The Ultimate Guide to Rocking Austin City Limits
Austin is a city built on musical legacies, and there’s perhaps none greater than that of Austin City Limits. Born as a PBS TV show in 1975, the program cemented Austin’s reputation as a hub for live music and it now broadcasts out of the world-class Moody Theater on Second Street. More importantly, ACL has spawned a two-weekend music festival of scorching-hot bands (in hopefully less-than-scorching heat).
Originally, Austin City Limits specialized in blues and country (check the Willie Nelson statue in front of the Moody), but since the festival began in 2002, it’s expanded beyond outlaw country strummers to include a musical buffet of everything from superstar rappers to simian-themed art rock supergroups. But before you storm the grassy grounds of Zilker Park, you need to be prepared. And since that Willie statue isn’t much of a talker, listen up -- we’ve got you covered.
Better hope you have fiber internet, because tickets are going fast! Point that browser to ACL’s site and snatch up one of the remaining three-day passes for Weekend Two or settle for a taste of the action with a Weekend One day pass. If official tickets do sell out, don’t even bother trying to find scalped passes along Barton Springs Road on the way to the festival; hawkers smell desperation and charge more than twice face value. But we’ve heard this guy named Craig is selling them on some List...
What You Can Bring
The first thing that you should stuff in that standard-sized backpack (no camping frames!) is two factory-sealed bottles of water, which can helpfully be refilled at stations throughout the festival. Should your #squad need to #squadup, it’s a good idea to bring a flag or totem (under 12ft tall). Collapsable chairs and blankets are allowed for staking a plot of land, but don’t expect to capture your temporary homestead or any other #squadgoals on anything higher-res than a smartphone camera: no professional electronics are allowed.
Wear Sunscreen, Deodorant, and Shorts
Any Austinite will tell you that we have swimming weather until mid-October. Last year, festival-weekend temperatures creeped into the high 80s, which quickly turns a pair of jeans into a swamp. Encourage airflow with a pair of shorts, love thy neighbor by packing deodorant, and invest in your skin’s future with a high SPF sunscreen (sealed, lotion only -- no aerosol). Should you forget any essentials, basic supplies can be purchased inside the fest, but even though Jay Z is playing, don’t expect to find any Rocawear shorts for sale.
Your Hotline Might Not Bling
In total, nearly half a million people attended the festival in 2016. Yeah, yeah, that was over two weekends, but it still holds true that the deluge of sidestage #humblebrag Instagram photos alone is enough to take down a cellular network. Anticipate bad reception, slow social media uploads, and missed Tinder swipes. Bring a mobile battery charger if you’re the Snapchatting type and slide into airplane mode to save energy, or just mosey over to the charging stations at the Art Market for some juice.
After the Show (It's the Afterparty)
The festival closes down at 10pm each day, but thankfully, eight official late-night venues have you covered (should your eardrums be able to take the heat). Performances range from second-to-top billing acts such as Run the Jewels (Stubb’s Waller Creek Amphitheater) to local legends like The Black Angels (Emo’s Austin) and run throughout the week.
Driving yourself to or from any festival in Austin is a horrible idea. If you must drive, save yourself an hour of circling Travis Heights -- plus the half-hour walk -- by buying a parking pass in advance.
Make like Lance Armstrong (sans the doping) and hop on a bike and pedal your way to the festival. If you’re staying anywhere in central Austin, it’ll likely take under 30 minutes, which is how long it’d take to walk from that parking spot you definitely shouldn’t search for. Don’t have wheels of your own? Try out the city’s B-cycle program, which offers short-term bike rentals all around town. Or flag down a pedicab. Your quads will thank you.
One of Austin’s weaknesses is public transit. The MetroRail shortens longer commutes, but with the closest stop still two miles from the festival entrance, you’ll likely need another ride. ACL shuttle routes haven’t yet been released, but last year they ran from Republic Square Park, a much shorter hike from the Downtown rail stop. And while the bus system can get a bit gnarly outside of festival season, CapMetro does their darndest to keep the wheels on the buses going round and round when Chance the Rapper is in town.
Austin has an “it’s complicated” relationship with ridesharing. Uber and Lyft are back after a year-long legal battle, but while they were gone, a new crop of apps sprung up. Ride Austin broke the mold with a non-profit model and it earned them official partnership status from the festival, meaning they have designated drop-off/pick-up spots just outside the grounds. Another Ride Austin advantage over the big boys is the opt-in surge pricing, which means those willing to pay a premium price get picked up first, while cheapskates can still get a ride -- by hanging back at the end of the line.
How to Beat the Line
Don’t bring a bag! There are express lines for those not schlepping in a backpack, and the crowd will be so thick that no one will be able to notice/judge your cargo shorts.
What Not to Bring
Smokers will be disappointed to hear that Zilker Park bans both cigarettes and vaping devices, so, stock up on nicotine gum (if that’s still a thing?). It’s also a no-fly zone, so leave the drones at home. Camping gear, umbrellas, and shade structures are also verboten (remember that sunscreen!), and obviously no illegal substances are allowed (this ain’t California).
Ditch the Chair
The afternoon’s a great time to put down roots with chairs and blankets, but it’d be a shame to post up in one spot all day. Once it’s time to close camp, the festival has you covered with a convenient chair check as well as lockers for other valuables.
Take Home a Souvenir
Austin keeps it local, which means there are dozens of crafty vendors selling everything from cowboy boots to concert posters by the city’s top designers. Make it a point to visit the Art Market, and if those boots aren’t made for walking, they’ll fit nicely in one of those lockers...
ACL is more family-friendly than millennial-centric fests like Coachella. Kids are welcome, especially if they’re wearing adorable protective headphones. There’s even a special entrance for families where helicopter parents can register their young’uns in case of emergency, plus the kids area has tons of activities (as well as crucial diaper-changing stations).
Walking the grounds of the festival will work up a sweat and an appetite, but thankfully the ACL food court is populated with some of Austin’s very finest purveyors of quality eats. Here are some of our faves.
In a sea of people, sometimes the best sustenance is the simple comfort of a grilled cheese. Burro Cheese Kitchen dishes out some of the fest’s gooiest options. Try the Croque Madam (add a fried egg, obviously), the Burning Mac (who can say no to a mac & cheese sandwich?), or the maple-bacon sauced Waylon & Willie.
Austin’s food trailers are known far and wide, and one of the first-wave favorites will be yours for the trying. East Side King, helmed by Top Chef winner Paul Qui, offers delectable dishes that every Austinite knows by heart, like pork steamed buns, beet fries, and fried chicken karaage.
It takes a brave soul to even look at brisket during a music festival, but should you require a dose of Texas’ finest meat creation, look no further than Micklethwait Craft Meats, which was recently crowned No. 8 in Texas Monthly’s illustrious barbecue rankings.
Tacos, Tacos, Tacos
Taco fanatics rejoice, this festival is rich with tortilla-wrapped options. For more straightforward fare, try Torchy’s, an Austin institution that’s eyeing a country-wide expansion (try the fried avocado). More creative choices include two of Austin’s best fusion restaurants, which both started as trailers and expanded to brick-and-mortar joints: Chi’lantro and Peached Tortilla.
With roughly 150 acts playing across eight stages, it’s impossible to walk away from the festival without hearing a few nostalgic tunes and finding some new fire to add to that Spotify playlist. This year’s lineup leans significantly more toward hip-hop, a sign of the times for a festival that’s traditionally skewed more country, blues, and alternative rock.
As fun as it is to jet between stages, be realistic. Leaving Solange to catch the last half of Ryan Adams means swim-walking through a crowd of 10,000 people, so take a moment before the festival to plot out a strategy that takes geography into account. Be sure to leave room for improvising, but come armed with a gameplan (and a flag with Chance the Rapper’s face on it) and your friends will likely follow.
Flyer Than a Piece of Paper Bearin' My Name
Hip-hop heads rejoiced when Jay Z was named as a late addition to the lineup, and given the critical acclaim of his most recent album, 4:44, expect him to draw some of the festival’s biggest crowds. Chicago’s heir to the throne, Chance the Rapper, is another can’t-miss, and Solange’s festival show has wooed crowds from sea to shining sea (FYF in LA and Panorama in NYC). A$AP Ferg, Ice Cube, Run the Jewels, and Danny Brown bring some of the fiercest rhymes in the industry, and if you’re looking for beats, check out the boom bap jazz of BADBADNOTGOOD.
It’s not easy for a rock act to score a huge crossover hit these days, but this lineup is stacked with some of the biggest names in rock radio from past and present. The Red Hot Chili Peppers offer a dose of nostalgia and The Killers have nearly been canonized with their own large-font place on festival posters. For fresher sounds from rock bands who’ve already clocked millions of YouTube plays, check out Portugal. The Man, Foster the People, or The Head and the Heart.
ACL always supports local talent and this year is no exception. Spoon, Asleep at the Wheel, and The Black Angels take top billing, but you can also catch some lesser-known Austinites like pop duo The Wild Now, one-man genre-defying singer-drummer-keyboardist Mobley, or feel-good harmonizers The Barton Hills Choir.
Up-and-coming touring acts visit Austin every night, but there’s no better place to sample a ton of new artists at once than at a festival. Songstress Angel Olsen’s known to sell out Mohawk, so be sure to arrive early for her set. Chicago dream pop act Whitney has been on the verge of breaking since the 2016 release of Light Upon the Lake. Thundercat’s bass acrobatics makes him a go-to collaborator for beatsmiths like Flying Lotus, but he’s still under the radar enough that you won’t need to shove your way to the front of the stage.
Austin may be known as the live musical capital of the world, but that’s not the only reason to visit. When your eardrums need a break, head to one of these local landmarks to soak up some knowledge (or simply soak in a pool).
Take a Dip
Austin boasts seven solid months of swimming weather, so it’d be a shame not to bring a bathing suit. Barton Springs is inarguably the city’s best pool (you’ll see these 30 types of people there), but if it’s too crowded, Deep Eddy is another refreshing spring-fed option close enough to Zilker Park that you’ll still be able to hear Ice Cube cursing the LAPD.
Austin’s museum game doesn’t yet match Houston or Dallas, but there’s still plenty of art and history to soak up. Lone Star State newbies should hit the Bullock Texas State History Museum for a refresher on the six flags that have flown over the state, and just across the block, the Blanton Museum of Art houses the University of Texas’ rich collection of modern and contemporary works. Speaking of contemporary, The Contemporary Austin downtown offers a perfect dash of culture that will take less than an hour to visit, and their second lakeside location at Laguna Gloria offers a natural reprieve from the festival hustle.
It’s impossible to miss the state capitol if you’re wandering around downtown -- literally, there are ordinances that preserve lines of sight to the impressive structure. (It’s actually taller than the US capitol building.) Don’t freak out about the metal detectors by the door; it’s a relatively painless process to enter and score one of the most popular photos in the city: a rotunda selfie.
It’s a few miles off the beaten path, but kids with even a passing interest in science will love the Thinkery. A children’s museum with exhibits on water, light, and aerodynamics, plus options for hands-on tinkering will keep kiddies busy for hours, plus an impressive playscape will ensure they’ll be ready for a nap afterward. Bonus nap points: It neighbors J.T. Youngblood’s, one of the best fried chicken joints in town.
Dinner and a Movie
There are few local institutions more beloved than the Alamo Drafthouse. With locations all across the city (including next to the Thinkery), you’re never too far from an opportunity to watch a new or cult flick while sipping a beer. Pro tip: order the chicken fingers with a side of queso.
Tex Mex, barbecue, and more barbecue form the holy trinity of Austin food, but the city’s culinary scene has grown in the last decade to include every cuisine under the sun. Should you need a bite on the way to the fest or after your eardrums have had all they can take, the surrounding ’hood offers a buffet of delicious options for chowing down.
Take a 'Cue
Pilgrimaging to Lockhart or braving the Franklin line is admirable, but let’s be real, convenience is king. The closest brisket in proximity to the festival comes from Terry Black’s, an offshoot of a legendary Lockhart destination that many say has eclipsed the original in quality. Just ask Texas Monthly, who named it one of the top 50 barbecue joints in the state.
Veracruz All Natural reigns supreme in the kingdom of taco trucks, but the closest location is a few miles east. Nearby, El Alma offers contemporary takes on traditional Mexican (try the duck enchiladas), Chuy’s specializes in gooey Tex Mex favorites, Polvo’s on South First Street mixes legendary frozen margaritas, and Tacodeli boasts the most popular breakfast tacos in town (we suggest you call in an order).
For Your Health
For the raw, vegan, gluten-free, and macrobiotic types, Casa de Luz has long been a local favorite and is just a few blocks from the fest. JuiceLand on Barton Springs Road is tops for a post-partying morning pick-me-up. Plus, a newly-opened location of iconic Asian-fusion chain Veggie Heaven is a short hike away, and the lunch buffet at their South Lamar or East Cesar Chavez locations is a killer deal for those willing to venture farther afield.
Two beloved fast-food beef purveyors have locations close to the festival: Whataburger and P. Terry’s, the latter of which will also be peddling patties inside. Both stay open late... and open early. Shake Shack also has an outpost on South Lamar Boulevard (and in the food court, too!), Hopdoddy on South Congress Avenue is a homegrown chain that might take over the world, and Swift’s Attic’s lunch-only “Bowling Alley Burger” is a sure-fire... strike.
When Uchi opened in 2003, it unlocked new culinary frontiers with some of the most forward-thinking sushi in the world, and it’s still worth a visit (make a reservation or arrive early). Sway takes an Australian approach to Thai food (just trust us…) that’s perfect for big groups (share the whole fish, don’t skip dessert). Lovers of Vietnamese food should make a stop at Elizabeth Street Cafe for upscale pho, which is just as delicious as it sounds.