Many people first fall in love with Austin after they come to town for one of the city’s big music festivals. Austin has too many events and festivals to count, but there are only a few that attract thousands of residents and out-of-towners. Here are the big ones.
SXSW has grown exponentially since the first event in 1987. Held in March, the festival includes interactive, film and music components. The music festival is the most well-known, drawing bands from around the world at all stages of their careers. SXSW is a huge event for Austin with tens of thousands of attendees flocking to city. As such, crowd control has become a concern in the recent years.
An increasingly star-studded event held in late October, the Austin Film Festival focuses on the craft of screenwriting. Panels with screenwriters and directors throughout the day are followed by screenings downtown at the Paramount and other theaters. The best schmoozing, however, happens late at night at the Driskill Bar. You never know who you might run into on one of the bar’s poofy leather love seats.
Held in October, COTA attracts crowds that are completely different from those drawn by the Austin Film Festival and South by Southwest. Since the races are held all over the world, you almost have to be wealthy to be a devoted fan. And many of the F1 fans do travel to every race, whether it’s in Mexico City or Monaco. Instead of driving to the track in southeast Austin, many of them commute by helicopter from downtown Austin.
The early-October event stretches across two three-day weekends. About 70,000 music fans descend on Zilker Park each day to roam among several stages. The festival was inspired by the Austin City Limits TV show, which is now filmed at the Moody Theater downtown. The event’s organizers pride themselves on including a mix of up-and-coming bands and established acts.
The city literally roars during ROT Rally weekend in mid-June. Bikers from all over the country descend on the Travis County Expo Center and downtown Austin. The event at the Expo Center is part trade show and part ongoing party. A parade for bikers is also held along Congress Avenue on the opening night of the rally. Though some of the riders look intimidating, most of them are weekend warriors. Sadly, a shadow was cast over the event after a shootout in Waco a few years ago that involved the police and several rival biker gangs. Nevertheless, subsequent rallies have proceeded without any major incidents.
Austin prides itself on being a city of readers, so it’s only fitting that one of the town’s biggest festivals is devoted to books and world-renowned authors. Held on the grounds of the state capitol in late October, the festival features more than 250 authors and special events for all ages. There are several opportunities to attend readings and mix and mingle with authors and fellow book lovers throughout the weekend. The event also offers family-friendly activities, food trucks and hundreds of exhibitors.
Held every April, the Austin Food and Wine Festival seems to attract higher-profile chefs with each passing year. You can attend talks, cooking demonstrations, classes and tastings hosted by big-name chefs from Austin and around the country. Despite the highbrow guests, the event always honors its Texas roots, with plenty of barbecue and Tex-Mex fare available. The event is located near downtown on the shores of Lady Bird Lake. For a few extra bucks, you can also participate in sit-down dinners and wine tastings with famous foodies.
A humble hot sauce contest that has grown over the years into a full-fledged festival, the Austin Hot Sauce Festival is held every August at Auditorium Shores on Lady Bird Lake. Local restaurants, commercial hot sauce producers and individuals compete in categories such as red sauce, special variety and people’s choice. In 2018, the Posse East (a casual West Campus bar) beat out upscale restaurant Sazon for the top red-sauce prize. To go along with all the spicy fare, there are also plenty of cold beverages available, along with a spicy lineup of musical acts.
Every August, Batfest shuts down the Congress Avenue Bridge for a day to celebrate the bridge’s famous residents. Several bat-friendly booths line the bridge, and bat fans can listen to live bands at sunset as the bats emerge from beneath the bridge and fly eastward for their nightly feast. If you’re really into the batty spirit of the event, there are bat costume contests for both adults and kids.
One of the biggest and oldest arts-and-crafts festivals in Austin, the Pecan Street Festival is held in the spring and fall on 6th Street (originally known as Pecan Street). You can find fine art, folk art, mixed-media pieces and just about any other type of art imaginable in the dozens of booths along the street. You can often meet and chat with the artists while browsing their pieces. There are also several music stages and food trucks. Kid-friendly activities include face painting, a petting zoo and roving magicians.
For those interested in truly one-of-a-kind gifts, the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar is a required stop on your next holiday-shopping excursion. The event fills up the huge Palmer Events Center, with booths offering handcrafted items ranging from artwork to housewares. There’s also plenty of live music, food and a variety of kids’ activities.
Held every March, the Texas Relays is one of the biggest track-and-field events in the country. Located on the University of Texas campus in March, the event often overlaps with South by Southwest, which only adds to the exciting vibe in the city in springtime. Featuring some of the best runners, jumpers and discus throwers in the world, the Texas Relays is often where the star athletes of the future first make a name for themselves on a national stage.
The ABC Kite Festival, aka the Zilker Kite Festival, is a wondrous sight to behold for children and adults alike. Hundreds of kites, many of them home-made, take to the air simultaneously over Zilker’s Great Lawn. Kids can compete in a kite contest, with categories such as Most Unusual Kite, Strongest Pulling Kite and Highest Angle Kite. Food and drink booths are also set up around the edges of the park.