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New Orleans is, if anything, a city of festivals, which a) makes it fun to live in and b) it gives the casual visitor unparalleled access to what makes this city tick. Nothing helps you learn about this city like participating in the parades, concerts and generally festival-y lagniappe (extras) that are crucial to the city’s self-perception.

Late spring and early summer, when the weather is at its most pleasant, is prime festival season in the city. Of course, February's Mardi Gras is the festival everyone associates with this city. It is so integral to the New Orleans image it almost transcends the word festival; we can't imagine any other event that is as iconic to a city's identity as Mardi Gras is to New Orleans. Books and dissertations have been written about the complicated history and cultural practices of this event and the way they shape New Orleans.

Just barely behind in import is one of the world's great music events: Jazz Fest. Since hosting 350 people in 1970, Jazz Fest has grown into the kind of event that pulls in hundreds of thousands of concert-goers and internationally known names like Ben Harper, Bon Jovi and Wynton Marsalis. It also brings out the local talent that makes this one of the most musically rich cities in America: Mardi Gras Indians, Theresa Andersson, Soul Rebels brass band and Dr John. It goes down over a period of two weeks in late April and early May, and is catered by some of the best restaurants in the city. If you don't want to shell out $50 a day for Jazz Fest, why not opt for the much more low-key and casually fun Chaz Fest, held around the same time, which features those New Orleans artists who don't make it into the increasingly crowded Jazz Fest line-up.

The French Quarter Festival, held in April, consistently showcases a good range of local music and local food, with a focus on displaying the finest of the Quarter. This is one of the best times to stroll those narrow streets; many private residences throw their beautiful courtyard gardens open to visitors at this time. St Patrick's Day is celebrated with a lot of passion here; the biggest events go down at Irish-American bars like Molly's and Parasol's. Indian Sunday is held on March 19; this is one of the best times of year to see the famous tribes in all their regalia. The Wine & Food Experience in May is clearly a good bet for foodies, who may also appreciate the Louisiana Crawfish Festival in late March/early April.

The Essence Music Festival in July packs in some of the best R&B and hip-hop talent in the country, while the Fourth of July is celebrated with huge fireworks displays over the Mississippi River. On August 4, Louis Armstrong's birthday is celebrated with jazz and food (natch) at Satchmo SummerFest, while the Southern Decadence party on Labor Day weekend (preceding the first Monday in September), also known as "Gay Mardi Gras", keeps the entire city partying into the wee hours. Halloween is huge in the city that loves to throw on a mask, while Christmas features numerous fiery festivals along the waterfront, including Celebration in the Oaks, when the colourful lights are festooned around City Park.

© Lonely Planet. All rights reserved. The article ‘Celebrate New Orleans, from Mardi Gras to Jazz Fest’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.

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