Tens of thousands of people will descend upon Austin, Texas, from March 8 to 17 for what has become one of the most diverse, well-attended conferences in the United States: South by Southwest Interactive (SXSW) — or South By, as it is commonly known. And tens of thousands more will flood the Texan capital solely to check out the music and party scene at a bevy of unofficial festival events, hoping also to get a glimpse of a celebrity or two.
Just running down the list of South By’s speakers, you can see why this conference has mass appeal: There’s everyone from actress-turned-director Olivia Wilde and former House Speaker John Boehner as well as Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz and Michael Diamond. Also on the all-star lineup: Instagram co-founders Mike Krieger and Kevin Systrom, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Starbucks’ Howard Schultz. (For a full list of SXSW speakers, click here and here.)
Everything from cannabis, virtual reality and blockchain to, of course, music, film, politics and technology will be up for discussion.
For those who thrive on lots of stimuli, you’re going to have the time of your life. For those heading strictly for the business networking and educational opportunities, well, try to relax and go with the flow. In a city whose population will swell by about a third during SXSW, things will not go as planned.
But with that said, here are some tips to help you get the most out of SXSW for what is, rightly so, one of the most hyped conferences of the year.
Most of the SXSW action — from the workshops to schmoozing opportunities — will take place in and around the Austin Convention Center, which is in the heart of the city’s downtown. So if you landed a room at a hotel downtown, you either can walk or use the hotel’s shuttle service.
SXSW also will be providing free shuttle service between the Austin Convention Center and other festival venues between 9 a.m. and 2:30 a.m. daily, and you can track shuttles in real time here.
For those further out, cabs may be hard to come by, so you may try Uber or Lyft. Better yet, prearrange your ride using American Express Global Business Travel’s Ground Transportation platform.
Or if you like cruising on your own and in style, get behind the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz using the car-sharing service car2go.
If the weather is nice, consider two-wheeling it using South By’s pay-as-you-go, bike-sharing program, Austin B Cycle, or Uber JUMP bikes. Or give one of the city’s electric scooters — offered by Lime, Bird and Lyft Scooters — a test spin.
And for even more transportation options, check out SXSW’s recommendations here.
Eat like the locals do
A trip to the Lone Star State isn’t complete until you have had yourself a proper barbecue meal. The most notable place to go in town is Franklin Barbecue, about a mile away from the convention center. Give yourself a full morning to sneak away from the crowds of the convention center to join another crowd at this lunch-only joint operated by a husband-and-wife team. As Texas’ best barbecue spot for its tender, perfectly seasoned brisket and pork ribs, it usually has a two-hour wait — much more during SXSW.
If you do not have that kind of time, Lamberts and Iron Works BBQ are perfectly situated near the convention center. Or grab a bite to eat from one of the food trucks, which also has delicious Tex-Mex eats. To satisfy a sweet craving, we recommend Churro Co.’s fried-dough pastries, which are heavenly.
If you’ve got a few hours to kill…
With more than 2,000 musical performances and countless film screenings and panel discussions, you certainly won’t have trouble filling your time during SXSW. But if you’ve scheduled an extra day in Austin or just need a break from the festival crowd, there are plenty of non-SXSW activities.
Some of our picks: Go admire the beautiful architecture of the State Capitol, visit the LBJ Presidential Library or unwind taking a leisurely stroll along the picturesque Lady Bird Lake.
During dusk hours, take a walk on the Congress Avenue Bridge. It may be too early in the season to see the 1.5 million bats that reside under the bridge and come out in the evening, but at least you can say you’ve been to the home of the largest urban bat colony in the world. (Hey, Austin isn’t called “Bat City” for nothing!)
From center city, it’s just a quick six-mile ride to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport most days of the year. During the SXSW festival, it won’t be such a fast cruise, so be sure to hail a cab ahead of time. If you’re going with a pack, SuperShuttle it there — which is basically like an Uber or Lyft for larger parties.
You will want to leave the hotel at least three hours before your flight home — a bit more if you get super-stressed over traveling.
Mind you, the airport will be a crowded zoo with SXSW attendees leaving the city on the same, overbooked flights. They’ll all be somewhat cranky, running on little sleep. So after check-in, make a beeline to the private airport lounges across from Gate 13, but not before checking out some of the airport’s award-winning artwork.