Everyone knows New Orleans takes the (ahem) king cake during Carnival, but these five destinations also have plenty of history, interesting architecture, beads, floats, and libations to keep the celebration rolling around the Gulf Coast.
Mardi Gras heritage here dates back to 1703 (predating New Orleans by over 150 years), and locals still bring the party with elaborate floats, music from the 1883-founded Excelsior Band, and flying moon pies. (The sweet treat remains the most coveted parade “throw” around these parts.) For king cake, don’t miss Pollman’s, Alabama’s oldest bakery and Mobile’s first to sell the traditional confection. And if you need to stock up on beads or other supplies, run, don’t walk to Toomey’s, the 70,000-square-foot Mardi Gras headquarters where Mobilians have procured swag since the 1970s.
If you want to get in on the action and are not a “mystic society” member, arrive on the Sunday before Fat Tuesday for the People’s Parade. And if you want to celebrate like Jimmy Buffet, head to where he watched the parades growing up: the Battle House Renaissance Mobile Hotel & Spa.
Pensacola feels a lot like New Orleans with its elaborate ironwork, balconies, and jazz music blasting out of Seville Square. Fittingly, residents and visitors have lined the streets since 1874 for Mardi Gras parades. Be on the lookout for the Pirate Flotilla, an annual boat procession that travels down the Intracoastal Waterway; it starts at Hub Stacey’s across from Seville Quarter and ends at the Flora-Bama Bar. The city also prides itself on family-friendly revelry with an alcohol- and tobacco-free children’s parade viewing area.
For Big Easy flavor, don’t miss J’s Bakery in East Hill. Here, pastry chef Tanya Doubout, a New Orleans native, braids up the buttery cinnamon vanilla king cake filled with homemade praline, ices it with whipped cinnamon cream cheese, and drizzles it with praline sauce. Get it whole or by the slice. Save room for the local-favorite Chrisoula’s Cheesecake Shoppe for a mini king cake cheesecake.
Ocean Springs, Mississippi
Long a haven for artists, this coastal city also has those New Orleans vibes with its balconies hung with beads overlooking Government Street, a bevy of small bakeries and restaurants, and an elaborate parade that’s rolled for forty-eight years. Anywhere along Porter Avenue and Government Street offers prime viewing, but get there early to set up your chairs. Grab a king cake martini at the Mosaic, where you’ll be in the middle of the action to catch beads.
If you want a balcony view, head to the new Murky Waters BBQ, where you can nosh and listen to live music. If a tailgate atmosphere appeals to you, the lawn in front of the Mary C. O’Keefe Cultural Arts Center, locally known as the Mary C., always delivers a good time.
Panama City, Florida
The Krewe of St. Andrews Mardi Gras parade and festival celebrates its twenty-seventh anniversary in 2024 with more than a dozen krewes, thirty brightly colored floats, festive music, and thousands of beads and doubloons tossed to the crowds. The Salty Dog Mayor, Buoy, leads a highlight of the festivities, the Pet Parade. The one-and-a-half-year-old goldendoodle beat out two other furry candidates for the opportunity to participate in all mayoral duties, like Mardi Gras leadership.
If you need crowns or masquerade masks, locals know to stop by Gypsybeach Treasured Kreations, where more than thirty artists and vintage dealers sell their wares.
Dating back to 1867, this Mardi Gras celebration (Texas’s largest, and the third largest in the country) brings eclectic flair with an Umbrella Brigade, which draws revelers who dance the route while carrying decorated umbrellas. Visitors can also expect golf cart and Jeep parades, concerts, and an Airstream rally to fill the island’s streets.
The gateway to the festivities, the Mardi Gras arch located on Mechanic Street, serves as the starting point for all parades. Stop by Galveston Island Brewery for a pint of Mardi Gras Blonde Ale or by Hotel Lucine for a headdress workshop. And for a truly Texas treat, grab a king cake kolache at Good Dough, a scratch bakery serving the traditional Czech pastries with Carnival flair.