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Eater Austin’s Tips for Getting the Most Out of SXSW

Pitfalls to look out for, the best ways to get around, and how to navigate the busy food and drink scene

An art installation during SXSW
An art installation during SXSW
Aaron Rogosin

Oh yes, it’s almost South by Southwest (SXSW) time. 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 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 13 through Sunday, March 22, covering interactive, film, and music segments.

Logistics

  • 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 means 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 strict and there are tens of thousands of attendees (over 70,000 last year). Considering all of this, have a back-up plan or two in mind.
  • Another important factor to note: As with other years, SXSW overlaps with University of Texas Austin’s spring break and St. Patrick’s Day. This translates to even larger crowd potential. On Tuesday, March 17, be on the lookout for hoards of people clad in green in search of beer.
  • Those attending film screenings at the Paramount and Stateside Theatre won’t be allowed to bring in food or drink. There’s also a strict bag policy for those two venues.

Getting Around

Don’t bother driving. Traffic will be worse than usual during SXSW and many streets are closed, anyway. Use car services such as local nonprofit rideshare service Ride Austin, Lyft, and Uber). Electric scooters and dockless bikes are another option, though keep in mind that these services might be banned in certain busy SXSW areas. Other possibilities include buses, commuter rails, festival shuttles, pedicabs, or good old-fashioned walking. (Please do wear comfortable shoes.)

SXSW’s main hub is in downtown Austin. This includes the Austin Convention Center, the JW Marriott, the Paramount Theatre, the Fairmont (where a good majority of the food programming will take place), and most of Rainey Street. It all really comes alive during the interactive and film segments of the festival. The secondary hub is film-focused. Find it across the river at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar. During the music shows, SXSW’s footprint expands into East Austin and Red River.

COVID-19

Despite the Change.Org petition urging SXSW organizers to cancel the festival in light of the COVID-19 (aka novel coronavirus or novel coronavirus) outbreak, the event is not canceled. Several big companies, however, have pulled out of SXSW, including Twitter, Facebook, Intel, Mashable, TikTok, Amazon, Vevo, and Intel.

The SXSW organizers note that they’re working with Austin Public Health (APH) in order to ensure the safety of the city and attendees. APH determined that the “threat from coronavirus remains low” (as of Tuesday, February 25), and that no Texas health departments “have requested the cancellation of any gatherings as the current risk of person-to-person spread in their jurisdictions remains low” (as of Friday, February 28).

Mayor Steve Adler reiterated during a press conference held on Wednesday, March 4 that there are no plans to cancel the festival, unless the “recommendation from the medical panel changes.”

To note: As of now, the global mortality rate for COVID-19 is 3.4 percent, whereas the flu generally kills “far fewer than one percent of those infected,” explained Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director of the World Health Organization, during a news conference on Monday, March 2.

Giancarlo Esposito at the Los Pollos Hermanos pop-up during SXSW
Giancarlo Esposito at the Los Pollos Hermanos pop-up during SXSW
Nadia Chaudhury/EATX

Food & Drink & Fun

SX’s food trailer park SouthBites isn’t happening again, nor is cheese-filled Cheeselandia. But there’s so much to dig into this year. Here are some highlights and things to keep in mind.

Franklin 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 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!

And if you’re really stuck on eating Franklin Barbecue: pay a visit to the restaurant’s Tacos & Coffee truck, found in the parking lot. The same brisket is one of many possible fillings, including chorizo, patty sausages, guacamole, and potatoes.

Tacos: When it comes to tacos: everyone knows about Torchy’s and Tacodeli. No offense to the city-born chains, there’s a lot more to tacos in Austin. Take the always-awesome Veracruz All Natural, which has several locations throughout the the city. This includes the centrally located truck found right on East Cesar Chavez, but those looking for a more low-key affair should trek to the truck parked at South Austin cafe and bar Radio Coffee & Beer.

Other restaurants: Many restaurants and bars tend to be booked for private events and brand activations — 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.

Likewise, food trucks tend to shuffle more into and throughout downtown Austin to take advantage of the crowds, especially around the convention center.

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. That being said, be sure to keep cash at hand so you can tip your servers and bartenders very well because they’re working super hard.

Plan downtime. It’s impossible to do all the things and if you try too hard, you will emerge from SXSW a zombie with a cold. Allow yourself days with late starts and try to get away from the crowds to explore Austin’s rich food scenes.

Most important of all: be open to anything. The beauty of SXSW is just exploring.

March 4: This article has been updated to include information about the novel coronavirus and its potential effects to SXSW.

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