South by Southwest (SXSW)—the annual music, film, and tech festival that overtakes Austin every March—can be overwhelming, to say the least. So, where can you go to escape the craziness, but also soak up the city’s nightlife? Check out this list of bars and music clubs, all of which go relatively unnoticed by the hordes of SXSW attendees every year.
ABGB is everything you want in a beer garden: a friendly, welcoming indoor/outdoor space with plenty of long wooden tables; delectable pizzas with bougie toppings like white clam, pistachio pesto, truffle oil, and spring peas; regular live music; and, oh yeah, award-winning beer. The brewery recently won “Large Brewpub/Brewmaster of the Year” at the Great American Beer Festival for the third year in a row.
Named after the swimming hole behind the bar (now Deep Eddy Pool), Deep Eddy Cabaret was founded in 1951, though the building itself was constructed in the 1920s. And somehow, after all these years, Deep Eddy is still many people’s favorite bar, beloved for its classic, dive-y touches: cheap pitchers of beer and bags of Fritos on every table, a cigarette machine in the corner, haphazardly strung holiday lights, and a hodgepodge of weird knick-knacks scattered everywhere. At this point, Deep Eddy is more of a local institution than a bar.
Some people will tell you to check out the Broken Spoke if you’re in the mood for two-stepping and country tunes—and they wouldn’t be wrong, exactly. However, the White Horse is decidedly less touristy (and, dare we say, more fun). This laid-back Eastside honky-tonk has killer live music and free dance lessons throughout the week, cheap whiskey shots and Lone Star tallboys that flow like water, and a crowd made up of equal parts tattooed hipsters and grizzled cowboys ready to take you for a spin.
Discreetly tucked below Buenos Aires Café, Milonga Room is one of the best speakeasies in Austin. Though this bar isn’t exactly a secret anymore, there’s only room for about 20 people, so it's still an intimate space. And with the red velvet couches, turquoise walls, and glowing, wall-to-wall candlelight, being here feels like being in a dream (à la David Lynch, perhaps). To access Milonga, enter through the unmarked blue door in the back—just be sure you make a reservation and secure the password in advance. Lynchian, indeed.
Austin isn’t short on hipster dive bars, but Barfly’s is an actual dive bar. In fact, if you were to Wikipedia the term “dive bar,” you’d find a picture of this faded, timeworn neighborhood joint, located on a bleak strip of Airport Blvd. Barfly’s checks all the boxes: Windowless and pitch-black interior, save for the neon Coors Light signs and bright green pool tables? Check. A jukebox that spews classic rock tunes? Check. Exceedingly cheap, exceedingly strong drinks? Check, check.
Keep your eyes peeled when you’re looking for Garage. This blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bar is built into the parking garage of the American National Bank building downtown, and there’s no street signage. Once you’ve made it inside, the fun can begin. As the record player spins tunes, kick back and order one of their elegant, herby cocktails. The Indian Paintbrush—a sweetly dangerous concoction of vodka, grapefruit, lime, and rosemary—is a standout.
Easily one of the most iconic-yet-offbeat bars in the city, Sahara Lounge boasts an inviting atmosphere and a vibrant, diverse music scene. Every week on Africa Night, swarms of locals gather to listen to African-influenced bands and dance their buns off until 2 a.m. On any given night, though, you’ll see live hip-hop, Brazilian, Afro-jazz, blues, country, or any number of other genre-spanning musicians take the stage.
At Kitty Cohen's, the vibe is pure retro beach-chic: The combination of summery cocktails, palm trees, pink flamingo wallpaper, and an aqua-blue wading pool will make you feel like you've stepped back in time to 1950s-era Palm Springs. Grab a frosé (frozen rose and homemade strawberry purée), dip your toes in the pool, and soak up the refreshing summertime vibes any time of year—because hey, it's Texas.
“Eclectic” is the word most often used to describe Butterfly Bar. Hidden away (some might say cocooned) on Manor Road, this colorful, casual hangout has a 100-year-old-bar, a sprawling patio, communal picnic tables, and even a rustic “pony shed” (you know, for those who need a little privacy). Butterfly Bar is also connected to the avant-garde performing space The VORTEX, and the on-site food truck, Patrizi’s, serves some of the best homemade pasta in town
Lala’s Little Nugget is a small, nondescript dive bar off of Burnet that serves up some serious Christmas cheer—every single day of the year. Billed as “the North Pole meets Central Texas,” the bar has been Christmas-themed since it opened in the early ’70s, and today, every square inch of the place is plastered with holiday memorabilia and décor. Try the Reindeer Water (tequila, Cointreau, fresh lime, and Topo Chico) or the Naughty Little Nugget (habanero-infused tequila, lime, blue agave syrup, and orange juice).
A standout gem on the Austin dive bar circuit, Donn’s Depot is a bit of a local legend. If you go, you’d do well to wear your dancing boots: Country tunes fill the main room nearly every night (with owner Donn Adelman himself often sitting at the piano), and the dance floor is always populated by white-haired regulars two-stepping the night away. Oh, and the whole “depot” thing is literal: Donn’s is nestled inside an old railway car.
In the heart of downtown, tucked away in a shadowy basement, Austin's coolest, smokiest underground jazz club boasts live music seven nights a week, in the form of swing, blues, and smooth New York- and Kansas City-style jazz. You probably won't be able to see your companion in the candlelit darkness, but no matter: There's lovely music to be heard. The cover charge is minimal unless it's a weekend, and if you go early enough you can likely score a table up front.
The Skylark Lounge may seem like an off-the-beaten-path spot to outsiders, but it’s actually an esteemed club with a rich history and lasting musical legacy. Walk into this no-frills, candlelit haunt and you’ll feel the ghosts of musicians past. Nearly every evening, a diverse crowd congregates at the Skylark to enjoy the consistently great live country, blues, and soul bands, many of which are regionally well-known acts and homegrown favorites.