If you live in Austin year-round, go ahead and skip this, unless you’re bored and reading this in your car while at a standstill in bumper-to-bumper traffic trying to get through downtown (note: this is illegal)—and with both the Austin school district and the University of Texas in session for the first time in years during SXSW, there’ll probably be even more traffic than usual. If you’re a visitor, meanwhile, welcome! You’ve come to Austin for the ten days of the year when the city least resembles itself. It’s a fun time to be in town, but any visitors guides to Austin that you’ve seen are more or less useless right now. Places where you can just show up at during the rest of the year are likely to be rented out by Michelob Ultra or Doc Martens or somebody at a rate of thousands of dollars a day. A restaurant with hot buzz might be closed up at 2 o’clock in the afternoon for a private party with Seth Rogen and his friends.
This isn’t how Austin is the rest of the year. We have our local celebrities, but if you bump into Matthew McConaughey or Elijah Wood around town during peacetime, the deal is that they don’t cut in line ahead of the non-famous, and the non-famous let them enjoy their meal in peace. During SXSW, though—welcome to Hollywood, Texas.
It’s not all bad. Austin isn’t itself during SXSW, but what it becomes is pretty fascinating. An entire second city pops up on top of the empty parking lots and dormant storefronts that normally dot downtown. Long-dead music venues like the Red River location of the legendary Emo’s, closed since 2011, lurch back to life (check out a show at “The Main” on Sixth Street during the festival). Stretches of land that somehow don’t have a luxury hotel or condos on them yet instead turn into Amazon’s “Good Omens Garden of Earthly Delights” or “A Sunset Mass Meditation.” Seemingly every brand borrows a whole bunch of puppies from the local animal shelter to give badge-holders something cuddly to pet while they nurse their hangovers. It’s a trade-off but one that’s usually worth making.
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Still, that leaves a question: How do you navigate the city-within-the-city for ten days in March? Is there a way to have an authentic Austin experience, to be able to say that you’ve seen the city, while all of this is going on? Are the BBQ and tacos really that good? Stick around for the answers.
Where to Get Barbecue
You’ve heard of Franklin Barbecue? Yep, it’s great. It’s so great, in fact, that if the restaurant isn’t closed for a private event, it’s going to have a line all the way around the block starting extremely early (show up around 8 a.m.), and it’ll sell out before most SXSW-ers are out of bed. If you’re the sort of person who insists on having only the best, then Franklin really is that good.
But you’re not royalty. Maybe you don’t actually need barbecue that can be obtained only by spending your entire morning in a lawn chair, waiting for the signal that the feast can begin. Great! You can spend your morning doing whatever it is you like to do, then hit up Micklethwait Craft Meats, the East Austin trailer that was number eight on our Top 50 list of best barbecue joints. Or head over to another great Top 50 spot, la Barbecue.
For a while, the reputation of Iron Works BBQ was that it was mostly just the closest barbecue to the Austin Convention Center—over the past few years, though, it’s gone from “convenient” to “actually good.” Texas Monthly BBQ editor Daniel Vaughn stands by the ribs, house-made sausage, and any cobbler they’ve got on hand that day. Over by the Long Center, your best bet is Terry Black’s Barbecue, on Barton Springs Road. It serves both lunch and dinner.
If you’re heading down south (more on getting around later), hit up the LeRoy and Lewis food truck, which is a less traditional take on the menu—brisket is sold only on Saturdays, but beef cheeks, whole hog pork, and barbacoa (plus sausage)—are daily offerings. If you want to really get off the beaten path, though, there’s Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ, which is one hundred percent delicious even though you’ll spend a while getting there—it’s about twelve miles south of the convention center, but it’s extremely legit, and you can kill two birds with one stone by getting A+ barbecue and A+ tacos in a single trip.
Also, since this is SXSW, we’ll throw in a quick life-hack, in case you’re desperate to try Aaron Franklin’s brisket but can’t commit to the aforementioned line: Check out Loro, which opened up after SXSW last year, outside of the immediate festival zone. The new joint is a partnership between two James Beard Award winners: the famed pitmaster and Tyson Cole, of Uchi. While the whole menu is more adventurous than just barbecue, with lots of Asian influences, they do serve smoked beef brisket starting at 5 p.m.—but we’d get there early, especially during SXSW.
What About Tacos?
Most of the time, if someone is taking you out for Mexican food in Austin, that means tacos that cost like $2-$5 each, depending what’s on ’em and where you go. Suerte is a different sort of place, but it’s worth it—for duck breast mole or wagyu fajita plates served with fresh, hot corn tortillas, as well as tlacoyos, and other majestic examples of the different ways that Mexican food can be prepared. It’s open for dinner daily (including Lucky Hour from 5 to 6 p.m.) and weekend brunch.
Right smack-dab in the middle of the SXSW madness downtown, you can head to the Fareground food hall and hit up Dai Due Taqueria, the tortilla-wrapped side project from beloved Austin butcher shop/farm-to-table hotspot Dai Due. Expect game meats—wild boar, venison, etc.—on the locally-sourced rotating menu, and go in with an open mind (and wallet, as the tacos are usually a couple bucks more than you’re expecting).
If you’re not on an expense account—or if you’re craving a more traditional Tex-Mex experience—Veracruz All Natural has blown the heck up from a food truck to a five-location mini-empire in the past couple years by doing an extremely good job at everything a local taqueria can do well. For SXSW folks, that’ll probably mean the truck on Cesar Chavez between Chalmers and Chicon, where breakfast tacos start at $2.50, fajitas are three bucks, and the aguas frescas are friggin’ delicious.
If you find yourself hungry while you’re on the other side of downtown, meanwhile, Fresa’s Chicken al Carbon is pretty great. Despite the name, it’s not strictly a chicken place—you can get beef fajitas, brisket, or shrimp on a taco—but the pulled achiote chicken, whether in a taco, a bowl, or a plate, is the star of the show.
How to Get Around
If you’re staying downtown, you can experience most of SXSW on foot—Austin’s not that big, geographically. New Yorkers who are used to putting miles beneath their feet should have no problem. Getting from the Convention Center to a marquee venue like ACL Live is a shorter walk than going from the Javits Center to Madison Square Garden. But not everything at SXSW happens downtown—and sometimes you’re in a hurry.
If that’s the case, Uber and Lyft have been back in Austin for a couple of years, after a yearlong boycott of the city, in 2016. However, because those companies were absent for a while, Austin also has an off-brand local non-profit ride-hailing app called RideAustin. It’s pretty much all the same people on all three apps, but RideAustin pays drivers a little better, so if you want to be your driver’s top priority, ditch the big guys and go local.
Bikes are good, too, although be warned that Texas drivers can be hostile toward cyclists. Everybody is stuck in traffic all the time during SXSW, though, and being able to dart in and out of that traffic on two wheels feels like you’ve discovered a cheat code to life. Austin’s B-cycle is similar to other docked bikeshare services in other cities—pay $12 for all-day access, or $18 for a three-day pass, and hop on a bike for up to sixty minutes at a time. You can drop off the bikes only at designated docks, but the good news is that there are docks most of the places you’d want to go in Austin.
There are also, yes, those f*&king scooters all over town. Lime, Bird, Uber, Lyft, etc—everybody dumped a crap-ton of scooters on the streets of Austin and told people to figure out what to do with them. Austin banned them from Sixth Street during the festival, and SXSW is probably not the best time for inexperienced scooter-riders to start experimenting with this method of transportation—unless they want to help out with a safety study.
If you just can’t get enough of driving, meanwhile, Car2Go also operates in Austin. They’ve got designated drop-off zones so you don’t have to stress about parking, and this way you can get around listening to the music you want to listen to instead of some Uber driver’s favorite jam bands—but take a ride-share if you’re going to be drinking.
What Local Music to See
You’re not going to be hurting for live music to check out at SXSW. So far, the list of big-name acts showing up at the fest includes Miguel, Questlove, Lizzo, and more—and there are usually a handful of superstars who pop up at the last minute. Don’t get suckered by secret show rumors, which were more of an early ’10s thing than the way SXSW works at this point—if somebody is bringing Solange to SXSW, they will want everybody to know about it.
Rather than stand outside some bar for three hours hoping to get in, though, you need to remember that you will be in a city famed for its live music. On a given Tuesday night, that can be a hit-or-miss proposition, but during SXSW, the cream of the city’s crop will be all over town, playing a half dozen shows in a week. You might hit up the EQ Austin showcase, with hot-shit rapper Abhi the Nomad, guitar hero Jackie Venson, Afro-Colombian fusion act Superfonicos, and more taking over the backyard of the Sheraton for the night, giving you a good overview of what the city has to offer.
If you want to see an Austin act that’s rapidly ascending, meanwhile, Black Pumas are all over SXSW. The band features Adrian Quesada—who did a stint as Prince’s guitarist with his other project, Grupo Fantasma—on guitar, and soulful-as-hell singer Eric Burton on vocals. They’ve got at least three official shows, and we wouldn’t be surprised if they pop up for another handful of free day events.
Speaking of free day events, that’s one thing mega-hyped part of the SXSW experience that lives up to the hype. Basically every building in downtown and East Austin turns into a live music venue during the day, and most of the shows are free and don’t require any credentials—just show up, listen, and see what you like. You can do this in a bunch of different places (some dentist’s office has been hosting bands for Mouth By Mouthwest since 2011), but nowhere is likely to be weirder than local moving company MASH Movers’ two-day event, where bands including top-notch Austin indie-folk acts Sun June and Marmalakes will be playing their hearts out in the back of a sweltering moving van. It’s the sort of weirdo experience that people come to SXSW to have, and even all these years into the festival, it still happens.
How to Take Advantage of the Brands
Secretly, the whole point of SXSW might actually be to give people the chance to interact with a whole bunch of brands. It’s a double-edged sword: the brands’ overwhelming presence at a festival intended to highlight art, music, technology, and creativity serves as a reminder that all of those essential human enterprises exist almost exclusively in a branded form at this point, and it’s all but impossible to experience them at a high level without a corporate sponsor of some kind, calling into question whether it’s possible to even have an authentic experience anymore. On the other hand: They usually bring free tacos and stuff.
Accordingly, there’s a ton of branded stuff happening. Both Amazon and NBC Universal/Comcast are hosting events with actual literal puppies for you to pet while you’re out and about. SXSW can be stressful, and petting a dog relieves some of that stress, reminding you that life isn’t all running from venue to venue and day-drinking. You can meet a puppy and hang out with a random collection of famous people: Jordan Peele, Lupita Nyong’o, and Mario Andretti will all be at the NBC Universal event. At the Amazon thing, meanwhile, the second most valuable company in America will be paying for your manicures and hand massages.
Down the block, HBO and Game of Thrones will be doing something-or-other—they’ve announced a secretive event of some kind called “Bleed for the Throne,” where fans are encouraged to donate blood to the Red Cross in exchange for some sort of unique interactive experience related to the decade’s most talked-about show. This doesn’t exactly seem like a great deal—bleeding isn’t super fun—but we’re giving HBO credit for encouraging people to think about something beyond their own gratification in order to participate in a SXSW event, which often devolves into toxic displays of entitlement.
Over at the Twitter House, you can do more random stuff—take an improv class led by Henry Winkler, or maybe enjoy Pet Sematary-themed food and drink, whatever that is—just by waving your badge at the door.
We could go on and on, but we won’t belabor the point: Seemingly every entertainment/food and drink/technology brand has a SXSW presence, they’re all trying to outdo each other, and they have seemingly unlimited budgets. Take advantage of the fact that they’re there so the people who set up the brand activations keep getting paid, the suits can report satisfactory engagement numbers, and you don’t have to actually do something as pedestrian as actually paying for your lunch.
Where to Get Away from the Madness
Austin is big enough that you can have authentic experiences that have nothing to do with SXSW if you just get a few miles away from downtown. (Also, you might not be able to hit up the natural swimming hole beauty of Barton Springs, as it’s closed for much of the festival.)
Here’s one thing you can do that’ll probably blow the minds of the folks back wherever you’re from: You can blow off the last day of SXSW and go check out Rodeo Austin instead. The overlap between the two events is slim—Saturday, March 16 is the only day on which both are going on—but if you’ve made it that far into SXSW, you’re probably exhausted and ready for a break, and nothing screams “I went to the real Texas” like watching as a young cowboy looks for eight when they pull the gate.
If you want an activity that blends the beloved SXSW pastime of day-drinking with the local Austin tradition of getting the hell away from the out-of-towners, meanwhile, you can scratch both itches by heading out to Dripping Springs and taking a tour of the nearby city’s breweries, wineries, and distilleries. There are a lot of them—we’re talking like two dozen—including some hotshot spots like Deep Eddy Vodka and Jester King Brewing.
SXSW isn’t all drinking, and Texas isn’t all rodeos and cowboys, though. If you came to the city for a festival built around creativity—whether it’s the creativity of musicians and filmmakers, of coders, developers, and civic leaders, or of ad agencies putting together increasingly absurd activations for brands—then you can find examples of that that don’t require a badge to get in. Austin’s Blanton Museum of Art, on the UT campus, is home to the monumental work Austin by legendary artist Ellsworth Kelly, a 2,700-square-foot stone structure, the only completed building he designed in his seven-decade career. While you’re there, you check out the Blanton’s new exhibit of Latin American art, Words/Matter.
The main thing to bear in mind with all of this—both getting into SXSW and getting away from it—is that you’ll be spoiled for choice. There are more delicious tacos than a person could ever hope to eat in Austin; there are more bands and films and panels and events that feature world-class talent than you could possibly hope to see; there are more things to do outside of the city than a single day-trip to get away from it all could possibly hope to capture. The key to enjoying Austin during SXSW is to be flexible—some of the things that sound great to you just aren’t gonna happen, while other things that you had no idea where even going on are going to define your time in the city. Get around safely (stay off the scooters unless you’re a professional skateboarder), eat well, clean up after yourself (treating Austin like a toilet is extremely 2010), and have a great time. There are a zillion ways to do it.