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Going to SXSW? Last-Minute Austin Travel Tips

photo: StuSeeger

You have decided that a trip to Austin for SXSW (South By Southwest) is a good idea. You have read the official and unofficial survival guides (other unofficials here and here), and you have used Facebook and Twitter to find out that all your friends are going to be there too. You have even already installed a bunch of apps to help you survive South by Southwest on your smart phone.

Now you just have to figure out your travel plans, which if you have waited this long, might be tricky, but let’s see what we can plan in a short amount of time with a budget in mind. If nothing else, you will be in good shape for next year, when you can jump on Early Bird Registration and save yourself $250.

Even if you are not planning on attending SXSW, Austin is a great place (albeit a little weird) to visit. The Live Music Capital of the World, as well as the capital of Texas, Austin has loads to see and do.

Things to do

If you are attending the conference, your plans are pretty much set. Sessions, panels, parties – you will have a busy week.

However, if you are not attending the conference, or if you are on a party-only pass, Austin had many attractions to keep you occupied day and night. If music is your interest, check out the Sixth Street and Red River entertainment districts, with over 50 clubs and venues catering to many different musical tastes, including country, blues, folks, punk and jazz. Even grocery stores like Whole Foods feature live music! Besides SXSW, Austin is host to close to 90 music events each year.

With comfortable year-round temperatures, Austin is also a great destination for the outdoorsy-type. Lady Bird Lake, on the south edge of town, offers fishing, kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding. The Hike & Bike Trail, around the lake, is accessible from several places in downtown Austin. Rent a cruiser for 4-hours ($18-22) and enjoy a leisurely ride on the Veloway Bike Trail. Zillker Botanical Garden (Admission is free), in central Austin, features themed gardens with guided tours available.

One of the more fascinating (and slightly creepy attractions) is the Congress Avenue Bats, the largest colony of Mexican Free-Tailed bats in North America. During the summer, people flock to the bridge at sunset to watch the bats emerge from under the bridge. Spring is migration time, so keep your eyes peeled for the annual influx.

Restaurants

Eating well in Austin is not a problem. With a healthy food-cart culture, and loads of interesting local restaurants to chose from, finding good (budget) options is easy.

Pick a theme, find a restaurant. Farm-to-table? How about The Belmont (average tab $30), Barley Swine ($45), or Foreign & Domestic ($39). BBQ more your interest? Check out Smitty’s Market ($16), Salt Lick ($21) or Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que ($18). And according to the venerable Zagat Guide, Torchy’s Tacos is THE place to go for creative, overstuffed tacos ($10).

If you want to venture out and explore Austin food-carts, start with El Naranjo, which uses as many local ingredients as possible. Other possibilities include Crepes Mille (savory and sweet), Odd Duck Farm to Trailer (100% locally sourced), and G’raj Mahal. Set aside $4-8/plate at each of these vendors. For additional recommendations, check out the Guide to Austin’s Food Trailer Community, a concise resource for all things food-truck in Austin.

Lodging

First off, contact one of your many friends attending the conference and see if you can share their hotel room. At this point, the official SXSW hotels are all sold out, and finding lodging near the conference will be (almost) impossible.

Second, check out CouchSurfing, iStopOver or airbnb for short-term, local rentals. Many places include a host who is more than willing to share information about Austin and SXSW tips. Plus, you might even stumble on a secret party location! Expect to pay between $50-$250 a night, depending on location.

If neither of the first two suggestions work, or you need a more conforming lodging option, there are still hotels available in Austin which are not part of the SXSW room block. With convenient public transportation, most hotels are easily accessible from the convention center. Expect to pay more, $150-$500 a night, again, depending on location. It is worth checking out some of the discount hotel brokers, including Priceline, CheapTickets, and RoomSaver. And pull out all the stops and check LastMinuteTravel and CheapTicketLinks. Hopefully you can find a deal that works for you.

Gudrun Enger is a travel, food and lifestyle blogger based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find her @kitchengirl on Twitter.