North America’s Biggest Small Music Festival: A Survival Guide

In the city that keeps things weird!

Photo by Tim Toomey on Unsplash

** Republished from ACL 2016 **

Austin City Limits Music Festival is one of the most well-known and established in the USA.

Making a name for itself through 16 years — since the first annual weekend festival. ACL has become a staple of live music in the Live Music Capital of the World — Austin, Texas.

In 2013, it finally got big enough to turn into a two-weekend event. ACL is a huge eight-stage cultural event that over 450,000 people attend each year from all over the world.

Getting there. . .

Austin City Limits takes place every year on two consecutive fall weekends. It’s hosted at Zilker Park in Austin, Texas.

Zilker Park is ten minutes from downtown Austin. Easy to reach by car.

Pro-Tip #1: Use the shuttle service! ACL also offers a free shuttle service from Republic Square downtown.

There is parking available around the festival grounds, but you’ll need to walk up to a mile to get to Zilker’s gates. 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 for the after-party!

What not to expect

This was my first multi-day music festival. Ever.

I loved the lineup and had the highest expectations going into the weekend. I envisioned everything I thought this music festival would be. But it turns out I was completely wrong about it.

I had dreamed of everything you see in movies. 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 a half of a century into the future.

Photo by Tomek Baginski on Unsplash

This isn’t how ACL is.

This isn’t how modern music festivals are.

ACL was clean, carefully patrolled, and a family-friendly environment. As a matter of fact, there were A LOT of families with little children there.

But 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 smooth.

Trust me when I say — you get the experience you pay for at Austin City Limits.

Viewing advice

The size of Zilker Park is both ideal and un-ideal for a music festival. The grounds are very compact.

The advantage is that it makes it quicker to hop on over to another stage for your next favorite artist.

The disadvantage is that it led to high congestion areas. Several times over the course of the weekend. Routes between stages came to sweaty standstills.

This part was frustrating. But being able to catch multiple bands during the same time slot made it all worth it.

. . .

I daydreamed a picture-perfect festival experience. You know, the kind where you’re in the middle of a sea of people. With a good view of the stage during every act.

Sadly, that’s a bit of a far cry for modern-day, multi-stage festivals.

In fact, to get a good spot in the heart of the crowd at ACL, I suggest arriving at your favorite 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 timeslot before getting to the next. Prioritizing is everything!

This was a hard concept for me to grasp. I wanted to see as much music as I could during the weekend. However, you’ll end up seeing plenty. Totally worth 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. 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 — you can find a hotel minutes away from downtown Austin for around $40-$50 per night.
  • Campgrounds — there are a few tent campgrounds around Zilker Park. These aren’t sponsored by the festival. 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.

ACL foodie guide

No outside food is allowed on the festival grounds, so you will have to budget accordingly.

For those on a tighter budget, I suggest eating before the event. This will save you as much as you want it to. Not eating while at the festival makes for a long day. It will drain you of all your energy.

As for food around Zilker, there are a few café’s that you’ll find with a quick Google search.

Magnolia Café seemed to be the popular spot the entire weekend. But that means a long wait to eat before heading into the festival.

Photo by Globelet Reusable on Unsplash

Inside Zilker, there are plenty of delicious local food vendors. You can find a tasty, filling meal inside ACL for roughly $6-$9. The 2016 food lineup featured a variety of choices. From hearty Texas barbeque to zesty-loaded nachos and 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

Austin doesn’t get the title of Live Music Capital of the World for nothing. The pub streets are crawling with live music each night.

I have never seen anything like it. If you are a music junky like me, you will deeply appreciate it.

On any given night, in any given bar in downtown Austin, it is likely you will experience some kind of live performance.

The one place you absolutely have to experience when going out in Austin is Sixth Street. Or “The Dirty 6th” as locals prefer.

This entire half-mile-long mock-Bourbon Street, mixed with the comfort of a dive bar vibe, is the ideal night out. Especially for someone traveling on a budget.

You will see gobs of 20-somethings drinking too much and devouring pizza by the slice. I have no particular venue recommendations. There are far too many!

Rainey Street is little calmer, but still just as budget-friendly. It is the perfect alternative for a night out in Austin.

ACL is the perfect music festival for any concert-lover. It’s a more affordable option than the biggest festivals in North America. There are still a plethora of great performers at half the price.

If you have any questions, don’t be afraid to reach me through the responses.

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