Come for the festival, stay for city. What Austin lacks in major tourist attractions, it makes up for with charming, offbeat experiences and amazing food. Take some time out from the shows to marvel at the largest urban bat colony in the world, pay your respects to a Cathedral of Junk, do a hot sauce tasting, take a dip in a year-round natural spring-fed pool, or relax in a beer garden-bake shop comb joint.
After rocking out to your favorite bands, refuel with the best barbecue in town or some Tex-Mex and refreshing avocado margaritas. Or take my guided tour of the city’s famous food truck scene and pick out whatever mouth-watering selection looks most tempting. I’ll set you up with the most reliable SXSW apps so that you can stay in tune with the party scene. And I’ve found a couple of lodging options that fall within your budget and are within a few miles of the downtown; but you’ll have to jump on them quickly – places are filling up!
In Between Sets
Because your day-by-day itinerary will depend on the SXSW shows that you want to see, I’m providing suggestions by neighborhood instead of giving you daily plans. The restaurants, bars, and attractions that are close to one another will be grouped together so that you can easily visit the entire set when you find yourself in that area.
In between shows and sets, you’ll want to refuel and rest your eardrums. The downtown area is full of eateries and stores that can provide festival respite.
While in town, you’ll want to try some of that famous Texas BBQ, and the best spot in town is Franklin Barbecue. There’s almost always a line at this popular, lunchtime-only spot. But once you try the brisket, you’ll agree that this place is worth the wait.
For something lighter, head to the Whole Foods Flagship Store. This is the same market you know and love, only on steroids. The prepared foods section seems to go on for miles and includes a sushi bar, taco stand, wood-burning pizza oven, and a massive salad bar. Check out the walk-in beer freezer and the wine bar, which frequently offers free tastings.
For some relaxed, daytime drinking check out Easy Tiger, a combination bakeshop and beer garden featuring outdoor ping pong along the canal. Their food is also incredible, so it makes for a good dining spot.
A tasting at the Tears of Joy Hot Sauce Shop offers a unique culinary experience. The store’s sauces are grouped by heat, and you can try as many as you want during your visit. The helpful staff will also work with you to find a flavor that meets your specific sauce needs.
Food Truck Frenzy
Austin is famous for its food truck scene, boasting over 1,000 mobile eateries. With so many options, it can be overwhelming to choose – and track down – the rolling kitchens serving up the best dishes. This half-day, self-guided food truck tour will take you through South Austin and will point out interesting attractions where you can kill time until you’re hungry enough for your next bite.
Start with lunch at Hey!… You Gonna Eat or What?, a creative sandwich shop located at the top of the South Congress Ave. strip, famous for their beer-battered Monte Cristo, served with a side of homemade cherry-fig jam. As your lunch settles, browse the boulevard’s quirky boutiques, making sure to wander the side streets to check out the charming bungalows.
A donut at Gourdough’s near the southern end of the avenue makes for an interesting snack. Here you’ll find one-of-a-kind flavors like the Funky Monkey, made with grilled bananas, brown sugar, and cream cheese icing, and the Flying Pig, a bacon and maple flavored concoction.
Consider hailing a taxi or making the 2.5-mile trek to the Cathedral of Junk. Here, you can marvel at the treasures found inside this three-story art installation created from scrap metal and other “junk” that resides in the backyard of South Austin resident Vince Hannemann. Reservations are required, so call a few days ahead!
Head back towards the city to the South Lamar district for dinner at the East Side King. This Asian fusion joint features the creations of celebrity chef Paul Qui and is the star of the Austin food trucks scene. Standout dishes include the pork belly buns and the beet fries. If you still have room in your stomach, a light dessert option is a snow cone from South Austin Sno; the Orchid Cream Vanilla ice is too good to pass up!
Chillin Out in SoCo
Austin’s SoCo, or South Congress, neighborhood is one of the city’s trendiest; there are lots of great places in this area to chill out and escape the madness of downtown.
Magnolia Cafe has the best hangover brunch in town; enjoy a short stack in its casual and eclectic dining room.
Curra’s Grill has a lively atmosphere, outdoor seating, and some of the best TexMex in town… don’t miss their avocado margarita.
Nearby Whip In is quintessential Austin quirky in the form of a cowboy/yogi hybrid beer bar – it has 72 varieties on tap.
A Dose of Vitamin D
If you’re feeling like you’re spending too much time in dark, dive bars, take an afternoon to bask in the great outdoors. Zilker Park is home to Barton Springs Pool, a naturally spring-fed soaking spot that stays between 68 and 72 degrees year-round. Even if the weather is too chilly for swimming, the poolside lawn makes for a great spot to soak up the sun.
After a dip, check out the park’s vibrant Botanical Garden and the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum. Finish your afternoon with a stroll on the Butler Trail, which runs along the river. Try to time your afternoon so that you make it to the Congress Avenue Bridge around sunset. The 1.5 million creatures that make up the world’s largest urban bat colony are in town from March until November, and they are active at dusk.
Just across the river, you’ll find the lion’s share of the city’s upscale restaurants. Pick one with a patio so that you can continue to enjoy Austin’s lovely March weather. La Condesa, with its gourmet Mexican fare and exciting Latin vibe, is a great choice.
SXSW GO… is the festival’s official app that lets you build and view your personal schedule.
Banjo… is an app with a special SXSW section that allows you to see what’s going on around the conference in real time