Before I moved to Des Moines, I had never been to a state fair before. Sure, I grew up just one state east in Illinois, but we lived close enough to the city that agricultural contests and friends in 4-H were never part of my reality. Then I relocated to Iowa and was introduced to the Iowa State Fair.
While I’ve never been one for big crowds and still don’t have the stamina to spend days on end at the fairgrounds, I do look forward to spending an afternoon at the fair each August. In fact, Josh and I went on our first date at the fair in 2015 and celebrate our anniversary each year with a return trip.
Over the years, a funny thing has happened. I’ve slowly become someone who defends the Iowa State Fair. Sure, there are tons of deep fried foods and the carnival rides are over-priced. But, like roadside attractions, there’s something so kitschy and comforting about it all that I can’t help but love it.
Naturally in my years visiting the fair I’ve collected quite the list of must-eat foods, must-see attractions and hidden gems within the fairgrounds. If you’re a beginner (and, let’s be honest, even if you’re not), the fair can be overwhelming. So I decided to create the ultimate guide to spending an enjoyable afternoon or evening adventure at the fair that won’t leave you in a corndog-induced coma. Because, after all, nothing compares to the Iowa State Fair.
Planning Your Visit to the Iowa State Fair
Directions & Parking
While you can pay to park at the Iowa State Fairgrounds and on the lawns of residents in the surrounding neighborhood, my fair strategy is typically to take the shuttle. With convenient park and ride locations like the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines’ East Village, riding the shuttle is hassle-free and comes with a minimal cost.
Iowa State Fair Staples
Behold the Butter Cow
Whether you’re a fair first-timer or a seasoned veteran, the butter cow is an essential stop. Don’t overthink it though. This is exactly what it sounds like—a cow carved out of butter. J.K. Daniels sculpted the fair’s first butter cow in 1911 and today, Sarah Pratt of West Des Moines is the fair’s fifth butter sculptor.
While a real cow may weigh upward of 1,000 pounds, the Butter Cow’s wood, metal, wire, and steel mesh frame is topped with about 600 pounds of low moisture, pure cream Iowa butter. Fun fact: Each year, a large amount of the butter is recycled and can be reused for up to 10 years.
Gush Over the Baby Animals
As someone who didn’t grow up on a farm or really near agriculture at all, I don’t have a huge interest in the fair’s various animal barns or 4H showings. But put me in a room with dozens of different baby animals and I’m in heaven. Don’t miss the chick incubator or the recently born piglets!
Ride the Sky Glider
Even if carnival rides aren’t your favorite, the Sky Glider is an Iowa State Fair must. Don’t be discouraged by the price ($4 one way or $7 round trip)—it’s a great way to relax for a bit and see the fair from a different perspective, especially if you happen to be riding during the fireworks show.
Find Artistic Inspiration
You might be surprised to learn that the state fair has an artistic component, but one of my favorite places to spend time at the Iowa State Fair is the photography exhibition. I’m also mildly obsessed with the miniatures displays located just down the hall. An added bonus? The Cultural Center is wonderfully air conditioned.
Do Something Unexpected
One of my favorite parts of the fair is that there’s always something unexpected to explore. Whether it’s catching the Bill Riley Talent Search or paying $5 to see the world’s smallest horse (spoiler alert: he wasn’t as cute as Li’l Sebastian), there’s always some delightful surprise waiting for you at the Iowa State Fair. And isn’t that really the best part of any adventure?
What to Eat at the Iowa State Fair
Enjoy Something on a Stick
If there’s another thing the Iowa State Fair is known for, it’s any and every type of food on a stick. While it’s no longer available, there was even deep fried butter on a stick a few years ago.
This year the fair will almost 70 different foods on a stick. The list includes peanut butter and jelly, smoothies, caprese salad, and more. One of my favorites is the now-defunct Fair Square, but there are still plenty of treats to enjoy. You can see a complete offerings here.
Bauder’s Peppermint Ice Cream Bar
Let’s be honest, one of the main draws of the Iowa State Fair is it’s outlandish culinary creations. While there’s a lot to enjoy, my sweet tooth typically wins out on fair day.
Personally, my favorite treat is the Bauder’s Pharmacy Peppermint Ice Cream Bar. This frozen treat is a delicious, gooey mess of brownie, chocolate fudge and homemade peppermint ice cream sure to satisfy your cravings and cool you off in the August heat.
The Iowa State Fair can get a little crowded, one of my favorite places to escape the crowds is on the hill overlooking the fairgrounds. This hill is also conveniently home to the Iowa Wine Experience and Parlo Pizza. This wood-fired pizza is the perfect pairing to some Iowa wines and a great break from some of the fair’s deep-fried fare.
Garlic Cheese Curds
Sure, you’ve probably had fried cheese curds. But the garlic cheese curds from Brad & Harry’s Cheese Curds take things to the next level.
Iowa Craft Beer
The state fair is all about Iowa grown produce and Iowa raised livestock. So it makes sense that there also be a place to Iowa brewed craft beers. Head to the Iowa Craft Beer tent, grab a cold one and you may discover a new local favorite!
Share Your Thoughts
I would love to hear from you! Have you been to the Iowa State Fair? What are your favorite fair traditions, things to do or places to eat?
Yes! That’s always how I feel too. I feel like I go home every year wanting to raise baby goats!
My mom always enjoyed the old-fashioned hymn sing at the church on the hill. The chainsaw wood carver was fun to watch along with the chip-throwing contests, and hog-calling contests—hilarious fun. Then there are the fiddlers, accordion, and harmonica players. I enjoy the horse shows, tractor pulls. And, of course, all the 4-H projects from technology to food & nutrition, to fashion shows. There always something new you’ve never tried before. Car races, log lifting contests, big name entertainment, and tons of “free” entertainment. Red Skelton (who made people laugh and cry), Dolly Pardon, Merle Haggard, Kansas, and so many more.
I have so many must haves, it’s hard to remember them all, but here are a few:
– shaken lemonades…some places are better than others, but it’s hard to go wrong with any of them
– pork chop on a stick…it’s not really a stick…you’re just hanging on to the bone, but that just makes it better in my opinion
– the mac and cheese at the bbq place near the sweet corn…sorry I can’t remember the name of the vendor, but IT IS A MUST HAVE! the corn is pretty good too
– it’s not a trip to the fair if you don’t go to the chicken and bunny barn…last year there were no chickens and i cannot wait to see them this year
– the quilt and sewing displays are something i never miss…on the way, i usually take my granddaughter to get all of the temporary tattoos in the Varied Industries Building (also air conditioned and a wonderful respite when it gets too hot)
– speaking of the granddaughter, she loves the fountains near the building with the butter cow…be sure to bring a change of clothes for kiddos!
– Avenue of the Breeds is another must see with many varieties and breeds of animals and the most gorgeous horses you’ll ever see.
– I usually make it to the craft beer tent, but the coldest beer (and best place to sit down for a meal…get the brisket) is Stockman’s. THE COLDEST BEER!
– Jalepeno Pete’s is a great place to people watch, the food is pretty decent and the entertainment is the best free stuff at the fair where you can still keep ordering drinks and having a good time.
– do not miss the 4-H barn with all of the awesome stuff kids have made…you can’t believe how talented they are
Things to skip:
– the Midway…and whatever you do, even if you go down midway to people watch, DO NOT EAT THE FOOD ON THE MIDWAY…this is not the good stuff
– all the other rides