03/08/2011 07:53 am ET Updated Sep 20, 2011

It's Mardi Gras Day In New Orleans (PHOTOS)

It's Mardi Gras in New Orleans and for longer than the United States of America has existed, freedom of expression has been found here. When the U.S. bought Louisiana and many free people of color were enslaved, each Sunday they still gathered at Congo Square to dance. And preceding the Stonewall Riots, the openly gay Krewe of Petronius hosted one of the most popular Mardi Gras balls in the city. (*SEE PHOTOS BELOW*)

Our traditions of freedom and creativity run deep. On Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras Indian tribes gather in intricately designed suits they work all year to create. The Wild Magnolias and Dr. John describe the spy boys, flag boys and big chiefs meeting "Early One Morning." The location changes, but it's always very, very early. If you miss the Mardi Gras Indians, you can catch some of them later in the day when the Mardi Gras Indian Orchestra plays the Hi-Ho Lounge.

Out-of towners can enjoy the Rex and Zulu parades by renting stands along the route, and within the bounds of the French Quarter there are bands of revelers on foot. The Krewe of St. Anne marches from the Marigny. It disbands by afternoon, but there's still a magic to the day that can be best sustained by avoiding Bourbon Street.

For breaks in the French Quarter, Café Envie, Cafe Beignet and CC's Community Coffeehouse have iced coffee, hot tea and pastries (Carnival carbs); Mona's offers healthy hummus plates; Mona Lisa's serves killer calzones; and Camilla Grill, Verti Marte and Clover Grill are 24-hour lifesavers.

Approaching the end of Mardi Gras Day, Frenchman Street at dusk is where walking and bicycle krewes gather after a day of parading. The crowd slowly assembles as if waiting for something to happen, and what eventually happens is a drum circle (if by drum one means anything on or near Frenchman Street that can be played like a bongo).

When the beads start piling up, ARC of Greater New Orleans accepts used beads, and adults with disabilities sort and recycle them as a fund-raiser. Many parade floats are recycled from year to year so there have been some steps toward sustainability in a city that will buried in beads by Ash Wednesday.

Moving to New Orleans 15 years ago I fell in love with a holiday, then a city, then a lifestyle, then a local. This will be the first time in the last 5 years that we're celebrating carnival at home. The costumes are still in storage, but Mardi Gras is just outside the front door.

"This is the thrill of my life." Louis Armstrong, Zulu King, 1949.

Photos by Jeff Beninato

I've listed a dozen more tips for revelers at

Mardi Gras in New Orleans