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The Ultimate Guide to SXSW

Cars stream along Congress Avenue in downtown Austin
Cars stream along Congress Avenue in downtown Austin | © PhilipR / Shutterstock
Austin’s famous South by Southwest festival is more than a great place to see your favorite rock star or indie darling. The multifaceted fest brings together the best and brightest in music, film, tech, celebrity culture and more and serves as a launch pad for world-changing ideas, all under the guise of one of the greatest parties on earth.

An introduction to SXSW

SXSW was launched as the South by Southwest Music and Media Convention in 1987 by the co-founders of a then-fledgling (but now seminal) Austin alt-weekly, The Austin Chronicle. Only 700 or so registrants attended the first SXSW, which barely turned a profit. Nearly 32 years later, it is the largest music festival in the world, with an economic impact exceeding $350 million for its host city.

SXSW reached those gaudy numbers not just through exciting musical performances but through true innovation. What used to be a good place to party for a weekend has turned into a must-make destination for artists, musicians, businessmen, filmmakers, politicians, educators and creators of all kinds.

What is SXSW?

SXSW is a huge celebration of music, tech, gaming, media, movies, innovators and influencers, with hundreds of events going on over nine days. Film, interactive and music are the biggest draws. It’s one of the elite showcases of generational talent and a platform to discover the “next big thing.”

Katy Perry, Foster the People, Skrillex, the film Baby Driver, HBO’s Girls and Twitter all had their breakout moments at the festival, and in recent years it has served as the negotiation table on divisive political issues like Gamergate.

Individual badges to attend each cost $1,325, or you can purchase a platinum badge for $1,650 that gets you primary access to all events. For those on a budget, currently enrolled students may apply to buy individual fest badges at a discounted price of $375. All badges receive access to SXSW Comedy, SXSW Gaming, the Registrant’s Lounge, Flatstock Poster Show, SXSW Marketplace, Startup Spotlight, SXSW Wellness Expo, SXSW Community Service Awards and SXSW Outdoor Stage at Lady Bird Lake concerts. Those wishing to attend just SXSW Gaming can also purchase a three-day wristband for $39 or daily wristbands for $20.

When is SXSW?

The 2019 SXSW event runs from March 8-17 at various venues throughout Austin. Conference programming begins on the 8th and runs through the 16th, while schedules for the festivals are staggered. Interactive (8-12), Film (8-16) and Comedy (8-16) kick off the first week of SXSW, while Gaming (15-17) joins the main attraction, Music (11-17), in the second week. For venues for specific events and a full conference schedule check out the SXSW website.

SXSW Film Festival

The film festival (March 8-16), which was added to the SXSW lineup in 1994, welcomes filmmakers of all levels and celebrates innovation in front of and behind the camera. The film festival had an inauspicious start when a mere 600 people attended what was then a combined film and multimedia event at a downtown Austin hotel. Since then, it has blossomed into a major industry event. Now blockbusters, including 2018’s A Quiet Place, make their world premieres there, while television powerhouses like HBO’s Game of Thrones put on immersive activations that give fans a chance to interact with their favorite characters, and a SXSW Film Award win can propel an indie filmmaker to glory – or at least a distribution deal.

Paramount Theater during 2012 SxSW Film Festival, Austin, Texas, USA. © John Pesina / Shutterstock

SXSW Interactive and Gaming Expo

Launched along with film in 1994, Interactive (March 8-12) quickly grew from a curiosity in a city seemingly much more concerned with music and the arts to a staple of SXSW as the burgeoning Silicon Hills, Austin’s tech sector, went from neophytes on the world tech stage to contenders. In 2007 Twitter became one of the festival’s biggest successes, making the most of its SXSW buzz on the way to becoming the social-media behemoth it is today. Snapchat did the same in 2016, and now companies, investors and visionaries from around the world journey to Austin in hopes of being the next big thing.

While gaming is a more recent addition to SXSW, it has already proved to be a compelling one, drawing well over 50,000 attendees in 2018, and has become the leading forum for serious discussions on issues surrounding Esports, ethics and more. This year’s highlights include the gaming awards, an “arcade bunker” with dozens of classics for gamers to enjoy and a PC arena equipped with state-of-the-art technology where gamers can participate in tournaments and vie for prizes.

SXSW, Music, Film, and Tech Festival held every year in Austin, Texas, USA. © Jeremy Pawlowski / Shutterstock

SXSW Comedy

Comedy (March 8-16) has been a part of the festival line-up since 2008, but it really took off in 2012. Last year, 63 comedians and performers were involved in 36 showcases during SXSW. SNL alumni Bill Hader and Horatio Sanz, Jim Gaffigan (Noble Ape), Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation) and Roy Wood Jr (The Daily Show) were among last year’s notable performers. This year’s acts are yet to be announced, but keep your eye here for updates. If you love comedy, be sure to check out our guide to the best comedy clubs in Austin.

SXSW Music line-up and schedule

Music (March 11-17) will always be the heart and soul of SXSW, especially since Austin is known as the “Live Music Capital of the World.” Spectacular performances abound throughout the city during both weeks of the festival; you’ll find live bands and incredible singers at industry parties, unofficial showcases, and local businesses and restaurants that want in on the action. But the official performances of the fest are their own unruly animal. Skinny jeans replace suits, spring-breakers arrive in droves, and the lines become even longer. This year should be no exception. Over 240 artists – including DRAMA, Bedouine and Kwame – are expected to perform showcases, and many more are still being added to the over 2,000 artists from more than 60 countries expected to perform. The full schedule can be found here.

Signer, songwriter, and rapper Anderson Paak performs at a concert during SXSW 2016 in Austin, Texas, USA. © stock_photo_world / Shutterstock

Must-see entertainment

SXSW is like an ocean; beneath the torrent of talent that makes up the surface are mighty currents that can change its course at a moment’s notice. Superstars show up at parties unannounced, and pop-up events keep everyone on their toes. New acts are added every day, so it’s hard to say what your must-see schedule should be. But without waiting for the line-ups to completely fill out, plan on checking out the incredible SXSW 2019 keynote speakers if you have a badge. Whether you want to hear from politician turned pot pusher John Boehner, actress Olivia Wilde or the Beastie Boys, this year’s speakers and interviewees are not to be missed. And if you’re still pondering whether or not to put down the cash for an all-access ticket, don’t despair. There are plenty of free activities to enjoy.

Best SXSW free events

Unofficial parties and free shows are everywhere during SXSW, but it requires a bit of patience and preparation to take advantage of them. Follow the official social-media accounts for SXSW (@SXSW, @SXSWNews), your favorite bands and Austin venues near downtown to get updates on what’s going on in real time. The Austin Chronicle compiles a definitive list of unofficial events that will be here as the festival approaches, but as the site says, “Let’s face it, artists can be flaky and these shows can be very unofficial, so expect set times and line-ups to change at the last minute.” If you want to take a break from SXSW events, take a look at our guide to the best attractions and things to do in Austin.

How to get around SXSW like a local

Fortunately for visitors, Austin has a competent public-transportation system. Capital Metro offers buses every 15 minutes every day, with a network of 14 routes (10 that directly serve downtown). A single ride costs $1.25 full price, and a day pass can be purchased for $2.50. Cabs are sparse, difficult to deal with and unreliable, and if you brought your own car you will quickly find that SXSW can mean spending an hour or more in traffic to get through just a couple of blocks downtown only to have nowhere to park. Thankfully, Uber and Lyft are ubiquitous and cheap in the city (you’ll still have to deal with the traffic), and the city even has its own non-profit ride-share app, Ride Austin, that pays drivers more and gives back to charity. Electric scooters are available and both reviled and beloved (you might spot some in Lady Bird Lake if you look closely), and for those with badges SXSW offers a free circulating shuttle that runs between the Austin Convention Center and most SXSW festival venues. Shuttles typically run from 9am to 2.30am daily.

You can get around town on one of Culture Trip’s branded electric scooters throughout March. And if you’re coming to Culture Trip’s Soho in SoCo event at Austin Motel March 9-11 from the Austin Convention Center, you can catch a ride on our free London-inspired double decker bus! Catch it every half hour starting at 11:30am from the Austin Visitor Centre or from the Austin Motel.

Culture Trip scooters spotted during the week leading up to SxSW 2019 in Austin, Texas, USA. © David Ogiste / Culture Trip

While you’re at this year’s SXSW, check out the content partners we love…

Cathedral of Junk
The creation of artist-curator Vincent Hanneman, this giant sculptural structure is made entirely of discarded items. From bicycles to hubcaps, signs, surfboards and even toilets, the Cathedral of Junk offers an immense variety of ‘junk’ as you walk around and through the immersive installation. Tip: Make sure to book in advance, since reservations are required.

Cathedral of Junk. Still from Culture Trip Social Video. 2019. Austin, Texas, USA. © Culture Trip

Lick Honest Ice Creams
An ice cream shop that prides itself on using the purest ingredients possible, Lick Honest Ice Creams is a must-visit in Austin. It satisfies cravings for the most delicious artisanal scoops free from artificial colors and flavors, high fructose corn syrup and preservatives.

Desert Door Distillery
For a truly unique taste of Texas, head to this distillery where the clean and fresh spirit known as Desert Door Original sotol was born. The main ingredient is wild-harvested sotol, a plant native to Texas. It’s like vodka but better.

Desert Door. Still from Culture Trip Social Video. 2019. Austin, Texas, USA. © Culture Trip

The Salt Lick BBQ
Head straight to this classic barbecue pit in Driftwood for what could possibly be the best meal of your life. Sit outside amid century-old oak trees and colorful wildflowers while chomping down on tender smoked brisket, pulled pork, ribs and more. There will be a line, but it will be worth it.

A meal at Salt Lick BBQ, Texas © Al Argueta / Alamy Stock Photo

Museum of the Weird
Known as America’s strangest attraction, this museum in downtown Austin celebrates the weird and puts it on display for all to see. The last true “dime museum” in the US, it offers visitors the chance to check out shrunken heads, Fiji mermaids, suits of armor and more.

Museum of the Weird. Still from Culture Trip Social Video. 2019. Austin, Texas, USA. © Culture Trip

Star Bar
Star Bar is the go-to sports bar to watch a game, grab a beer (they have 17 rotating taps) and just chill out. The third Sunday of every month they feature a Hail Mary, an insane bloody mary piled high with a fried chicken sandwich garnish, which you can pre-order on Facebook.

Hopscotch: Light and Sound
This uniquely curated immersive art experience was created by local entrepreneurs Nicole Jensen and Hunter Inman. The interactive pop-up, ongoing through March 31, showcases 13 installations plus artwork by a variety of stellar local and international artists.

Hopscotch. Still from Culture Trip Social Video. 2019. Austin, Texas, USA. © Culture Trip

Gourdough’s Big Fat Donuts
Donut burger, anyone? This food truck is famous for all things donut, including that beef and donut-bun combo you didn’t know you’ve always wanted, plus Southern sides like creamed corn and fried okra.

Cypress Valley Canopy Tours
An adventure to this aerial resort located in the Texas Hill Country is perfect for thrill seekers and nature lovers alike. Whether you want to zip-line, experience a canopy walk or stay overnight in a tree house, they’ve got you covered.

Canopy Zipline. Still from Culture Trip Social Video. 2019. Austin, Texas, USA. © Culture Trip

TacoTopia
A brand new spot perfect for taco fanatics, this interactive museum of tacos is basically one giant, interactive Instagram backdrop dedicated to the delicious food. Take a dip in an oversize bowl of foam pico de gallo or a ride on the Señorita Needs a Margarita swing. Just make sure you have your camera ready.

Barton Springs
On a warm Austin day, there’s nothing better than a dip at Barton Springs Pool, a recreational outdoor swimming pool filled with water from a nearby natural spring – the fourth-largest spring in Texas. Located within the 350-acre (140-hectare) Zilker Park, it’s the perfect spot for a picnic and to spend a whole afternoon.

People swim in the outdoor swimming pool at Barton Springs Pool in Austin, Texas © Adam Gasson / Alamy Stock Photo

Jacob’s Well
Pristine, warm green waters supplied by an underground spring await you at this amazing swimming hole. It’s a bit of a trek to get there, and the signage is minimal, but the trip will be well worth it as soon as you stick that first toe in the water. Reservations open March 1 for swimming from May 1 to September 30.