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If you were to visit the capital city of Texas on the two weekends when Austin City Limits (ACL) Festival takes place, its normally lively districts would resemble ghost towns — occasional set of requisite cowboy boots included.
That’s because locals and visitors alike want to be in the heart of the action, and it’s smack-dab in the city’s Zilker Metropolitan Park, where the annual three-day music festival is held. Though the event’s big-name acts include the likes of Radiohead, LCD Soundsystem, Willie Nelson, Band of Horses and Kendrick Lamar, ACL has evolved into more than just a music festival. Here, more than 30 of Austin’s top restaurants also set up shop, along with boutiques selling artisanal wares, a beer hall featuring a wide selection of craft breweries and a fun, family-friendly zone.
Clearly, festival-goers will have plenty of things to choose from. But to point your clients in the right direction, below are my top picks for the best possible ACL experience.
WHAT TO DO
Austin Kiddie LimitsACL’s Austin Kiddle Limits brings kid-friendly music festival to another level. From 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on each day of the festival, little ones can partake in an array of amusing activities, from playing pingpong and building toys to watching and listening to family-friendly musical acts away from the crowds of much taller fans.
Thanks to various vendors and sponsors this year, kids were even able to have their hair transformed into pink mohawks; record a custom song through a hip-hop workshop; boogie down at a dance party; marvel at a local circus troupe’s stilt-walking and juggling skills; take souvenir photos in a HomeAway photo booth; and much more. And don’t worry, parents: There are thoughtful essentials such as baby-changing stations and lounge areas for relaxing, too.
Kids 10 years and younger who are accompanied with a ticketed adult get to attend ACL for free (limit of two children per adult). The festival has introduced a family-friendly entrance, located off Barton Springs Road, for quicker entry; this entrance closes at 7 p.m.
Encourage clients to register their children through the Tag-A-Kid program. Each registered child receives a radio-frequency identification wristband that keeps track of their whereabouts while on festival grounds, in case he or she gets lost.
ACL Art MarketBoth local and national artisans gather at ACL Art Market to tout wares to attendees. Shoppers will get a glimpse into just how funky and creative Austin is, with items such as ceramics, jewelry, beer cozies, backpacks and bohemian jewelry for sale. For example, if feeling extra-inspired by their musical surroundings, this year’s music fans were able to order a custom electric guitar from Moniker Guitars (to be made locally and shipped to their door). Most products are handmade, locally made and/or eco-friendly. Attendees can store their on-site purchases in a locker near the Barton Springs entrance.
ACL BodegaThis is the first year that the ACL Bodega appeared at the festival, and it arrived by popular demand. With prices ranging from $3 to $5 per item, the two ACL Bodega stands offer music festival survival basics, including water bottles and healthy snacks such as fruit, granola bars and trail mix. There are also supplies for sale, ranging from Band-Aids, tissues and bug-repellent wipes to deodorant, sunscreen, eye drops and even ponchos in case of rain.
Austin City Limits (ACL) Festival held in Austin, Texas, spans two weekends each year. // © 2016 Julian Bajsel
The three-day festival takes place in Zilker Metropolitan Park. // © 2016 Charles Reagan Hackleman
Kids ages 10 and younger who are accompanied with a ticketed adult can attend for free. // © 2016 Katrina Barber
The family-friendly Austin Kiddie Limits is open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day of the festival. // © 2016 Valerie Chen
Witness art in action while at ACL. // © 2016 Valerie Chen
Choose from 32 food vendors, including Torchy’s Tacos, a top taco destination in Austin. // © 2016 Valerie Chen
Fulfill your festival veggie intake with Asian-fusion restaurant East Side King’s fried Brussels sprout salad. // © 2016 Valerie Chen
East Side King’s Thai Chicken Kara-age // © 2016 Valerie Chen
Other delicious options include Freebirds World Burrito, The Salt Lick BBQ and more. // © 2016 Linda Vargas
Salt Lick’s Sloppy Nachos are exclusive to ACL. // © 2016 Valerie Chen
Pop rock band Haim performed at this year’s festival. // © 2016 Roger Ho
Rock band Mumford & Sons was one of the closing acts. // © 2016 Charles Reagan Hackleman
Willie Nelson, a renowned musician and songwriter, also took the stage. // © 2016 Cambria Harkey
WHAT TO EAT
East Side KingThe brainchild of Top Chef winner Paul Qui and fellow chef Moto Utsunomiya, East Side King dishes out Japanese street food with a twist. The delicious Asian-fusion options found at the festival this year included Thai Chicken Kara-age (deep-fried, juicy chicken thigh dressed with a sweet and spicy sauce); a buttermilk-fried chicken sandwich with green curry and kimchi pickles; and a fried Brussels sprout salad. Unable to pick just one, I went with both the Thai Chicken Kara-age and the Brussels sprout salad — and both left me wanting more.
Freebirds World BurritoDespite being a fast-casual burrito restaurant, Freebirds World Burrito makes a darn-good burrito. Just ask my friend, who loved the Freebirds steak burrito so much that he went back another five times. (That’s a whopping six burritos total in just three days.) Besides being tasty, the burritos are perfect for a quick grab-and-go bite. Need to take a breather before reaching the other side of the burrito? Wrap it back up, then tuck it in your pocket in case hunger strikes again later — it’s the perfect utilitarian festival snack.
Mighty ConeWhen I quizzed the lovely people manning the food stations on what else they would recommend in ACL’s line-up of eats, they almost always said Mighty Cone. ACL was actually the 2002 birthplace of the legendary Mighty Cone, which is fried chicken andshrimp and/or avocado, drizzled with ancho-chile sauce, that’s cozily tucked into a flour tortilla with a mango-jalapeno slaw. The flour tortilla is shaped into a cone and fits into a paper cone, too, so nibbling while walking or dancing is easy as can be.
Torchy’s TacosI also attended ACL in 2015, and that year, I giddily ate Torchy’s Tacos not once, but twice. This time around, before heading to any stage to watch a performance on day one, I made a beeline straight for my beloved Torchy’s stand (and then ate its tacos again the next day).
Like with all of the ACL’s food vendors, there are only a few items on the menu. But with options including Green Chile Pork tacos — carnitas beautifully simmered in green chiles, then topped with onions, cilantro and a squeeze of lime — Torchy’s Tacos is all that a hungry festival-goer needs.
The Salt Lick BBQThe Salt Lick BBQ has graced many a list for top barbecue spots in Austin. Lucky for ACL attendees, the lines necessary to get your meaty fix are much shorter than those found at the restaurant locations.
Not for the faint of heart, Salt Lick’s Sloppy Nachos are wildly popular with guests. Chips are piled high with housemade queso, spicy jalapenos and the establishment’s famous shredded brisket. A side of pork ribs is optional, although encouraged. And if your clients can’t squeeze in The Salt Lick during ACL weekend, they can still indulge at Austin–Bergstrom International Airport, where the barbecue is served (albeit the nachos are a festival-only deal).
WHAT TO DRINK
Barton Springs Beer HallSkip the Miller Lite served at almost every stand around the festival, and scurry into the Barton Springs Beer Hall, where you’ll find the good stuff. Bigger than ever before, the 30,000-square-foot beer hall offers 16 different craft brews. During this year’s festival, patrons sipped on crowd favorites, including Lagunitas IPA, Sweet Water 420 Pale Ale, Sierra Nevada Otra Vez and more. There were also big-screen television screens for guests to watch sporting games while kicking back with a cold brew.
Wine DownNew to ACL, Wine Down is a wine bar located in Zilker Park’s south side and a fabulous respite from the crowds and heat. This year, the three wineries in attendance were Hope Family Wines, Troublemaker Wines and Treana Winery.
GOOD TO KNOW
- If you have clients looking for a luxury festival experience, suggest opting for a VIP or Platinum ticket over a general admission (GA) ticket.
VIP tickets include quicker festival admittance via a dedicated entrance lane; on-site concierge and locker services; mini spa treatments; catered lunch and dinner; a gourmet happy hour; air-conditioned, flushable restrooms; and more.
Platinum tickets include quicker festival admittance, as well; complimentary lockers equipped with phone chargers; wine tastings; massages by Austin’s Viva Day Spa; access to viewing areas at main stages; golf cart rides between stages; shuttle transportation from boutique South Congress Hotel on South Congress Ave. to the festival entrance; and more.
- Two sealed water bottles (up to 1 liter each) are permitted per attendee upon entrance to ACL. Attendees can also bring an empty, refillable bottle or CamelBak to fill up at the free CamelBak Hydration Stations. Additionally, be sure to carefully review the list of allowed and prohibited items to avoid delays in entering the festival and loss of said items.
- Peak arrival times to the festival are 3 to 5 p.m. For shorter lines and quicker admittance, try to avoid this time frame.
- There is no parking available on festival grounds, and parking is discouraged in surrounding neighborhoods. What’s more, Lyft and Uber no longer operate in Austin due to disagreement on background check regulations.
Less established ride-sharing apps, such as Fare and Fasten, have attempted to step up to the plate; however, I quickly found that these newcomers lack the infrastructure to handle ACL’s influx of customers. Instead, I recommend clients to take advantage of complimentary festival shuttles provided by ACL (picks up and drop off from Republic Square at the corner of 4th and Guadalupe streets). Or, Austin B-cycle — a nonprofit bike-sharing program that includes 50 B-cycle stations around downtown Austin, including near Zilker Park — is another effective alternative, which my friends and I used all weekend. Just try to head out before the festival officially ends each night to snag a bicycle.
- Register for ACL Cashless. Attendees can activate their Cashless ticket wristbands by connecting a debit or credit card and creating a four-digit pin number for streamlined purchases throughout the park.
Austin City Limits (ACL) Festival in 2017 will be held on two weekends:- Oct. 6-8, 2017- Oct. 13-15, 2017
The festival will be open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day.
General, VIP and Platinum tickets for ACL 2017 go on sale in spring 2017 (exact date TBD).