what to do at sxsw

Get the most out of your time at the sprawling SXSW festival in Austin. (Photo: Getty Images)


Surviving SXSW: Catch the Best Bands, See Top Movies and Make the Most of the Festival

The first thing you need to know about the multiday SXSW Conference & Festivals is you’re going to miss something.

No matter how carefully you plan and no matter how lucky you are in catching word about surprise appearances, there’s just no way to be there for all of the festival’s buzz-worthy moments. Take it from this seven-year veteran of the show.

The good news is that it doesn’t matter. Because there is so much going on at SXSW, you’re still likely to walk away with innumerable stories and experiences that will last a lifetime. But a little planning and patience, along with a little investigative work, can add significantly to that number.

So let go of the FOMO and follow these steps to ensure you have the time of your life.

what to do at sxsw
Get the lowdown on what to bring and where to hang out. (Photo: Getty Images)

What to Bring

Let’s assume you know the basics, like bringing comfortable shoes and loose clothing. If you’re going to be wandering around downtown Austin for most of the day and night, there are a few things that are wise to carry with you.

A refillable water bottle will ensure you stay hydrated (which is essential at SXSW) without having to buy bottles throughout the day. It’s always wise to have some lip balm on hand, as well. Forego the umbrella and pack a poncho. (Some venues won’t let you bring an umbrella inside.)

If you’re hitting concerts, earplugs are a good way to avoid tinnitus the next morning. And never, ever go anywhere without a portable phone charger.

Must-See Movies

The film conference is where advance planning can do you the most good. If there’s an especially popular film you want to see, a SXXpress Pass is the easiest way to do so. Pass signups begin at 9 a.m., and you’ll need to request one either on the show’s online schedule or the official mobile app. You can get either two or three passes per day, depending on your badge type.

If SXXpress Passes for that event are already gone for the day, check the schedule to see if there are additional showings later in the week. Many films are screened two or three times. And you can always stand in line for general admission to a film. Volunteers are pretty good at knowing what your odds are of getting in and are happy to let you know if you ask.

Securing a Spot at the Hottest Concert

what to do at SXSW
Check in to the top shows. (Photo: Getty Images)

SXXpress Passes are also available to music events, but some of the best concerts aren’t officially part of the show. Read up well before SXSW on side events and RSVP, even if you’re only tentatively interested. (A service like RSVPster is invaluable for this.)

There’s no official list of those events, but the Unofficial SX Guide is about as comprehensive as it gets. You’ll definitely have to show up early, though, as lines get long, fast. Networking with people at SX is often your best bet at getting into a good show.

That friend you make while waiting in line for one event might have access to another. Don’t spend time staring at your phone. Socialize!

Regularly Monitor for Last-Minute Updates

SXSW is a constantly evolving organism. Surprise panels and screenings and concerts are added all the time. While you definitely want to live in the moment when you’re there, it’s a good idea to enable alerts on the SXSW Go app for any last-minute announcements or alerts.

And there are several Twitter accounts that are extremely useful in keeping you abreast of everything from free food to updates on official and nonofficial events to line lengths.

Among the best ones to follow are: @sxsw, @FreeatSXSW, @Do512, @SxSWParty, @sxswp, @OpenBarATX, @thefreenoms, @360sxsw, @ChronSXSW, @SxSpotify, @thefader, @austin360, @WhoaCo, @coolinaustin, @SPINsxsw.

Keep Your Eyes Open in Unlikely Places

what to do at SXSW
Find out when and where to hear speakers. (Photo: Getty Images)

You never know where you’ll encounter or hear about something fun going on at SXSW. Guerrilla marketing is often at its best each March in Austin. Sometimes the hottest pop-up concerts are advertised by chalk writings on curbs (that’s how Ludacris spread the word of a surprise performance a few years ago).

Other times, Bill Murray will appear suddenly on the steps of a downtown hotel and conduct a poetry reading. Look everywhere. And if you see a group of people circled around something, be sure to check out what has their attention.

Have a Plan, but Be Flexible

It’s absolutely a good idea to map out your day at SXSW. Knowing which panels, films and concerts of interest are coming up makes it easier to navigate. But if you rigidly stick by that schedule, you’ll likely miss out on much of the show’s spontaneous fun.

Prepare for Emergencies

At a show this frenetic, things can go wrong, so it’s best to be prepared. Make sure your name and phone number are front and center in your wallet. Change your phone’s lock screen to instructions on how to return it to you in Austin. SXSW attendees are typically helpful, good people. If you make it easy for them to help you should you lose something, they’re more likely to do so.