South by Southwest (SXSW) is back this month — after one cancellation, one virtual iteration, and its first in-person/virtual hybrid this decade (which is now the norm). Whether you’re a veteran attendee, a local who participates in the mayhem, or someone who happens to be visiting Austin for the first time (though trust us, the city is very, very, very different during these ten days), SXSW is a huge undertaking.
Eater Austin is here to help with very crucial tips and advice to help master the sprawling festival from Friday, March 10 through Sunday, March 19, covering interactive, film, and music segments with plenty of food and drinks.
You don’t necessarily need to have an official badge or wristband to partake in many of the hundreds upon hundreds of panels, parties, dinners, concerts, and so on during SXSW; you just have to be willing to wait in lines. While, yeah, most SXSW-affiliated events mean badges or wristbands are required or prioritized, there are still many events that are also open to the public.
Events and parties tend to fill up fast, so you might not get into your first-, second-, or even third-choice programs. Capacity numbers for venues are typically strict, and will probably still be stricter this year, and it’s safe to expect a lot of attendees this year. Considering all of this, have a backup plan, or two, three, or four in mind.
If there are specific official SXSW panels and movies you want to attend, it’s worth downloading the festival app and requesting express passes for desired events through SXXpress Pass. Bookings are available the day before said events at 9 a.m.
Another important factor to note: As with other years, SXSW’s music portion overlaps with the University of Texas at Austin’s spring break and Saint Patrick’s Day (which means hoards of people clad in green in search of possibly green beer). This translates to an even larger crowd potential.
Those attending film screenings at the Paramount (where Eva Longeria’s biopic film about the supposed creator of the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos will premiere) and State theatres won’t be allowed to bring in food or drink. There’s also a strict bag policy for those two venues: only clear bags.
This year’s SX is a hybrid event with both in-person and virtual events. The SXSW Online Pass includes access to almost all of the festival’s sessions, speakers, and keynote, all of which will be available through the online schedule, official app, and television apps, with live and on-demand availabilities. This year, however, virtual access doesn’t include films and television screenings or music concerts, but there is some access to red-carpet interviews.
Regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival’s previous vaccination/boosters/testing/masking requirements are now recommendations. The organizers also ask that if an attendee tests positive for COVID, exhibits symptoms, or has been around someone with COVID that they do not come. Masks are encouraged and will be available for free use.
Don’t bother driving. Traffic will be worse than usual during SXSW and many downtown and Barton Creek neighborhood streets will be closed, anyway. Use car services such as Lyft to get between neighborhoods. Electric scooters and dockless bikes are other options, though keep in mind that these services might be banned in certain busy SXSW areas, and also don’t be that dope who leaves the scooter/bike in the middle of the sidewalk/road. Other possibilities include Capital Metro buses, commuter rails, festival shuttles, pedicabs, or good old-fashioned walking (wear comfortable shoes.)
SXSW’s main hub is in downtown Austin. This includes the Austin Convention Center, the Paramount Theatre, many of the area’s hotels, and most of Rainey Street. The region all really comes alive during the interactive and film segments of the festival. SX’s secondary hub is film-focused. Find it across the river at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar. And then, during the heavier music portion of the week, the festival’s footprint expands into East Austin and onto Red River.
Dress weather-appropriate: March is that fun time in Austin where the weather is all over the place, especially so during SXSW. At the publishing time of this guide, there is potential rain on the first day and temperatures in the high 50s the first two days. And then temperatures will climb into the high 60s and low 70s during the daytime for the rest of the festival. Still, wear layers, be prepared for potential rain, and carry around sunscreen.
Food & Drink & Fun
Long gone is SX’s old food trailer park SouthBites. And again this year, the cheese-filled Cheeselandia, the fancy James Beard Foundation-backed dinners, and Rachael Ray’s food-filled Feedback event don’t seem to be happening either. But there’s so much else to dig into this year. Here are some highlights and things to keep in mind.
Be respectful: Follow each venue/bar/restaurant’s rules, and just generally, be kind to hospitality staff — it’s a stressful time, don’t be a jerk.
Tip very well: While, yes, many official and adjacent SXSW events are free with plentiful free drinks and food, keep cash at hand to tip your servers and bartenders very, very well because they’re working super hard.
Barbecue: Okay, first things first: Do you really want to spend your time during SXSW waiting in line at the award-winning Franklin Barbecue? If you didn’t place your preorders ahead of time, don’t bother. There are plenty of easier and just as amazing barbecue places to enjoy nearby. Keep in mind: If the weather is cold and/or rainy, the Franklin Barbecue line might possibly be short. In which case, go for it! If you’re looking for a barbecue spot outside of SXSW central, cross the river and head to Distant Relatives in the southeast Austin area.
Another really important thing to keep in mind: in Texas, barbecue is more of a lunch thing than a dinner thing (though, yes, there are restaurants open for dinner hours).
Tacos: When it comes to tacos: everyone knows about Torchy’s and Tacodeli. No offense to the city-born chains, but there’s a lot more to tacos in Austin. Take the always-awesome Veracruz All Natural, which has several locations throughout the city. This includes the centrally located restaurant found right on Congress and East Cesar Chavez at the Line Hotel, but those looking for a more low-key affair should trek to the truck parked at South Austin cafe and bar Radio Coffee & Beer. Likewise, head slightly north of East SXSW central and check out Cuantos Tacos. But also, if you see a taco truck while rambling around, it’s worth checking out.
Other restaurants: Many restaurants and bars tend to be booked for private events and brand takeovers — even at the last minute. Before heading out to dinner without a reservation, call ahead to make sure your restaurant or bar of choice is actually open and maybe be prepared to wait. Again, be kind.
Likewise, food trucks tend to shuffle more into and throughout downtown Austin to take advantage of the crowds, especially around the convention center. Seek out Austin’s core food truck zones: Rainey Street, East Cesar Chavez, East Sixth, Barton Springs, etc., etc.
Stay hydrated: Throughout the length of the festival, it’s important to drink lots and lots of water and to make sure you eat, because, you know, there’s so much free booze.
Plan downtime. It’s impossible to do all the things and if you try too hard, you will emerge from SXSW as a zombie. Allow yourself days with late starts and try to get away from the crowds to explore Austin’s rich food scenes. And along those lines…
Dine local. If you’re venturing into Austin from out of town, support local restaurants and businesses. They still need it after everything.
With all of this in mind, the most important of all: be open to anything. The beauty of SXSW is just exploring.