Since South by Southwest (SXSW) kicked off in 1987, the city has been transformed – both artistically and economically. Texas dance halls now sit in the shadows of high-rise apartment buildings; coffee comes with all variety of foams, syrups and flavors; and techies outnumber cowboys.
In spite of the changes, the festival remains firmly at the center of Austin’s best characteristics: a hub of creativity and art, a strong entrepreneurial spirit and that ongoing title of ‘Live Music Capital of the World.’ Of course, it’s no secret that the festival has moved firmly into the mainstream. McDonald’s and Bud are current sponsors and former US president Barack Obama spoke at the opening keynote in 2016.
Like it or loathe it, the massive craziness that descends upon Austin for 10 days during March has all the makings of an unforgettable time. However, whether you’re there for SXSW or not, there’s plenty to see, do and eat within walking distance of Downtown Austin.
Don’t escape Austin during SXSW. Dive headlong into the frantic, fun shenanigans and embrace the good, the bad and the weird.
What to see and do
Beat the hangover with an invigorating run around the Lady Bird Lake, just south of the Austin Convention Center. If people watching is an added incentive, we’ve heard Matthew McConaughey and cycling hero-turned-persona non grata Lance Armstrong also come by for their workouts.
Another unique Austin sight is the swarm of hundreds of thousand Mexican free-tailed bats coming out from under the Congress Ave Bridge in the evening. This is the largest urban bat colony in North America and a fascinating sight to behold. Catch it from the bridge, along the banks of Lady Bird Lake or via a boat tour.
The offbeat O.Henry Museum (austintexas.gov/o-henry-museum) celebrates the life of the city’s famed short-story writer through memorabilia and knowledgeable guides. If you’re around in May, the annual O.Henry Pun Off (punoff.com) draws a crowd with its punny comedians.
Where to eat
Austin has a great range of international food but its strengths lie firmly in two areas: BBQ and food trucks.
Round the corner from the Austin Convention Center (and a great place to hit up if you want to avoid overpriced SXSW food vendors) is Ironworks BBQ (ironworksbbq.com). It may not be the most famed of them all but the location can’t be beat. Pile up the ribs, grab a local microbrew and grab a seat on the outdoor deck.
The absolute best, though, has to be Franklin BBQ, a mile north of downtown Austin. Aaron Franklin, dubbed ‘BBQ Jesus’, has been selling out of beef brisket daily since 2009. The line starts as early as 8am (doors open at 11am) but once you chow down on the melt-in-your-mouth, smokey beef brisket, you’ll understand that the hype is real. Anthony Bourdain and Obama are just some of the celebrities who’ve sampled the wares here. Not convinced? Check out Franklin’s videos (youtube.com).
On the food truck front, you can’t go wrong starting your day off with breakfast at the Paperboy food truck just a mile northeast of downtown. The inventive breakfast menu revolves around seasonal produce: you might tuck into sweet potato hash or goat sausage brioche sandwich.
The long wait for soft, delicious tacos is worth it at the Veracruz All Natural food truck, a mile east of downtown. Grab a refreshing, fruity, icy agua fresca while you wait.
Where to drink
Hipster, ahem, we mean specialty coffee can be found all around Austin. We dig the Arnold Palmer (the mix of cold-brewed coffee and lemonade is a great thirst quencher) at Houndstooth Coffee (houndstoothcoffee.com) and the laid-back warehouse vibes at Wright Bros. Brew & Brew (thebrewandbrew.com). At the latter, you can easily move from espresso to IPA while tapping away on your Macbook.
If you’re into messy nights with a frat-boy vibe, it’s bars, bars, bars along busy Sixth Street. We much prefer the vibe in the Rainey Street area. Banger’s (bangersaustin.com) has an incredible range of beer and sausages, a match made in culinary heaven. The joint has the largest tap wall in Austin with more than 120+ brews on at any one time. From whisky-barrel-aged porters to nitro stouts, they have it all.
Nearby Craft Pride is another great spot for boozy afternoons on the deck. Bring out the inner geek and come by on Mondays for Video Game Nights. If you get hungry, the Via 313 (via313.com) food truck out back serves some seriously cheesy Detroit-style square pizza pies.
Tips for making the most out of SXSW
SXSW is broadly split into Interactive (tech, startups, geekery), Film, Music and Comedy ‘festivals’ overlapping across a 10-day period.
Full tickets start at $825 for individual festivals, scaling up to $1650 for the catch-all platinum badge. You can, however, register to get cheaper single-day or multiple-day wristbands to the Gaming, Music and Film festivals. These start at $20 (wristbands.sxsw.com).
Book your tickets in advance and try to get in the day before to pick up your badges and wristbands or risk wasting precious time in long lines on opening day. Can’t work out the labyrinthine website? Download the official app (sxsw.com/mobile) for the latest schedules and lineups.
Not everything is ticketed: there are tons of free events, both official and unofficial. Top of the heap is the charity concert on the Lady Bird Lake stage. There are also tons of launch parties, corporate parties and talks you can attend or crash. In 2016, the USA network set up an incredible Mr Robot amusement park with free rides and t-shirts and Google made a giant claw machine with prizes such as smartphones up for grabs.
Accommodations fill up quickly, so book early and expect to pay increased rates. Even AirBnB options get hammered, though you might find enterprising locals offering ‘tent’ space in their backyards.
Note that Uber and Lyft don’t operate in Austin: they pulled out after city legislators wanted to run fingerprinting background checks on their drivers. You can still use ride-sharing companies such as Ride Austin (rideaustin.com) and Ride Fare (ridefare.com).
Sniff out all the free stuff with a little bit of detective work on Twitter and the Unofficial SXSW Guide (facebook.com/unofficialsxswguide). The SXSW Party List (facebook.com/SXSWPartyList) is worth keeping an eye on as well.
Lastly, keep your eyes peeled for celebrities! We shook hands with Ethan Hawke on the street, grabbed a selfie with Seth Rogen and waved to Ruth Negga and Dominic Cooper in 2016. Check out the film lineup (schedule.sxsw.com/films) and have your cell phone at the ready. Ditto the music lineup (schedule.sxsw.com/artists).
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