If there was any doubt in your mind whether Austin lives up to its reputation as the Live Music Capital of the World, it would take about thirty seconds of South By Southwest experience to make you a believer in not only the music talent of the town, but both its flair for film and burgeoning tech scene as well.
A three-part festival celebrating all different types of creative works, South By Southwest (SXSW) 2015 is taking place over the course of 10 days—March 13-22—this year. And whether it’s to view movies that are often award-winning and frequently bizarre at the Film component, to listen to speeches by famous panelists and get a glimpse of the technology of the future at Interactive, or simply to discover a new favorite band or 20 during Music, serious fans of artists and innovators (along with people hoping to discover a new something or someone to be a fan of) flock from all over the world to Austin for this trifecta of a festival.
And besides the more official aspects of SXSW—the shows, films, talks and demonstrations—there’s a big part of the picture that drives young people in particular to attend: the huge party scene. Taking place all over the city, the sponsored shindigs—frequently complete with free food and booze—often serve as the sole inspiration for younger crowds to come out to Austin.
After all, with all that talent on display, you’ve got to celebrate it, right?
If you’re making the pilgrimage for this event of epic proportions, the first thing you’ll need, of course, is a place to sleep—namely because your plan to “rock and roll all night and party every day” probably isn’t going to pan out. For hotels, it’s wise to book in advance, as thousands of people swarm the city for SXSW every year, and rooms are a hot commodity. (No, really: according to Billboard.com, last year’s festival attracted 44,500 registrants and a total of 134,000 attendees who attended at least one event–accounting for, according to SXSW.com, 60,458 room nights booked in 71 official hotels. Wow.)
But if you really make an effort to book your accommodation in advance, you’ll find Austin is full of lovely, original options. The Driskill, for example, has been around since the 1800s and is a beautiful, historic hotel—which, as a bonus, is rumored to be haunted—right in the heart of downtown, just steps away from the SXSW action. The Hotel San Jose is iconic as well, and located in a charming spot on South Congress, surrounded by cafes, coffee shops and more. It’s also convenient, as festival venues are easily accessible from the hotel via walking and public transportation. And a quaint, easygoing option exists in Heywood Hotel, which is located on the East Side, the most hip, up-and-coming area of Austin, where many of South By’s biggest and craziest shows and parties take place.
However, for a more interesting and outside-the-box option for your accommodations, you could also opt to bunk at the home of an actual Austinite. Many residents take advantage of the influx of visitors needing a place to stay by packing their bags, posting an ad on Craigslist, and renting out their houses or apartments for the duration of the festival. If you’re comfortable staying with someone in their home when they’re still there, that’s also a generally affordable possibility with Airbnb, a site which people use to advertise and rent out unused space in their homes. And if you’re feeling frugal and friendly and don’t mind sleeping on a couch, air mattress or, um, even floor—couchsurfing is always an interesting and free(!) option, through which you’re bound to meet some cool and interesting people. (However, though there’s technically no cost, giving your host a small gift of some sort—usually beer—is definitely recommended.)
STEPS TO PREP
The best way to describe South by Southwest is organized chaos, and there’s so much going on that the question is not what to do, but how to do it all—and that, unfortunately, is impossible. The thing about this festival that differentiates it from many is that it isn’t concentrated in one area, but instead takes place simultaneously in venues all over the city. And because of that, the best way to dominate the SXSW scene lies in planning ahead and prioritizing, and—when that doesn’t work—simply adapting.
Wristbands and badges are available for sale and grant different levels of access to both official and unofficial shows, parties, panels and more, but credentials aren’t necessary for entry at all events, and many of the best ones are free and open to the public. The key step is the ever-important RSVPing process, which is typically as simple as finding events online—Do512.com has an extensive database—and just signing up. And if you find the massive amount of events requiring an RSVP overwhelming (or you’re sensing oncoming Carpal Tunnel Syndrome from typing your email address for the hundredth time) there’s RSVPster.com, a website which—for a fee—will take your information and painlessly register you for the dozens of parties you’re eligible for. All you have to do is sit back, relax, and watch the confirmation emails pile up in your inbox.
Besides SXSW-oriented events, there are plenty of other tourist to-do’s that deserve your time and serve as a great way to get away from the madness, relax and recharge.
If you’re looking for some activities that are, well, active, Austin boasts plenty of places where you can score some fresh air and beautiful scenery without venturing outside the city limits. Located right in the center of the city, ever so slightly south of downtown, you’ll find Lady Bird Lake. Surrounded by a 10-mile hike and bike trail, it’s ideal for a run, walk or ride, and boasts views of both the lake and the skyline (plus some excellent people watching). And you don’t have to simply look at the lake; kayak, canoe and paddleboard rentals are also available, so you can opt to go aquatic and navigate some of the city by water as well.
If you want to take a dip, minutes from the lake is Barton Springs Pool. A favorite spot of Austin residents, the spring-fed, three-acre pool maintains a temperature of around 70 degrees year-round, making it perfect for a swim anytime. Meanwhile, the sprawling grass hills surrounding the pool are ideal for some serious sunbathing, if staying high and dry is more up your alley.
And finally, though not exactly an activity per se, there’s one aspect of Austin that can’t be ignored—one more claim to fame (besides music, bars and awesome outdoor adventures) that residents hold dear—and that’s the tacos. While it sounds silly, this is one dish that people in this city simply can’t do without, and there are seemingly infinite restaurants, trailers and trucks peddling different varieties. A few noteworthy spots worth checking out include Juan in a Million, a little restaurant selling a massive “Don Juan” taco that’s even made an appearance on Man vs. Food; Torchy’s, a Texas chain peddling finger-lickin’ fillings like fried avocados; Bouldin Creek Café, where even vegans can indulge with a tasty, tortilla-wrapped tofu scramble; and Tacodeli, a local fan favorite that has even won readers poll awards in the Austin Chronicle.
THE ULTIMATE SXSW STRATEGY
In the end, the best way to approach South By Southwest is with a “go-with-the-flow” philosophy. Stroll down world-renowned Sixth Street, where music is blasting from every one of the bars that line the street; venture through all of downtown, where entire parking lots have been taken over by big brands hosting big acts (and often serving free booze); head on over to Rainey Street, where old houses that were converted permanently into bars now set the scene for big house parties; or check out the hipster-approved, hole-in-the-wall bars east of the freeway and post up on a packed patio to enjoy a beer and your new favorite band. Even without a plan, you’re sure to stumble upon something awesome—and the next “Most Played” artist on your iPod.
Sam Sumpter is a Texas girl with a heart in California and an urge to travel, well, everywhere. The editor of Study Breaks, a college life magazine, the majority of her writing involves drink specials and profanity, but she loves the opportunity to branch out and write about the things she loves: traveling, music, Seinfeld and brunch—to name a few.