How To Do SXSW 2015 Right Without A Ticket

South by Southwest is still one of the best parties on Earth. The critics are just doing it wrong. 

If you’re headed to SXSW2k15 in hopes of catching the best bands all in one place, you might want to take a long, hard look in the mirror first. Unless you see the fortunate owner of an all-access Platinum Badge, chances are you’ll be catching a whole lot of standing in line instead. Here’s the reality: Official South by Southwest is an exclusive event, reserved for industry-insiders, corporate brand-hawkers and the army of bloggers and journalists who descend on the festival every year to have fun on their employers’ dime.

The key to making South By worth the trip, and the hangover, is steering clear of its overcrowded, artificial nucleus and sticking to the far more manageable – and much more authentic – unofficial outskirts of the event instead. The holy trinity of SXSW –great music, good people and cheap beer – can still be found, in abundance, in the bars and clubs that absorb the festival’s spillover. Here are some of the best.

Hole in the Wall

A 5-minute cab ride from downtown will place you within spitting distance of the University of Texas and on a barstool in one of Austin’s most iconic night clubs. Since 1974, the Hole in the Wall small stage has been graced by a number of legendary musicians, including Stevie Ray Vaughan, Janis Joplin and Emmy Lou Harris. Although it’s no longer the crux of the music scene, during SXSW this spacious Central Austin venue is a great place to catch local and touring acts playing their hearts out for an unpretentious crowd that appreciates good music. The grub is delicious, the cover is next to nothing, the pool table is competitive, and the pitchers of Lone Star are cheap and ice cold.

Spider House Ballroom

Less than a mile from the Hole in the Wall, just north of the UT campus, you’ll find a hybrid coffee shop and bar with an expansive outdoor seating area where people sip yerba mate and question the existence of god. That’s Spider House – a popular hangout for the over-educated since 1995 – and it’s a great place to catch a buzz, and some live music, before walking across the parking lot to party your ass off at the adjacent Ballroom, which from March 16-21, will be hosting a series of raucous all-day showcases, featuring a number of indie heavyweights, like Thee Oh Sees and The Octopus Project. As far as the Austin indie music scene goes, you’d be hard pressed to fine something more legit than this.

Stay Gold

This is the youngest bar on the list – born February of this year – but baby got back. A backyard, that is!  Stay Gold’s spacious outdoor patio is prime real estate for soaking in the fine spring weather (with a drink in your hand, of course). Nestled deep in the heart of the East Austin hipster enclave, this slightly upscale “jazz, soul, funk and psych lounge” specializes in powerful cocktails, like the El Diablo, a habanero-infused tequila drink that pairs perfectly with a hangover and a grilled cheese sandwich served up by the bar’s onsite food truck. During SXSW, Stay Gold opens bright and early at 11am, and will be hosting live music events all day every day with no cover charge . If you plan to spend the festival party hopping on the East Side, this is a good place to start.

Skylark Lounge

Though it’s only been around for a couple of years, this ramshackle dive on the northern edge of East Austin (about a 10-minute cab ride from downtown) has become something of a historical landmark. Owned and operated by a lifelong resident of the neighborhood, Skylark is one of the only places in town where you can still see traditional Austin blues, soul and R&B, and in an environment that shares in its legacy. “For about three decades, it was a small African American bar,” says owner Johnny LaTouf. “It had a great reputation with the locals and local musicians, and my strategy has been to preserve that.” For South by Southwest, LaTouf has rallied his “A-Team” – Austin legends like Miss Lavelle White and Blues Boy Hubbard, among many others – for a week-long showcase of the music and musicians that helped put the city on the map. First-timers might find the bar’s gritty exterior a little unnerving, but worry not. “If you brought your friends here, they’d be like, ‘where the hell are we?” LaTouf says. “But once you get inside it’s a whole ‘nother world.”