I lived in Austin for 12 years, and not only is SXSW my favorite thing that happens in Austin… it’s my favorite thing that happens period. If I were to somehow win a trip around the world on Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy, and it was scheduled during SXSW, I’d have to say “naw, I’m good.”
The only year that there was any question if I was going to go or not was my Freshman year in college. I went to college at The University of Texas at Austin – just blocks away from the epicenter of SXSW. The organizers of the festival have wisely timed SXSW to coincide with the Texas colleges’ spring breaks, so I was left with the decision between South Padre Island and its infamous college kid debauchery – or a Multimedia/Film/Music festival I knew little about. (SXSW interactive was called “multimedia” at the time). I took a chance and decided to stay in Austin, even though it meant I’d have to sleep on a friend’s couch as the dorms were closed during spring break.
That first year at the festival was pretty amazing, but a huge pain at the same time. I didn’t know much about the city or festival, smartphones and their awesome apps had yet to be invented, and the amount of online resources about the festival at that time was scarce at best. In the years following that first year, my knowledge of the ins and outs of the festival grew along with smartphones and the mobile web, as well as the size and coverage of the festival. Long story short, here are some tips I learned the hard way on how to get the most out of SXSW:
1) RSVP TO EVERYTHING IN SIGHT
There are hundreds of parties everyday, all over the city, all overlapping each other. You never know which ones are going to be at capacity, or your friend’s or new business connection can’t get into, or will be totally lame. The best bet is the shotgun approach. It can be a bit time consuming to RSVP to every single party – so a very cool service rsvpster offers to RSVP to all of the parties for you (for a $30 fee). Hurry though, their service is nearing capacity from what I hear.
If they do hit capacity, or you just prefer to DIY –
$5 – SXShhhh has organized up-to-date info for RSVP’ing to all of the parties all for $5
Free – Eventbrite’s master SXSW List
Free – do512.com (this was my go-to site for all things Austin when I lived there)
Free – the 5th annual sched.org SXSW guide (this thing is fairly indispensable, especially if you wanna scope out some free food/booze.) It allows you to sort by “free drinks” “free food” “is there a band?” -etc. Works great on your phone too.
Speaking of your phone, it is your lifeline…
2) Keep your phone charged, seriously, for real
You’ll be getting directions on where to go, how to get there, getting your schedule, texting your friends, and likely use it to become someone I want to punch when you hold it up and record an entire concert in front of me. So, you’ll be using your phone much more than usual, therefore draining the battery. You also need it more than ever to connect to the ever moving herds of your friends. You don’t want to miss out on the text that your friend just got a +1 to a Radiohead concert in the basement of a bookstore, right?
I know it seems obvious, but you need to keep this thing juiced up to make the most of the festival. There are charging stations at certain venues, but do you really want to have to stand guard over your charging cell phone instead of enjoying the festivities?
- If you have an Android device, bring a spare battery, preferribly an extended capacity one. And since my Android EATS batteries on top of carrying 2 extended batteries, I carry a battery charger as well. (Even if it comes in handy once, it’s paid for itself.)
- If you have an iPhone – get a battery recharging station, an extended case, or something to keep you from being left hangin’.
3) Use the heck out of apps to make the most of your experience
Whether you’re there for SXSWi and looking to network, or there for the music portion as a fan – there are TONS of awesome apps that multiply the awesomeness of SXSW.
- Bump App – just bump phones to share contact info via iPhone, Android – sooo much easier than keeping up with cards. You can even share the tunes of a band you’re about to see.
- SXSW official app – this one is a no-brainer.. but maybe I saved you some typing?
- CAR2GO – Cabs can be impossible to get during SXSW – buses are full, subway is non-existent. Car2Go is on demand car sharing. Find a car2go with the app; use your card to get in; pay per minute for how long you use it. Hey, Car2Go: COME TO BOSTON!
- Foodspotting – SXSW can be a hectic time to have a good meal. Fortunately, Austin is FULL of amazing food trucks. Seriously, if you sort the top 10 scoring restaurants on Yelp, 8 of them are food trucks. Foodspotting helps you track down where the best trucks are, and see pictures of stuff you can shove in your face there. Not an app- but also check out www.truxmap.com/austin for real time data on where the trucks are.
- Happy Hours – SXSW is basically one giant happy hour… and Austin has one of the best happy hour scenes in the world. If you feel like taking a bit of a break from the madness, check out this app.
You won’t often see the words “don’t” and “unicorn” together in a sentence I’ve written. Typically all things unicorn are “do’s” in my book . 🙂 But in this case, what I mean by this is, if you are at a decent to good party, and you heard of an EPIC party that starts in 5 mins, chances are, that ship has sailed. Unless you know someone, or are some kinda crazy VIP (still, be skeptical) – epic parties cause equally epic lines. If you really want to get into an event, get there early, because chances are, others want to be at that same event.
5) Drink like a local
Bloody mary’s are a way of life in Austin, and there are many places that basically feed you a meal with all of the amazing garnish they put into their Bloody’s.
Drink local beer: Shiner brewery is just 90 miles away, and I have yet to try a brew they make that isn’t killer. I’m particularly fond of their Hefeweizen.
Other breweries of note: Live Oak, Independence, Austin Beerworks, Adelberts, I could go on and on.
TRY A MICHELADA. It’s limey-salty goodness – takes beer to a whole new level.
Want cheap? – Drink Lone Star- its not going to win any awards for fine craftsmanship, but its “The National Beer of Texas.” It’s always dirt cheap, and the bottles have fun puzzles on the underside of their bottlecaps.
6) While in Austin – DO NOT eat at a chain restaurant
(unless its Chuys- we’ll give them a pass because they are a local chain and kinda awesome.) You may have seen shirts around Austin and around the country that say “Keep Austin Weird” on them. This is the slogan for the Austin Independent Business Alliance to promote patronage of locally owned shops/bars/restaurants. By doing so, you “keep Austin weird” because it retains its own personality and there isn’t a TGI ChiliBee’s on every block.
7) Don’t forget about the East Side aka “venture out past the convention center/6th street”
The East side of highway 35 is where many of the locals hangout. In fact, I’m writing this post from Rio Rita on East 6th Street. The east side has many of my favorite places in Austin. The Liberty, Shangri-La, Rio Rita. All places with big, dog-friendly patios where you can chill and see all kinds of colorful locals.
8) Eat like a local
There will be tons of free food at all of the parties you go to, and this is great for food on the go – and hey, the price is right, even if the food has been sitting out for awhile and is not the optimal temperature. But Austin is a culinary oasis and has some not-to-be-missed spots. Food trucks in Austin have been really heavily covered ad-nauseum in a million other places, so I’ll just touch on my 4 favorites:
Bomb Tacos – these tacos are indeed “(the) bomb” – hardcore street-mex from a truck, in the backyard of one of the cooler bars in Austin, Lustre Pearl. Where else can you hula hoop or play ping-pong out doors while you wait for your portabella tacos or heaping pile of nachos?
Kebabalicious – Awesome Isreali food – right in the mix of things at 7th and Trinity. Great falafel and schwarma – bonus points for getting a pic with your wrap in the photobooth of Mugshots across the street, which is a popular hangout for Austin’s comedians.
Original Torchy’s – the first location of the Torchy’s empire is in the S. 1st Street trailer park (which is a collection of food trucks/stands) won’t win a ton of points for being authentic Mexican food – but daaaaang is it tasty. The queso is my favorite in the city, and their breakfast tacos have saved my life many a Sunday morning.
East Side King – My buddy Paul Qui (yes I’m namedropping) just won Top Chef, and these are his food trucks. – I think that says it all.
South First Street
Mexican food is a religion in Austin- and S 1st is Mecca. When I first moved here I didn’t understand how dozens of Mexican places mere yards from each other could all stay in business. The answer: because Mexican food is awesome, and this strip gives you enough variety in style just in this strip, that they can all co-exist nicely. My favorites:
La Mexican Bakery (for late night action) – 24 hour Mexican food, and authentic Mexican pastries – seriously.
Polvos – this might be my favorite place to eat in town. It’s interior Mexican food (there is more than just Tex-Mex). It’s often busy, they often play Ghostland Observatory or other hip bands at max volume, and they always have AMAZING food. They make their own amazing corn tortillas, their guacamole is absurdly good, and their salsa bar is something I’ve literally dreamt about since moving to Boston. The Chiles Rellenos al Nogal might be my death row last meal (let’s hope we don’t have to find out.)
9) Ditch your car
Rent a bike, borrow a bike, take cabs (if you can get one), take the bus – do whatever you can to not have to drive downtown; parking and the street closures are a nightmare. Having a bike is amazing. You can get from one venue to the next in minutes, and you’ll miss far fewer events that you’d love to attend.
10) Bring a backpack to take home all the schwag
Companies drop some serious cash to provide you with schwag you actually want during SXSW. – So bring something to cart it around in. My first couple of years I found myself passing on a cool shirt, hat, iPhone case, grub, etc – just because I didn’t have any place to stash it. So, bring a bag to squeege all the good stuff.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, I could literally write 200 pages on this because of my intense love for this festival.
If I missed something, or you want to know more, or even want to buy me a free beer during SXSW. Happy SXSW!