Every March, hundreds of thousands of people descend upon this city to attend SXSW Austin. When SXSW (said South by Southwest or just South By for those of us who don’t have the patience for four freakin’ syllables) rolls into town, it takes over several blocks of Downtown Austin, closing streets and filling venues with music, films, conferences, and exhibitions.
This 10-day event is one of the largest creative gatherings in the United States, and is definitely the largest in Texas. It’s billed as an opportunity for creatives to network, learn, and show off their latest work, but SXSW is so much more than that. This event isn’t just for artists, it’s an amazing cultural experience for art lovers and culture buffs alike.
Past keynote speakers have included Bruce Springsteen, Malcolm Gladwell, Dave Grohl, Mark Zuckerberg, Willie Nelson, and President Barack Obama. And the SXSW Film Festival has hosted the world premieres of major movies like “Baby Driver,” “Knocked Up,” “Bridesmaids,” “Ready Player One,” and most recently, “The Lost City,” “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” and “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.”
If you’re a local Austinite who’s never been, or you’re one of the many out-of-towners planning to attend for the first time, we’ll explain what goes on at SXSW Austin and how to plan your event experience.
And if you’re a local who’s just looking to avoid all the traffic, don’t worry — we’ve got tips for you too.
How Does SXSW Work?
Many people refer to SXSW as a festival, but that description dramatically underestimates this massive event. South by Southwest isn’t a festival — it’s actually three festivals, plus a conference and a variety of exhibitions, taking place in multiple venues across Downtown Austin.
SXSW Austin is the biggest event of its kind. The founders and organizers, SXSW events, now host similar events in other cities, including North by Northwest (NXNW) in Toronto and an upcoming SXSW in Sydney, Australia. They also plan smaller, special events in Austin, including the SXSW EDU conference, which focuses on issues in education and takes place the week before SXSW.
The South by Southwest format has become so popular that it’s often imitated. And SXSW-style events have earned the nickname four-letter events or four-letter festivals. However, Austin was the first of its kind, and it remains the biggest and most prestigious four-letter event, attracting industry leaders and top creatives from around the world.
Here’s what each part of the event entails:
- SXSW film festival: The longest festival of the event, the film festival runs for nine days. It features screenings and film premieres every day. Plus, there are workshops and talks on everything from the filmmaking process to the future of film and television.
- SXSW music festival: This South by Southwest festival features new, upcoming, and established artists — SXSW 2022 featured headliners as diverse as Dolly Parton, Young Thug, and Shawn Mendes. Musical acts perform at some of Austin‘s most famous music venues. This part of the event lasts six days. There are also mentorships, workshops, and featured talks about the music industry.
- SXSW comedy festival: Similar to the music festival, the Comedy Fest lasts one week and features performances by a mix of comedy legends and rising stars. There are also workshops and featured talks about the comedy industry.
- SXSW conference: The conference focuses on breakthroughs in technology, film, music, and culture. The format includes daily keynote speakers, featured sessions with industry leaders, panel presentations, hands-on workshops, mentor sessions, and meetups. This part of the event provides multiple networking opportunities.
- Creative industries expo: With exhibitors from all over the world, this part of the event is a design, technology, social welfare, healthcare, and wellness expo. It aims to feature companies and individuals that are moving their industries forward.
- Flatstock: A unique art exhibition, Flatstock features the work of the best gig poster artists from around the world. The artwork is for sale with profits going to the artists themselves, but even if you aren’t in the market for concert posters, it’s a great way to see contemporary art.
How To Attend SXSW Austin
Attending SXSW Austin is easy — as long as you plan ahead. Even though the event doesn’t take place until March, badges go on sale at the beginning of August. For SXSW 2023, badge sales start on August 2. Your SXSW badge is your entrance pass to the event. There are a variety of badges and wristbands, with each one giving you priority access to a different part of the event. Here are the entry options:
- SXSW Film Badge: The film badge gives you priority access to all film and comedy events and secondary access to music and interactive events, meaning you can access the other events as long as they don’t fill up with people who have priority access badges first.
- SXSW Music Badge: This badge gives you priority access to all the music and comedy events, with secondary access to the film and interactive events.
- SXSW Interactive Badge: This gives you priority access to the conference, expo, and comedy events, with secondary access to the film and music events.
- SXSW Platinum Badge: The most expensive badge, this gives you priority access to every event at SXSW Austin.
- Wristbands: Instead of a badge, you can purchase a film or music festival wristband, which will give you secondary access to either the film or music events. You will be able to attend events in that field that aren’t already filled up by badge holders.
Badges are significantly more expensive than wristbands — with the cheapest badges costing just under $1,000 and prices going up from there. Wristbands will cost you closer to a couple hundred dollars, but they don’t guarantee access to the most in-demand sessions.
The price for both badges and wristbands is lowest if you book early. Prices go up as the event draws closer, and your entry will be most expensive if you purchase it on the day of the event.
In addition to purchasing a badge, you may need to prove you’ve had your COVID vaccination or provide a recent negative COVID-19 test. COVID-19 guidelines are constantly evolving, so make sure to check the event FAQs for the most recent information about their pandemic requirements.
Where to Stay
When badges go on sale at the beginning of August, hotel specials also become available. You can check the housing section of www.sxsw.com to find the best prices on hotels during the event. We recommend staying in Downtown Austin as close to the Austin Convention Center as possible because this will make transportation to and from the event venues extremely easy.
Even if you’re an Austin local, you could have an easier and more immersive event experience if you book a staycation at an Austin hotel. Of course, if you live in Downtown Austin, most of the events will already be walkable from your home.
Book your hotel as early as possible. The best hotels in Austin fill up fast during SXSW.
How to Get Around
During the event, the Austin Police close multiple streets and designate them for foot traffic only. So, driving to and from the event can be difficult. There’s also increased traffic during SXSW, and it’s nearly impossible to find parking.
Instead of driving, try staying Downtown so you can walk or take the SXSW shuttle from the Austin Convention Center. If you’re staying outside of Downtown Austin, use the Austin Chronicles’s Guide to Transportation to find your way to the city center.
You can also Uber to and from events, but you should expect surge pricing and long wait times.
How To Avoid SXSW Austin
Speaking of traffic, many locals who’ve already experienced SXSW (or just don’t want to), try to avoid the mayhem that comes with your hometown hosting a big event.
If you’re one of them, then early March may be an ideal time to get out of town (and maybe even earn a little extra cash by putting your home on Airbnb for the week). You don’t need to go far, there’s plenty of great camping near Austin that can get you far enough away to avoid the crowds.
If you’re sticking around, steer clear of the Downtown area, including the Rainey Street Historic District and the Red River Cultural District. This is a great time to explore the restaurants in Austin’s best suburbs or in North Austin at The Domain. You may still experience bigger crowds than usual, but it will be much less than the crowds Downtown at this time of year.
South By and Bye
Mark your calendars, Culture Buffs! Tickets to SXSW Austin go on sale on August 2, and on that same day, you can also book your hotel through the SXSW site to get the lowest event rates on rooms.
If you’re taking part in the four-letter fun, make sure to check out some of Downtown Austin‘s best restaurants while you’re in town. We recommend making restaurant reservations in advance during the event.
For more information on the best places to eat, play, and stay in Austin, check out our other ATX Guides.