South by Southwest (SXSW) is back this week, after one cancellation and one virtual iteration. It’s fair to say that the sprawling in-person and virtual ten-day festival will be different this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. 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 11 through Sunday, March 20, covering interactive, film, and music segments and plenty of food and drinks.
Attendees will have to show either proof of CDC-approved vaccinations or negative COVID tests through the mobile app CLEAR Health Pass.
For those going the test route, the PCR tests or rapid antigen tests must be taken at least 72 hours before people plan on picking up their passes. In line with Austin’s coronavirus risk-based guidelines, people will have to retest seven days into the festival in order to maintain their credentials. There will be a free testing center at the Austin Convention Center.
Masks will still be required for all indoor conference sessions, exhibits, registration, and pre-function areas. Affiliated SXSW venues can require masks if they want to, and many events have been noting their own vaccination or negative COVID-test proofs requirements.
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 mean 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 will probably be stricter this year, and it’s safe to expect a lot of attendees this year. Considering all of this, have a backup plan or two or three or four in mind.
If there are specific official SXSW panels and movies you want to attend, it’s worth downloading the festival app and requesting express passes for desired events through SXXpress Pass. Bookings are available the day before said events at 9 am
Another important factor to note: As with other years, SXSW overlaps with the University of Texas at Austin’s spring break and St. Patrick’s Day (which means hoards of people clad in green in search of possibly green beer). This translates to even larger crowd potential.
Those attending film screenings at the Paramount (where the José Andrés / World Central Kitchen documentary will premiere) and Stateside Theater won’t be allowed to bring in food or drink. There’s also a strict bag policy for those two venues: only clear bags.
This year’s SX is technically a hybrid event with both in-person and virtual events. The SXSW Online Pass includes access to almost all of the festival’s sessions, speakers, keynotes, music, and some comedy showcases, all of which will be available through the official app or the television app. Select films will also be available – as indicated on the official schedule – requiring advance RSVPs, which have capacity limits.
Don’t bother driving. Traffic will be worse than usual during SXSW and many downtown and Barton Creek neighborhood streets will be closed, anyway. Use car services such as Lyft. Electric scooters and dockless bikes are other options, though keep in mind that these services might be banned in certain busy SXSW areas, and also don’t be that jerk that leaves the scooter / bike in the middle of the sidewalk / road. Other possibilities include Capital Metro buses, commuter rails, festival shuttles, pedicabs, or good old-fashioned walking (wear comfortable shoes.)
SXSW’s main hub is in downtown Austin. This includes the Austin Convention Center, the Paramount Theater, many of the area’s hotels, and most of Rainey Street. It all really comes alive during the interactive and film segments of the festival. SX’s secondary hub is film-focused. Find it across the river at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar. And then, during the heavier music portion of the week, the festival’s footprint expands into East Austin and onto Red River.
Dress weather-appropriate: March is that fun time in Austin where the weather is all over the place, especially so during SXSW, and this year is no exception. Already in the forecast for the first two days are rain and below-freezing temperatures at night, with high temperatures later on as the festival continues. Wear layers, be prepared for potential rain, and carry around sunscreen.
Food & Drink & Fun
Long gone is SX’s old food trailer park SouthBites. This year, the cheese-filled Cheeselandia, the fancy James Beard Foundation-backed dinners, and Rachael Ray’s food-filled Feedback event aren’t happening either. But there’s so much else to dig into this year. Here are some highlights and things to keep in mind.
Be respectful: Follow each venue / bar / restaurant’s rules, and just generally, still wear your mask interacting with hospitality staff.
Tip very well: While, yes, many official and adjacent SXSW events are free with plentiful free drinks and food, keep cash at hand to tip your servers and bartenders very, very well because they’re working super hard.
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 and just as amazing 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! If you’re looking for a barbecue spot outside of SXSW central, cross the river and head to Distant Relatives.
Another really important thing to keep in mind: in Texas, barbecue is more of a lunch thing than a dinner thing (though, yes, there are restaurants are open for dinner hours).
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 city. This includes the centrally located restaurant found right on Congress and East Cesar Chavez at the Line Hotel, but those looking for a more low-key affair should trek to the truck parked at South Austin cafe and bar Radio Coffee & Beer. Likewise, head slightly north of East SXSW central and check out Cuantos Tacos.
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. Seek out Austin’s core food truck zones: Rainey Street, East Cesar Chavez, East Sixth, Barton Springs, etc., etc.
Stay hydrated: 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.
Downtime plan. It’s impossible to do all the things and if you try too hard, you will emerge from SXSW as a zombie. Allow yourself days with late starts and try to get away from the crowds to explore Austin’s rich food scenes. And along those lines …
Dine local. If you’re venturing into Austin from out of town, support local restaurants and businesses. They need it after everything.
With all of this in mind, the most important of all: be open to anything. The beauty of SXSW is just exploring.