In Austin, March always comes in like a lion, as South by Southwest takes over the capital of Texas with interactive panels, film screenings, music performances and parties from March 11 through 20. In its 30th year, the citywide festival promises to be bigger than ever, as highly anticipated events continue to release details, from the culinary powerhouses who will speak on SouthBites panels (Danny Meyer, José Andrés, Anthony Bourdain, Andrew Zimmern and more) to the 100-foot Ferris wheel being constructed on Congress Avenue by USA Network.
No matter how you spend your SXSW stay, you’re guaranteed to have an unforgettable experience — especially with the tips below.
Anyone who’s attended the festival in the past knows there is never a dull moment at SXSW. Nearly every bar, club and restaurant in the vicinity of downtown is rented out by various networks and production companies for showcases and special events. One year, a coffee shop set up in a white bungalow is painted lime green to become the Spotify House. The next, a typically Tex-Mex eatery is transformed into Comedy Central’s Kegs and Eggs party house, complete with dunk tank and carnival games. There’s no telling what this year will bring.
If you find yourself needing a break from the crowds and wanting to see another side of Austin, plan a visit to Treaty Oak Distillery one afternoon. Located on 30 acres in Dripping Springs, just outside of the Austin city limits, the distillery produces small-batch vodka, whiskey, rum and gin, all available in its tasting room and served in artisanal cocktails on draught.
Enjoy a tour of the facility, live music on the spacious property, yard games, inventive bites from the food truck and even helicopter rides over the beautiful hill country (which includes Willie Nelson’s ranch). Best of all? The Austin Tour Company will pick you up in downtown Austin (at 1:30 and 3:30 p.m.), serve you cocktails while you ride to the ranch and drive you back in time for SXSW nighttime festivities.
There is no doubt it will be hard to find a seat at any downtown restaurants during the festival, so booking ahead (when possible) is advised. Get a true taste of Austin at the newly opened Emmer & Rye, located on flourishing Rainey Street, where chef/owner Kevin Fink and his team create smart dishes using exclusively local products.
Head east for brunch or dinner at Jacoby’s Restaurant & Mercantile, a hip rustic restaurant showcasing beef raised on owner Adam Jacoby’s family ranch in Melvin, Texas. If the weather allows it, score a seat on the patio overlooking the Colorado River.
Though our favorite undercover cocktail bar, Midnight Cowboy, will be closed for private events for the festival, seek respite from the commotion at the nearby Firehouse Lounge, a speakeasy located behind a moving bookshelf just across the street from the historic Driskill Hotel. Another hidden bar, Small Victory, opened in the parking garage of the InterContinental Stephen F. Austin this winter. Enter the wooden door at the top of a short staircase and slip into a booth or barstool to take a break from the music with classic cocktails and cheese and charcuterie boards.
For dining that’s still central, yet far enough from the SXSW stages, enjoy tapas and paella (plus amazing happy hour specials) at Barlata on South Lamar or take a spot under Olive & June’s gorgeous live oak tree while noshing on elegantly prepared Italian cuisine on one of the best patios in town.
Austin’s newest centrally located hotels are the hottest places to stay during South by Southwest this year. If you’re unable to book something in the hip South Congress Hotel, be sure to at least make it a dining destination for breakfast and lunch (Café No Sé) or dinner (Central Standard). Paul Qui’s new omakase-style Otoko is another tasty onsite option — if you can finagle a reservation.
At press time, the even newer Hotel Van Zandt, located just off Rainey Street, had a few rooms during the festival. If you’re unable to score one of the remaining units in the swanky, music-themed boutique hotel, be sure to visit Geraldine’s, the restaurant and lounge inside that’s perfect for a jazz brunch, musician-inspired cocktails and poolside views of the city skyline.
However, if you’re looking for a place with a bit more history and excellent service, Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Hotel Ella, a property that dates back to the mid-19th century, comes to mind. Just an eight-minute drive from the Austin Convention Center (not counting pedestrian traffic on Trinity Street, of course), the 47-room mansion has a wraparound veranda, grand stone columns and, most importantly, a few availabilities for the second weekend of SXSW action.