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TPG’s Guide to Austin During SXSW 2016

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Depending on which component you’re attending — Interactive from March 11-15 for tech-related news and events; Music from March 11-19; and Film from March 15-20 — you may find yourself frequenting different parts of downtown Austin. Long-time Austin resident and TPG contributor Katherine Fan shares insights gleaned from many years of personal experience attending the city’s annual South by Southwest Festival (SXSW).

Orienting Yourself

Austin’s downtown areas can be divided into several smaller regions along a few major landmarks.

The central region is evenly split between east and west with Congress Avenue as the dividing line. A number of tech companies, start-ups, hotels and banks can be found in this area, as well as local bars, coffee shops and restaurants. Many SXSW Interactive events take place in the southeast quadrant of this region, close to many of Austin’s hotels — like Hyatt Place Austin Downtown and the W Austin — as well as the Austin Convention Center. The Palmer Events Center is just about a mile south of Congress Avenue past the bridge.

While the gentrifying region east of Highway 35 doesn’t host a ton of official SXSW events, the bars in East Austin offer a more laid-back, hipster vibe, and many of the affordable Airbnb options close to downtown are on the East side. Crossing I-35 on foot is relatively straightforward at the street intersections — just be careful of fast-moving cars. Most pedicabs are willing to carry passengers into the area, but car-based options are best for distances beyond half a mile. Parking can be complicated, but it’s usually not as congested as downtown.

Located southeast of the main downtown area, Rainey Street is a former residential neighborhood now taken over by hipster bars and tech start-ups. This area is very difficult to access by car during SXSW due to event blockades, so plan to get dropped off nearby and walk the final few blocks. 

Downtown Austin is flanked by Lamar Blvd to the west; the Texas Capitol to the north; Highway 35 to the east; and Lady Bird Lake to the south.
Downtown Austin is flanked by Lamar Blvd to the west, the University of Texas to the north, Highway 35 to the east and Lady Bird Lake to the south.

Scheduling and Planning Activities

Although South by Southwest attracts more than a hundred thousand visitors to Austin every year, only a fraction of them attend official events. For non-badgeholders, hundreds of concerts, film screenings, and other unofficial events pop up all over town. Here’s how to keep track of what’s going on so you can plan your schedule and party RSVPs ahead of time:

The official SXSW 2016 free events guide highlights gaming, live music outdoors, food, and other fun activities.

Do512, 365 Things to do in Austin, and Austin360 are great resources for Austin-local events, many of which are free. Do512 usually publishes a list of free SXSW parties that are open for public RSVP, although some will require festival badges.

The “Funemployed” Google calendar provides a casual, crowd-sourced list of events taking place around town. Most of the events listed take place year-round and include free yoga at a local coffee shop and daily happy hours at cheap hole-in-the-wall bars.

SXSW attendees often find walking to be the quickest was to get around during busy times. Photo from Shutterstock
SXSW attendees often find walking to be the quickest way to get around during busy times. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Austin Airport Tips

Austin only has one airport; other than that, the nearest one is in San Antonio (SAT), which is more than an hour’s drive away. Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS) itself is relatively small, with just a single terminal and fewer than 30 gates. Precheck and Global Entry travelers will find security a breeze — even the regular lines seem to move pretty quickly. Fast-food chain options are limited inside the terminal, but this Eater feature offers a quick peek into the best options Austin’s local restaurants have to offer.

Although the airport is just a few miles from downtown Austin, it’s always a good idea to budget 30-45 minutes for commute time during peak traffic hours.

The MetroAirport bus operated by Austin’s Capital Metro system is the cheapest option, with rides starting at $1.75 once every 30 minutes on the hour and the half-hour. The airport pick-up spot is located on the far right outside the airport exit. There are also a number of pick-up locations closer to downtown, as well as by the University of Texas campus. Airport-bound buses offer plenty of luggage racks for suitcases, but users will need to have exact change for the bus fare or purchase passes through the metro system’s app. Scan the QR codes at CapMetro bus stops for exact schedule and route information.

Austin's lone airport, while small, boasts three security checkpoints that accept TSA Pre-Check for a quick experience. Photo courtesy of ABIA.
Austin’s lone airport, while small, boasts three security checkpoints that accept TSA Precheck. Image courtesy of ABIA.

Getting Around

Although Austin has grown exponentially in the past decade, its infrastructure (unfortunately) still reflects its small-town roots. Traffic in downtown Austin often turns into a gridlock during rush hour and peak times, while finding street parking during SXSW is next to impossible. In lieu of getting a rental car during one of the busiest times of the year, here are some alternative modes of transportation.

  • Don’t underestimate walking as a commute option, especially during peak traffic times or between conference session times. Although many locals are used to hopping in their cars to go two blocks, walking may actually be the quickest way to get where you need to go. In March, Austin weather should be sunny and warm — just be sure to pack a sturdy pair of sneakers, some drinking water and an umbrella in case of sudden downpours.
  • Austin B-Cycle has more than three dozen stations across downtown Austin, reaching as far north as the University of Texas campus, south to Zilker Park and South Congress and east of I-35 toward East Austin.
  • Pedicabs can be found all over the Austin downtown area. For a pre-negotiated cash payment/tip, pedicab drivers will take you almost anywhere within a two-mile radius of Congress Avenue. Bring cash and enjoy the sights as you rest your tired feet.
  • Silvercar users can reserve vehicles directly from the Austin airport by opening the app or calling (512) 201-4050. The pickup area is on the upper level of the airport on the far right beside the Offsite Rental Car area.
  • Uber and Lyft are both pretty well-staffed in Austin, so existing members will have no problem booking a ride directly from the airport or anywhere downtown. Both services are allowed to pick-up and drop-off passengers at the curb, and both services charge a $1 additional airport fee. 
  • Visitors who don’t want the commitment of a rental car may enjoy using car2go in the downtown area. Users who don’t already have a membership will need to sign up for one at least a week before you arrive in Austin in order to receive your membership card, which is then used like a key. Availability will vary, but car2go is an invaluable option for downtown driving since users can park in extra spots that aren’t usually available to drivers. Be prepared to see build-ups of cars near popular venues and shortages of available vehicles elsewhere. Users who download the app can reserve a nearby car up to 30 minutes in advance.
  • Taxis will take you farther outside the main SXSW zones. Be warned: Cabs can charge a night-time surcharge of $1 more per person between the hours of 9pm and 4am, a move authorized by the City of Austin.
    • Yellow Cab Austin – (512) 452-9999
    • Lone Star Cab – (512) 836-4900
    • Austin Cab Company – (512) 478-2222
  • The Austin Metro bus system offers a trip planner tool online and via an app. Fares require exact change. 
Austin traffic is a lot more manageable when left to Uber or Lyft drivers. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Austin traffic is a lot more manageable when left to Uber or Lyft drivers. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Free Wi-Fi

Tech-savvy Austin is a great place to get some work done. In addition to the standard free Google Internet available at all Starbucks locations, most local coffee shops offer free Wi-Fi as well.

  • The historic Driskill Hotel offers several different work areas with iconic Texas decor in addition to the free lobby Wi-Fi.
  • SPG property Westin Austin Downtown on East Fifth Street offers free Wi-Fi in the lobby, as well as two bar/lounge areas.
  • Hotel Van Zandt on Rainey Street is a Kimpton hotel, and has free Wi-Fi available for Kimpton Karma members. You can sign up for an account directly from the lobby, which is very contemporary and offers a full coffee shop.
  • Centrally-located JW Marriott Downtown offers free Wi-Fi in its extensive lobby, including the work stations near the bar.
  • The Whole Foods flagship store is one of Austin’s most underrated work and social spots. This massive location offers free Wi-Fi, several dozen dining tables and bar counter workspaces, including a mezzanine level with a number of power outlets and more free parking than almost any other spot downtown. (Insider tip: Although it isn’t encouraged, the Whole Foods parking garage is pretty lenient about cars left overnight by SXSW party attendees who cab home after having a little too much to drink.) Shoppers can pick anything they want from the seafood section and have fresh fish cooked on the spot for a small fee. All bottles in the extensive wine and beer section can also be purchased at grocery store prices and uncorked on the spot.

Wining and Dining

Austinites are very proud of their local fare. Here’s how to eat like a native:

Franklin Barbecue is one of the most popular names in town right now, but you’re almost guaranteed a 4-5 hour wait — that is, if you even manage to score any barbecue. This east side legend opens at 11am and stays that way until they’re sold out. Many locals recommend nearby Micklethwait Craft Meats, La BBQ, Terry Black’s Barbecue, John Mueller Meat Co. or Freedmen’s for a delicious experience without the long wait.

Franklin Barbecue is nationally famous, so much so that President Obama stopped here in July 2014. Photo courtesy of Franklin Barbecue.
Franklin Barbecue is nationally famous, so much so that President Obama stopped here in July 2014. Image courtesy of Franklin Barbecue.

If legendary-quality barbecue is not your top priority, the Whole Foods on Fifth and Lamar also offers a very edible, no-wait selection of ribs, brisket, sausage and chicken at its barbecue counter toward the back of the store.

On the flipside, barbecue purists may enjoy renting a car and driving out to Lockhart, about 30 minutes east of the Austin airport. This tiny town is famous for the stiff competition between its world-class barbecue joints: Black’s Barbecue, Kreuz Market and Smitty’s Market. Stay long enough to make three meals or pick your favorite and just try one.

Breakfast tacos are to Austinites what bagels are to New Yorkers. An extremely popular way to start an Austin day, breakfast tacos are soft tortillas stuffed with two or three filling items such as chorizo, sausage, scrambled eggs, beans, cheese, avocado or bacon and topped with pico de gallo, Cholula hot sauce or any number of proprietary secret sauces that vary based on the restaurant. You can find them everywhere, including many coffee shops downtown that buy them in bulk from local restaurants and resell them for about $3 a pop until they’re all gone for the day. Definitely try a “migas with avocado” breakfast taco at The Hideout, at Jo’s Coffee with doña sauce or create your own at the taco bar at Whole Foods.

Austinites love tacos so much, they even figured out a way to eat them for breakfast. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Austinites love tacos so much, they’ve even figured out a way to eat them for breakfast. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Food trailers are a popular way to sample new, innovative flavors in Austin. Several food trailer parks are located within walking or cab-ride distance from downtown Austin.

Sixth Street, the heart of the city’s historic and entertainment district, actually spans closer to three blocks, sporting a number of bars along Fourth and Fifth Street. The east region that is closer to the I-35 highway can be a little sketchy at night, although almost every part of Austin is very safe — a number of officers can be seen policing the region every night. On the west side, bars aren’t as close together as they are on the east side, with many of Austin’s newer restaurants sprinkled in between. Many West Sixth bars tend to be crowded during SXSW, so it’s a good idea to double up on drinks whenever you make it up to the bar to order.

Alcohol options local to Austin can be found at most downtown bars and liquor stores — Austin grocery stores only carry wine and beer, and liquor must be purchased from dedicated liquor stores. Note that beer and wine can be purchased Monday through Saturday from 7am until midnight, and only after 12pm on Sundays.

  • Tito’s Vodka comes from Austin’s oldest legal distillery
  • Deep Eddy flavored vodkas (try sweet tea for classic or ruby red grapefruit for a summery citrus kick)
  • Z Tequila
  • Austin Reserve Gin
  • Swift single-malt whiskey
  • Austin Beerworks’s Pearl Snap German Pils
  • Fireman’s #4 Real Ale
  • 512 IPA
  • Live Oak Hefeweizen
  • Thirsty Goat Amber

Non-alcoholic local beverages include BeeSweet lemonade, featured on Shark Tank in 2015 and available at Whole Foods downtown, and Barton Springs Soda, available at the HEB and Central Market grocery stores near Hyde Park.

Sixth Street east of Congress Avenue is popular for bar-hopping. Photo from Shutterstock.
Sixth Street east of Congress Avenue is popular for bar-hopping. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Non-SXSW Things To Do in Austin

Austin was one of TPG’s Destinations of the Week a few years ago — if you need a break from the event scene, soak up some sun or get a taste of culture with some of suggestions below:

  • Lady Bird Lake, colloquially known as Town Lake among locals, is a reservoir of the Colorado River that divides the northern and southern regions of Austin. The running and biking trails along the shore are extremely accessible — just a 3-4 block walk from Whole Foods or the JW Marriott on Congress Avenue. Pack a swimsuit and try stand-up paddleboarding or kayaking. One of the most popular spots, The Rowing Dock, is about a three-mile walk from Whole Foods.
  • Barton Springs, located along downtown Austin’s southern shores, is one of the city’s most popular summer hangouts with spring-fed pools hovering around 69 degrees year-round. This is a great place to lay down a towel and chase some sun rays or practice some outdoor yoga.
  • Zilker Park, home of the equally popular Austin City Limits Music Festival, offers open expanses of lush grass perfect for Ultimate Frisbee, soccer, picnics and various other outdoorsy activities.
  • Yoga aficionados can get their fix at Black Swan Yoga on the west side of downtown Austin, which offers multiple donation-based yoga classes every day.
  • Austin’s Congress Bridge is home to more than one million bats, and watching them emerge to hunt is a popular sunset activity. The walking trail beside the Four Seasons Hotel Austin on East Cesar Chavez Street and Congress Avenue will take you down the scenic route to the bridge. A number of dinner cruise boats along the lakefront also offer front-row views of the emerging bats.
  • History buffs may enjoy visiting the Texas State History Museum, the Blanton Art Museum, the Texas Capitol complex or touring the University of Texas, all located within one to two miles of the SXSW scene. Pedestrians can stroll up Congress Avenue through the capitol buildings and arrive at the history and art museums on the other side or use the CapMetro Trip Planner for a cheap and easy bus ride.
  • The Alamo Drafthouse cinemas have slowly expanded nationwide, but the brand originated in Austin. The Alamo Ritz downtown is the flagship location and can be found on Sixth Street, just east of Congress Avenue. Check the website for events and screening tickets — the relatively small location with its two small theaters sells out quickly.

Have you visited Austin during SXSW before? What additional tips would you offer first-time visitors?

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