?Austin's always been Texas's dirty liberal secret, but the last 10 years have been a serious coming-out party. The ATX commonly ranks top-tier amongst best cities for young people to live, economic prospects, and per capita food and leisure spending, while vehemently defending the title of Live Music Capital of the World. South by Southwest ("South by" to locals) is the pillar of Austin's entertainment economy, with every inch of bar or event space (including parking garages, sidewalks, and empty lots) rented out to the highest bidder to use as backdrops for promotional events.
The music portion of this non-stop 10 day party of young musicians, filmmakers, and techies begins today (March 15-20) and consumes the city, so don't expect business-as-usual. Much of downtown is blocked off from traffic, making it an inviting pedestrian spectacle but a nightmare for anyone traveling by car. During the day most events are free (or RSVP), with literally thousands of bands presented with enticements like gratis food and drink. At night most downtown bars become official festival venues that require a badge for entry, while off-beaten paths remain fun options for those uninterested in buying official SXSW passes. For the freshest action, head east of city's major dividing point IH-35.
Cheer Up Charlie's bumpin' backyardEast 6th Street has emerged as the new creative zone, with design collectives like Public School, DJ and music production academies (Dub Academy, East Side Music School), alternative theater/comedy troupes (The New Movement, Salvage Vanguard Theater) , and a culinary/cocktail renaissance that blurs the line between greasy trailers and farm-to-table fine dining. Bar standouts include the vaudeville cocktail revivalists East Side Showroom and queer-leaning live music venue Cheer Up Charlie's, whose new-age menu features Kombucha on tap and juice-filled fresh young coconuts. The area heads a trailer food boom that boasts everything from Bourdain-endorsed spots like school bus BBQ smokers Old School BBQ & Grill and beet-frying Asian fusionists East Side Kings, to comfort-food unconventionalists like the bacon-loving punk rockers at Pig Vicious and the twisted southern chefs of Ugly Banjo's.
Popovers cooling in the kitchen of Foreign & DomesticFlee to North Loop (53½ St.) for a quieter scene. Shopping options include immaculate '60s furniture collectors Room Service and Hogwild, vinyl archaeologists at DJ-centric Backspin Records and 45 treasure trove Breakaway Records, and vintage fashion destination Blue Velvet. Diners shouldn't miss newly opened spots like the tongue-in-cheek tapas peddlers Foreign and Domestic (with dishes like the Smokey Mountain-sourced ham plate "This Beautiful Ass"), British-inspired classic cocktail lounge Tigress, or breakfast taco landmark Tamale House.
Gay Bi Gay GayDuring the music festival downtown's nightlife spots often eschew their normal atmosphere for private sponsored parties, but traditionally gay spots like 4th street dance mainstay Rain, watering hole Oilcan Harry's, and bear dens like the newly opened Iron Bear and iconic Chain Drive, often host gay-leaning showcases and parties. Party details and RSVP instructions are kept hushed until closer to the actual event dates, but keep an eye to the Internet for long-running parties like AGLIFF's Queers and Steers, independently-organized Gay Bi Gay Gay, and the ultimate in South By ragers, Perez Hilton's One-Night-In-Austin.