Austin, TX is my second home and always will be. I never take it for granted that I get to spend half my life between two of the most incredible places in the United States: Lake Tahoe, CA and Austin, TX. They are both vastly different places and it’s always thrilling to leave the quiet of the woods for the hustle and bustle of Austin, TX. Austin is an incredibly vibrant and unique city and one that I absolutely love sharing with others – so much so that I have a permanent email template of recommendations saved because I get asked so often. If you’re coming to SXSW for the first time ever, I’m here to encourage you to take the time to explore Austin during the festival. Frankly, the list and enormous sheer variety of restaurants, activities, and things to do is incredibly long but that’s where I come in: taking the time to explore Austin during SXSW 2023 is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and if you can squeeze some exploration into your downtime, you won’t regret it with these recommendations. Here are some of my favorite restaurants, activities, and shopping experiences that Austin has to offer.
WHERE TO EAT IN AUSTIN, TX
One of the biggest draws of Austin is its food scene. The city has a wide range of restaurants that offer everything from classic Tex-Mex to experimental fusion cuisine. During SXSW, many of the downtown restaurants will be closed for SXSW-specific events and buyouts, so it’s the perfect time to venture off the beaten path and try something new. Here are a few of my top suggestions:
Loro: The internet is going to tell you over and over again that for food, some must-try restaurants include Franklin Barbecue for brisket. My unpopular opinion: that’s not necessary. If you have half a day to stand in line for some meat, then by all means feel free. But, if you’re a barbecue fan, and you’re strapped for time, head to South Lamar staple Loro, where you can order Franklin Barbecue brisket at the counter along with your corn fritters thanks to the fact that it’s a collaboration between James Beard award-winning chefs Tyson Cole (of Uchi) and Aaron Franklin (of Franklin Barbecue). Loro is casual, yet sophisticated and offers a fusion between Texas barbecue and Southeast Asian cuisine. There’s a huge outdoor patio with a bar and plenty of seating. Since orders are placed at the bar individually, it makes it a great landing spot for groups.
Uchiko: While the Japanese restaurant Uchi has been a favorite among locals and visitors alike for years, I love sending people to its sister restaurant Uchiko. The restaurant was opened in 2010 by James Beard award-winning chef Tyson Cole and offers an inventive and unique fusion of traditional Japanese ingredients and flavors with modern techniques and influences. From sushi and sashimi to hot dishes, to an extensive sake and wine list, a night at Uchiko is always special.
Este: Nestled between two East Austin neighborhoods, his charming new-ish restaurant serves up modern Mexican cuisine with a focus on seafood and charcoal cooking. Their sister restaurant, Suerte is another one of my faves. Este has a bright dining space awash in a blue that evokes feelings of the sea, an amazing wine list (a must for me), and vibrant coastal-inspired cocktails.
Moonshine Grill – This is my go-to during SXSW when I need a quiet break, a cold beer, and a good meal that’s close to the convention center but weirdly usually available. They serve up innovative down-home cooking in a casual atmosphere with southern specialties like cornflake-crusted fried chicken and pretzels with pimento cheese.
WHAT TO DO IN AUSTIN, TX
During SXSW, there’s no shortage of things to do in Austin. From live music to film screenings to tech talks, there’s something for everyone. Here are a few off-the-beaten-path activities that you should check out in addition to your SXSW programming.
Catch a show at the Moody Theater: The Moody Theater is home to Austin City Limits Live, a venue that hosts some of the biggest names in music. During SXSW, the showings will be special showcases of the festival’s biggest artists, and is well worth attempting to catch a show there. The opening and closing parties for the Music portion of the festival will be here and SXSW usually has it’s biggest surprises scheduled for this prime venue.
Take a stroll on the hike and bike trail at Lady Bird Lake. If you want to act like a true old-school local, just refer to this as Town Lake. The scenic pathway circles the lake downtown and spans miles of idyllic trail perfect for taking in the skyline and having a quiet moment alone. You’ll pass the Congress Avenue Bridge (y’all the bats won’t be there yet don’t bother no one understands why you go watch this), the Stevie Ray Vaughan Memorial, and if you’re extra fit, you may even make it all the way down to Zilker Park, which is home to the Barton Springs Pool, a natural spring-fed pool that’s perfect for swimming during the hot Texas summers.
Explore the art: Austin is home to a vibrant arts community, with galleries and museums that showcase everything from contemporary art to classic works by the likes of Vincent van Gogh and Rembrandt and there’s no better time to explore it than during SXSW. Anytime you cruise over to the east side for an event, make sure you keep your eyes out for some of the neighborhood’s murals and installations. Right downtown, you have access to the Contemporary Austin (which is also frequently an official SXSW venue), and the Mexic-Arte Museum. Just north of downtown, you’ll find the Blanton Museum of Art on the University of Texas campus.
Visit the State Capitol: completed in 1888, the Capitol is a stunning example of 19th-century architecture and design and is open to visitors every day. Although guided tours are available, you probably don’t have time because let’s be real – you’re here for SXSW. A quick peek won’t hurt though!
WHERE TO SHOP IN AUSTIN
If you’re in the mood for some retail therapy, Austin won’t disappoint. The city has a mix of local boutiques and big-name stores, so you can absolutely find whatever you’re looking for (or forgot to pack). Although South Congress Avenue (SoCo) is a popular destination for most tourists, I’ve found that it’s lost a lot of its hometown charm and no longer offers the unique, funky, and local shops it used to. Instead, here are a few of my favorite spots:
Waterloo Records: This iconic record store has been a fixture in Austin for over 35 years. Browse their extensive collection of vinyl and CDs, and catch a live in-store performance while you’re there – they always host a number of SXSW events.
Bookpeople: Located kitty corner to Waterloo Records, Bookpeople is Austin’s most beloved independent bookstore. It’s been serving the community for over 45 years and with 3 entire floors of a booklover’s delight, there is something in this store for everyone.
North Loop: This neighborhood is now the vestige of Keeping it Weird for Austin and where I love to send people shopping. It’s chock full of independent and unique shops like Room Service and Ermine Vintage. Retail storefronts abound on the street and sell everything from vintage clothing to funky furniture, to books and records. When you’re tired of shopping pop into the Tigress for a cocktail. Need to refuel? North Loop offers my preferred Home Slice location and Foreign & Domestic, another one of my Austin restaurant staples.
WHERE TO EAT BREAKFAST TACOS IN AUSTIN, TX
Look, this is important. Breakfast tacos are everything in Texas and when you’re there for SXSW you must eat them. Breakfast tacos are a staple of Texan cuisine – so much so that they are their own category. They are portable. They are versatile. They are culturally significant (when in Rome). Frankly, they are the most important cultural symbol of Texas in my opinion.
El Primo Taco Truck – This family has the best migas breakfast taco in Austin, hands down. They are cash only!
Tyson’s Tacos – Hyde Park – this is probably my personal favorite all-around taco joint. They are open 24 hours for those night owls staying up north.
Nixta Taqueria – This east side non-traditional taqueria is so good and so fun.
Torchy’s – If you don’t have time to get to any of the above off-the-beaten-path locations, Torchy’s is a fine substitute that’s easily accessible downtown.
On the run and starving? Almost EVERY small market, grocery store, and gas station offers grab-and-go breakfast tacos from Taco Deli.
Overall, Austin offers a variety of delicious food options, unique activities, and shopping experiences, and most importantly, breakfast tacos that should not be missed. While SXSW is undoubtedly a busy time in Austin, it’s also the perfect time to experience everything that makes the city special. From the food to the music to the people, Austin has a unique charm that’s hard to resist. If you want a more well-rounded experience of everything that Austin has to offer, hopefully this list of where to explore in Austin during SXSW gives you great direction from this sassy, brassy, part time local. And better yet, see you there!