New Orleans is a city with many names, including the Crescent City, NOLA, and the Big Easy. Another nickname that deserves to be on the list is Festival Capital of the World. With over 130 New Orleans festivals throughout the year, that’s about one every three days!
That’s not just New Orleanians tooting their own horn, either. Travel & Leisure actually named NOLA the best city for festivals in the United States. New York may be the City That Never Sleeps, but New Orleans is the City That Never Stops Partying.
While New Orleans is most well-known for its raucous Mardi Gras celebration, there are tons of other awesome festivals to experience here. Whether you’re into music, food, literature, art, or booze, there’s a festival for you in the Big Easy.
I absolutely love festivals. In fact, I skipped my senior prom to go to my first music festival. Oh yeah, and I met my wife at one as well! Of all the cities I’ve traveled to for festivals, nobody does it quite like New Orleans.
With so many excellent New Orleans events to choose from, there’s likely to be something cool going on in the city when you visit. In this guide, we’ll take a look at some of the best New Orleans festivals to help you plan the perfect trip.
1. Mardi Gras: New Orleans Carnival Celebration
Of course, we have to start with the granddaddy of them all — Mardi Gras! This is definitely the most famous of all the New Orleans festivals, bringing in over 10 million people to the city each year.
The name Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday”, which is the common name for the final day before the start of Lent. On this day, many people eat rich and fatty foods before the fasting of Lent begins. Mardi Gras in New Orleans lasts for far longer than one day, though!
Once the 12 days of Christmas are finished, the Mardi Gras celebrations begin. The first parades kick off on January 6th, which is also known as Three Kings’ Day. That means the party lasts for several weeks, so you have lots of options for including Mardi Gras on your list of things to do in New Orleans.
Mardi Gras came to the region way back in 1699 when a French Canadian explorer landed about 60 miles downriver from New Orleans and named it “Ponte du Mardi Gras” (Fat Tuesday Point) when he realized it was the day of the holiday. The parades started in the 1830s, and Mardi Gras has been an integral part of the culture here ever since.
Mardi Gras season in New Orleans basically means a ton of parades, interesting costumes, colorful beads, and King Cakes. There’s a lot of eating, drinking, dancing, and just general merriment. Be sure you wear the official colors of Mardi Gras – purple (justice), green (faith), and gold (power).
For 2020, Mardi Gras falls on February 25th. This is the last day of the New Orleans Carnival season, so most people try to get to the city a few days before for an extended weekend. Make sure you plan ahead and book accommodation well in advance, as this is the most popular time to visit the Big Easy.
If you don’t want to deal with the crowds, consider traveling to New Orleans a few weeks before Mardi Gras. There’s still plenty going on, but it’s far less chaotic and you’ll get a better deal on accommodation.
2. French Quarter Festival
The French Quarter Festival started back in 1984 as a way to draw locals back to the area after construction of the World’s Fair finished up. It’s a celebration of New Orleans food, music, and culture that lasts for four days every April. If you’re looking for a good New Orleans music festival, this is a solid choice.
Best of all, the French Quarter Festival is totally free! It’s actually the largest free music festival in the country, with an estimated 1,700 Louisiana musicians playing across 23 different stages. You’ll hear many different genres of music here, from funk to jazz to zydeco.
In addition to all the great local music, you can expect plenty of delicious cuisine being cooked, and typical New Orleans cocktails being mixed. There are over 60 booths set up around the French Quarter serving up classics like po’ boys and Hurricanes.
The event is highlighted by the world’s largest jazz brunch, which takes place in Jackson Square and the Riverfront Park. For more information, be sure to check their website.
3. New Orleans Wine and Food Experience
There’s no doubt that the Big Easy is one of the best cities in the US for eating and drinking. You could plan your entire trip here around what you want to eat and drink, and there would be absolutely nothing wrong with that!
When it comes to New Orleans festivals, the Wine and Food Experience is definitely one of the best. Foodies and winos will love this 5-day celebration of the finer things in life. With over 250 wineries and 100 restaurants taking part, you’ve got plenty of options.
During the festival, wineries and restaurants team up to offer special menus with wine pairings. There are also grand tastings and seminars throughout the festival where you can learn more about the fantastic food and wine on offer. The highlight of the festival is the Royal Street Stroll, a parade led by the Krewe of Cork.
One of the best parts about supporting this festival is that it’s for a great cause. The NOWFE donates all of its proceeds minus costs to benefit the arts, careers in wine and hospitality, and charitable organizations. They’ve contributed over $1 million so far, so you’re eating and drinking for a good cause here!
If you want to take part in the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience, head on over to their website to learn more.
4. New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
In a city known as the birthplace of jazz, it should come as no surprise that there’s a jazz festival in the Big Easy! The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (or Jazz Fest for short) recently celebrated its 50th anniversary and is a major part of the local culture.
This famous New Orleans music festival goes down at the Fair Grounds Race Course. Here you can catch over 100 artists across several stages playing every style of music associated with Louisiana, which is basically everything! In addition to jazz, you can get down to blues, gospel, rap, country, bluegrass, and so much more.
Jazz Fest wouldn’t be one of the best New Orleans festivals without plenty of local food to enjoy. Jazz Fest has a policy of “no carnival food” meaning you won’t get overpriced corn dogs and cotton candy here. Instead, you can munch on local classics like boiled crawfish or red beans & rice. There are also plenty of booths around the festival selling local crafts.
While the music at the festival only goes until 7:00 PM, the party doesn’t stop then. One of the best parts about experiencing Jazz Fest is checking out some of the amazing late-night shows that go on across the city. The hardest part about going to this fun New Orleans music festival is getting any sleep!
Jazz Fest is actually so big now that it takes place over two weekends. If you want to experience one of the best New Orleans festivals, plan to be in the city for the last weekend of April or first of May, or both if you want to go big. For more information on Jazz Fest, check out their website.
5. White Linen Night/Dirty Linen Night
Of all the unique New Orleans festivals, these two definitely stand out. At the very least, they certainly have the most interesting names – White Linen Night and Dirty Linen Night.
While you can zip around the Big Easy in a nice air-conditioned cab these days, this was not the case back in the day. Since summers are so hot and muggy in the New Orleans, people preferred to wear white linen when going out. Merchants in the city’s Warehouse District decided to have a little flashback party and started White Linen Night in 1994.
The idea for this event is simple. You just put on some fresh, white linen and come out to Julia Street to peruse the art galleries. Of course, there’s also live music and plenty of food & drink to keep the party going. White wine is the drink of choice at this fancy soirée!
New Orleans festivals are all about having a good time. That’s why the party extends to the next weekend with Dirty Linen Night. You’re encouraged to wear the same outfit that you did the previous weekend now that it’s nice and dirty. This party takes place in the French Quarter on Royal Street. Dirty Martinis are the drink of choice, and some shops even give away Dirty Rice.
Taking place over back-to-back weekends in the summer, these are art-centered block parties that are free to attend. White Linen Night takes place on the first Saturday in August, while Dirty Linen Night happens the following weekend.
6. Essence Festival
Known as the “party with a purpose,” the Essence Festival was originally planned as a one-off event back in 1995. This year will mark the 25th anniversary of the festival, which is now known as the biggest event celebrating African-American culture in the entire United States.
Essence is basically two festivals rolled into one. During the day, there are panels and workshops in the Ernest Morial Convention Center. These are open to the public and are totally free, but registration is required.
The action moves to the Superdome in the evenings for an impressive lineup of hip-hop, funk, soul, R&B, and gospel music. You can purchase tickets for concerts individually or go for a weekend pass. This is one New Orleans music festival you won’t want to miss!
They’re pulling out all the stops for the big milestone this year (2019). Former First Lady Michelle Obama will headline the festivities in a special keynote conversation. The musical lineup is stacked as well, with Mary J. Blige, Missy Elliot, NAS, Pharrell Williams, and more. Check their website for more information.
7. Tales of the Cocktail
There are several classic New Orleans cocktails, and there’s even an entire festival dedicated to adult beverages. Tales of the Cocktail dates back to 2002 when it started out as a walking tour of local bars. The next year, it turned into a small gathering of cocktail aficionados and professionals, and it has grown every year since.
Over the course of five days, the cocktail community descends upon New Orleans for seminars, workshops, competitions, tastings, and much more. There are even field trips out to local distilleries, which can be a lot of fun.
For this festival, you can just purchase tickets to the events individually. If you buy tickets up to a value of $150, you can get free access to all the tasting rooms. Here you’ll find great events like “Craft Your Own Perfect Bloody Mary” and “Hecho in Mexico: All Things Agave.”
Whether you’re a part of the industry or just interested in mixology, this is definitely one of the coolest New Orleans events. You can find all the info you need over on their website.
8. Crescent City Blues & BBQ Festival
In a city famous for its music and food, one of the best New Orleans festivals to check out is Crescent City Blues & BBQ. Just as the weather starts to cool down a bit, this festival heats things right back up in downtown New Orleans.
This New Orleans music festival started after Hurricane Katrina as a way to bring tourists back to the city and create jobs for locals. It’s been a huge hit ever since and will be having its 14th edition this year.
The festival takes place in Lafayette Square Park in the city’s Central Business District. There are two different stages set up where you can enjoy some amazing blues music and another smaller stage where artists tell stories and host Q&A events.
As far as the food goes, you can expect plenty of mouth-watering Louisiana barbecue here. Take your pick between brisket, lamb chops, and of course a wide variety of sausages. They have vegetarian and vegan options available as well.
Admission is free, but there are VIP packages available if you’re interested. You can read more about the festival on their website.
9. Voodoo Music & Arts Experience
Voodoo has been an important part of the local culture in New Orleans for centuries. It came here with slaves from West Africa, who soon merged their rituals and beliefs with Catholicism. Not only is there a Voodoo Museum in New Orleans, but there’s even a festival.
Every October on the weekend around Halloween, the Voodoo Music & Arts Experience takes over City Park. With catchphrases like “join the ritual” and “worship the music,” this New Orleans music festival embraces the city’s history with voodoo.
The first edition of Voodoo happened back in 1999 as a single-day event. It has grown considerably since then and is now a massive 3-day festival with an impressive lineup. Headliners include Guns N’ Roses, Post Malone, and Beck.
In addition to all the music, there are some pretty mind-blowing art installations here. There’s even an interactive graveyard that makes for some spooky photo ops. Add in thousands of costumed people and you’ve got a recipe for an awesome Halloween weekend. You can find out more about Voodoo and pick up tickets on their website.
One of the most unique New Orleans festivals is LUNA Fete, which stands for Light Up NOLA Arts. That’s precisely what this amazing festival of light, art, and technology does to the historic buildings of the Big Easy.
This festival started in 2014 with a single installation at Gallier Hall featuring a stunning projection of light and video. Created by the Arts Council of New Orleans, the idea is to shine a light on the city and show how art can transform communities.
What you’ll see if you experience LUNA Fete is so much more than images being projected onto a building. It’s a very interactive display of motion graphics and sound using the latest in video mapping technology. It truly is an awe-inspiring sight.
LUNA Fete takes place over a few nights in early December to kick off the holiday season in New Orleans. There are nightly projections along with some other interesting art installations. There’s also a large marketplace here with plenty of art and food vendors as well as live entertainment. It’s the perfect way to get in the holiday spirit and fun for the whole family. Click here to learn more.
Ready for New Orleans Festivals?
As you can see, the action really doesn’t stop when it comes to New Orleans events. Just a few days after ringing in the New Year with huge parties all over the city, the Mardi Gras parades start and last for several weeks.
There’s barely enough time to clean up all the beads off of Bourbon Street before the city turns its focus towards its legendary spring festivals. In addition to the French Quarter Festival and Jazz Fest, there are also tons of New Orleans festivals in the spring just for crawfish!
The tasty food festivals of the Big Easy continue on through the rest of the year. There are festivals here dedicated to fried chicken, po’ boys, gumbo, beignets, and even one just for tomatoes. You’ll need something to wash all that down with, and New Orleans has you covered with wine, beer, and cocktail festivals.
With so many festivals going on, New Orleans just might take the (King) Cake for the most fun city in the USA. When one party ends, another is just beginning in the Big Easy. That’s why the city’s motto is “Laissez Le Bons Temps Roulez” – Let the Good Times Roll!
Have you traveled to New Orleans for one of these festivals, or do you have another great recommendation? Leave a comment below and let us know.
Note: Some images in this article are courtesy of Shutterstock.com.
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