South By Southwest, SXSW, or “Southby” as locals call it, was created in Austin way back when Reagan was President and Lethal Weapon (the first one) topped the box offices. It was but a small music festival with the goal of innovating and bucking trends. The first SXSW event was thought up and debated in secret at the Austin Chronicle, and expected 150 attendees but with 700 crowding the stages, there was no going back.

In the years since they have added Film and Interactive (tech) to the event lineup, as well as Gaming, Education, and dozens of other side events, making it one of the biggest events in the world today.

sxsw official poster for 2023

Organizing in Advance

But don’t let the number of options overwhelm you, your first time is guaranteed to be a whirlwind, and no matter how much you plan, no day is going to follow that agenda because you’ll turn a corner and find another “experience” that your badge gets you into and you won’t be able to say no (I mean who can say no to free watermelon kombucha, funky SX shirts, and a full-body VR experience!?).

Every SXSW Guide is going to outline all of this year’s keynotes and neat tracks and side stages you can sneak into, but we highly encourage you to organize in advance, but to keep an open mind and an attitude that there’s no way you can see or do it all, so just go with the flow.

You’re going to meet people in line at events and they’ll ask if you’re going to some famous person’s private live music VIP lounge and you won’t have heard of it, but they have extra tickets, and now the day is moving in a different direction – go with it!

The SXSW Schedule is so useful, and having it all lined up before you arrive can be tremendously helpful, but knowing what to do at SXSW has more to do with talking to people on the ground once you’re at the convention center.

When Does SXSW Take Place?

SXSW is from March 10-19, 2023 and although there are various ways to enjoy the event, there are still three main sections: Music, Film, and Interactive. The conference isn’t just at the conference center – almost all venues in the downtown area are leased out months (or years) in advance to fit all of the bands and films and happy hours.

The convention center is where most of the Interactive events are, and that’s a trade show as well as panels of experts talking about various innovations in technologies. Film is at the handful of cinemas around the area, and music explodes throughout downtown Austin and Red River in such a huge way that you’ll see bands at huge venues, small bars, side stages outdoors all over the place, and even the dang street.

SXSW continues to add keynote speakers, bands, and films, right up until the event, so it is difficult to plan in advance, but we highly advise keeping an eye out for the emails they send with updates so you can change your itinerary accordingly.

Some Things Have Changed Since COVID

SXSW has changed a lot since COVID, so any advice your friends have might need to be taken with a grain of salt.

For example, before COVID, you had to have special RSVPs and wristbands to any of the hundreds of side events (like sponsored happy hours) that offered free food and drink, but last year, we saw plenty of events that allowed anyone in so long as they had a SX badge and there was room for more people. Other pop-up events had two separate lines for registrants and non-registrants, most of whom ended up getting inside.

How to Get Around & What to Bring

We also recommend knowing HOW to get around – that can be key, because you think you can just Uber everywhere, but wear comfy shoes, because you’re going to triple your steps goal for any normal day, as the city is pretty much blocked off from auto traffic.

SXSW has a quick guide for getting around that they keep updated.

There are a number of things we can promise will make your SX experience frictionless:

  • Your SXSW Badge – just wear it the entire time, maybe even sleep in it. Getting a replacement is a pain and it’s required literally everywhere.
  • You’ll need your wallet – many bars are 21+, so you’ll get carded, and you’ll want your credit card to tip on drinks (even though you can (and should)) Venmo smaller bands. If you’re going to Interactive, bring business cards – some folks still use them.
  • Get a small water-resistant backpack and get a clear one if you can (restrictions change every year) – cram in a waterproof poncho so you don’t have to carry around a coat, and bring a portable charger battery pack since your phone will definitely die.
  • Also throw into that back some sunscreen, cheap sunglasses, and earplugs.
  • Bring two reusable water bottles, but none you can’t part with because some bars may check your bag and refuse entry if you have one. Dehydration is the top cause of injury at SX, so keep an eye on your hydration.
  • Bring a few healthy snacks or protein bars because you think you’re going to eat at every taco stand, but suddenly it’s 11:30 at night and you’ve been too excited to eat and you’re lightheaded.
  • Wear comfortable shoes, and bring along body glide in case you start getting sores. Bring ultra-thin flip-flops in that backpack in case your day shoes don’t work out.
  • You’ll need to wear layers because mid-March in Austin is either cold and rainy or hot and humid, all in the same day. You’re coming during a season change, so be ready for temperature swings.

Twitter Accounts to Follow

Impromptu pop-up events come out of nowhere, and it’s good to know surprise events are or where the free food or SHORT LINES are, so create a list of these accounts to follow since they’re doing the investigating for you:

  • @SXSW
  • @SXSWeats
  • @SXSWNews
  • @SXUnofficial 
  • @Do512
  • @ATXconcert
  • @TheFreeNoms

You’ll never forget your first SXSW – it’s like there is electricity in the air everywhere you go and everyone is just excited to be there! Be safe, plan ahead, and most of all, go with the flow!