of the world’s grandest festivals, celebrated in countless  cities with parades, elaborate costumes, and masked balls. Mardi Gras takes place in the days leading up to Lent - a Christian observation marked as a time of fasting and sacrifice. The celebration represents a time for people to break loose and consume the things that will be restricted during Lent’s 40 days. Here are 6 must-visit Mardi Gras celebrations from around the world. 

A float from the 1954 New Orleans Rex parade.New Orleans, Louisiana

New Orleans is home to perhaps the most famous Mardi Gras carnival in the world. It takes place during the two weeks prior to Ash Wednesday, with one major parade each day and several parties and performances scattered throughout. These parades are organized by social clubs known as krewes – Mistick Krewe of Comus, Rex, the Knights of Momus, and Krewe of Proteus are among the most famous. Participants adorn themselves in detailed costumes and long beads in shades of purple, green, and gold. King Cake, a ring-shaped coffee cake, and jambalaya, a spicy seafood, sausage, and rice stew are festival favorites. 

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Rio de Janeiro houses the biggest Mardi Gras celebration in the world. Attendance in Rio is unmatched by anywhere else, with over 200 million participants, and an estimated 500,000 spectators. The carnival arrived in Brazil in the 1830s with Portuguese immigrants, and is rooted in African traditions. The world-renowned Samba Parade is known for its music and elaborate costumes, which draw thousands of people to the Sambodromo - an arena built specifically for the parade. Street food like pan queijo, a Brazilian cheese bread, and cassava chips, a form of French fries made from the roots of tropical trees, are among Rio’s most popular Mardi Gras delicacies.

A poster advertising the then-upcoming Mardi Gras celebrations in Soulard.St. Louis, Missouri

The Soulard district is the headquarters for much of the festivities for Mardi Gras in St. Louis, Missouri. For nearly three months leading up to Lent, the city hosts a series of events including restaurant crawls, pet parades, and family-friendly parties. In January, the Snowman Softball Tournament and Family Winter Carnival kick off the celebration. Following these are February’s Cajun Cook-off, Purina Pet Parade, Wiener Dog Derby, Bacchanalian Ball, and Missouri Lottery 5K Run for Your Beads. But the biggest events in St. Louis take place in March, with the Mayor’s Mardi Gras Ball and the Grand Parade. Each year, krewes like the Banana Bike Brigade, Affton Vice, and Honky Tonk Krewe design exquisite costumes, and build themed floats to ride in the parade, tossing candy and small trinkets to cheering spectators.

Cologne, Germany

Also known as Fastnacht or Fasching, Mardi Gras in Cologne originated in ancient pagan traditions, which were thought to ward off evil spirits by wearing frightening masks. Street food commonly seen at the festival includes sausages and pretzels, krapfen, a German version of a donut, and hot spiced wine. Unlike most other places, in Germany the celebrations don’t stop with the end of Mardi Gras. Here, two more festivals follow: The Women’s Carnival and Rose Monday. During the Women’s Carnival, women are encouraged to cut off the ties of men on the streets and kiss them on the cheek. On Rose Monday, a massive parade takes places with elaborate floats, street performers, music, and food, and caps off a period of city-wide celebration.

Barranquilla, Colombia

Columbia’s Mardi Gras is the second largest in the world, surpassed only by the celebration in Rio de Janeiro. It was declared a Cultural Masterpiece of the Nation by Colombia’s National Congress in 2002. In the four days approaching the Holy Month, the city enjoys a massive party filled with dancing, music, and food. The celebration starts on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday with the Battle of the Flowers. On Sunday, the renowned Great Parade is attended by people from all over the world, and Monday brings the Orchestra Festival featuring Caribbean and Latin bands. The festival comes to a close with the burial of Joselito Carnaval - a figure whose presence signifies the beginning and end of Colombia’s Mardi Gras.

A float from the annual Mardi Gras parade in Mobile.Mobile, Alabama

What began as a small celebration by Frenchman Nicholas Langlois in 1703 in Mobile, Alabama has evolved to be one of America’s biggest Mardi Gras festivals. Mardi Gras started here 15 years before New Orleans was founded, and has largely remained true to its traditional origins. Half of the celebration is public, but the other half is reserved for members of secret societies. These societies host invitation-only balls, where attendees wear elegant costumes, and have their identities concealed by masks. Open to the public are parades with floats built by members of the societies. They toss items (known as throws) like beads, necklaces, candy, Moonpies, and small toys to the crowds.
Across the world, Mardi Gras is a celebration of release and reflection before engaging in 40 days of sacrifice for Lent. From New Orleans to Germany, Mardi Gras has evolved to adopt the customs of each location while still bearing in mind the roots of the tradition. With their unique perspectives, each participating country has a one-of-a-kind carnival that welcomes visitors and residents alike.