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Austin, Texas has been a city on my travel wishlist for a while, but I have yet to visit this American city. However, Adam Cheshier visited Austin and attended the Austin City Limits Musical Festival (or ACL). He shares his experience with ACL and Austin below. All photos in this post are courtesy of Adam Cheshier.
Austin City Limits Music Festival is one of the most well-established music festivals in the United States. Making a name for itself through 16 years since the first annual festival weekend, ACL has become a staple of live music in the Live Music Capital of the World – Austin, Texas. Becoming a two-weekend event back in 2013, ACL has built itself into a huge eight-stage cultural event that over 450,000 people attend annually from all over the world.
Austin City Limits takes place every year on two consecutive fall weekends at Zilker Park in Austin, Texas. Zilker Park is located just ten minutes from downtown Austin, but ACL also offers a free shuttle service from Republic Square downtown.
Pro-Tip: Use the shuttle service! There is parking available on the festival grounds. However, you will still need to walk up to a mile to get to Zilker’s gates once parked. Not to mention you would be hard-pressed to find parking under $20 per day around Zilker. Parking lots are much more affordable around downtown. Plus, having your car already downtown makes it simpler and less stressful to make it to the eccentric Austin bars after the last performance of the day.
What Not To Expect
I’ll admit, this was the first multi-day music festival I had ever attended. I loved the lineup and had the highest expectations going into the weekend. I envisioned everything I thought this music festival would be and it turns out I was completely wrong about it.
I had dreamed up everything you see in movies about free-spirited, dirty-hippie, drug-infested, love-filled weekends such as Woodstock once was. I wanted the type of music festival that people talk about even half of a century into the future.
This isn’t how ACL is. This isn’t how modern music festivals are. ACL was clean, carefully patrolled, and a family-friendly environment (a matter of fact, there were A LOT of families with little children there). However, that doesn’t mean that ACL wasn’t the time of my life. I loved every second of it. The music was great, the festival-goers were more than friendly, and the entire weekend was organized very smoothly. You truly get the experience that you pay for at Austin City Limits.
The size of Zilker Park is both ideal and un-ideal for a music festival. The grounds are very compact inside the festival walls. The advantage of this is that it makes it quicker to hop on over to another stage to hear your next favourite artist. The disadvantage is that several times over the course of the weekend it led to high congestion areas on routes between stages in which everyone was seemingly at a standstill. This part was frustrating, but being able to catch multiple bands during the same time slot made it all worth it.
I suppose when you daydream about a picture-perfect festival experience, you envision being surrounded by a sea of the crowd with a good view of the stage on every act. Sadly, that’s a bit of a far cry for a modern-day, multi-stage festival. In fact, to get a good spot in the heart of the crowd at ACL, I suggest arriving at your favourite band’s stage at least 20 minutes in advance. Sometimes that will mean you have to sacrifice seeing half of a band’s set in the time slot before to get to the right stage.
This was a hard concept for me to grasp as I wanted to see as much music as I could during the weekend. However, it is plenty worth it for the experience.
There is no camping at ACL which is often seen as the traditional form of accommodation at festivals. Instead, the city of Austin offers several affordable options:
Airbnb – While I was at ACL, I used Airbnb to find a local host to stay with. If you haven’t heard of Airbnb, it’s an affordable and safe way to find somewhere to sleep and learn a little bit about the city from a local. In Austin, expect to pay anywhere from $20-$30 for a place to stay from Airbnb.
Couchsurfing – a free option, but look to book in advance on a busy weekend such as ACL.
Budget Hotel – If you are not very picky about the quality of the place you stay, you can find a hotel minutes away from downtown Austin for around $40-$50 per night.
Campgrounds – although not a part of the festival, there are a few tent campgrounds around Zilker Park, some for as cheap as $15 per night. Again, as it is a busy weekend in Austin, I would look to make a reservation as early as possible.
No outside food is allowed to be brought onto the festival grounds, so you will have to budget accordingly. For those on a tighter budget, I suggest pre-purchasing meals from a grocery store before the event. This will save you as much as you want it to. However, not eating while at the festival makes for a long day that will drain you of all of your energy, so make the right decision for you.
As for food around Zilker, there are a few cafés that can be found with a quick Google search. Magnolia Café seemed to be the popular spot the entire weekend, but that meant there was also a long wait line to eat before heading into the festival.
Inside Zilker, there are plenty of delicious local food vendors. I found that you could find a tasty, filling meal inside ACL at one of these vendors for roughly $6-$9. The 2016 food lineup featured anything from hearty Texas barbeque to zesty loaded nachos to wacky fried bananas.
By the way, take some time to check out the ACL Art Market in the middle of Zilker Park as well.
Going Out in Austin
You will quickly notice that Austin doesn’t get the title of Live Music Capital of the World for nothing. I have truly never seen anything like it, and if you are a music junky like me, you will deeply appreciate it. On any given night of the week, in any given bar in downtown Austin, it is very likely that you will experience some live musical performance.
The one place you absolutely have to experience when going out in Austin is Sixth Street, or “The Dirty 6th” as locals prefer to refer to it. This entire half-mile long mock Bourbon Street mixed with the comfort of a relatively unknown dive bar is the ideal way to go out for someone travelling on a budget. Walk this street on a weekend night, and you will see gobs of 20-somethings drinking too much and devouring pizza by the slice from street-side vendors. I have no bar recommendations in particular because there are far too many beers to give an accurate recommendation of my favourite bar. Make sure you get here!
Rainey Street is where you will see those 20-somethings who have graduated from the heavy party-like atmosphere of The Dirty 6th. A little calmer, but still just as budget-friendly, Rainey Street is the perfect alternative for a night out in Austin.
The Ultimate Guide to Surviving ACL
ACL is the perfect music festival for any concert-lover who wants to experience a festival for a more affordable price than the biggest festivals in North America. There are still a plethora of great performers at half the price. There’s a lot more to ACL. If you have any questions about the weekend, don’t be afraid to contact me.
About the Author
Adam has been travelling and living abroad, telling stories on his blog Wanderway for the past three years as a digital nomad. He is a perpetual experience-seeker and self-proclaimed adrenaline-junkie. Adam has written two autobiographical novels (or Roman à clef), pulling stories from his iconoclastic lifestyle. You can also find him on Instagram and Facebook.
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