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 Iowa State Fair in 2015 and even signed our marriage license at the fair in 2021. But that’s a story for a different day.
Over the years, a funny thing has happened. I’ve slowly become someone who defends the Iowa State Fair. Sure, there are plenty of stomach-churning deep fried foods and the midway’s carnival rides are over-priced. But, like roadside attractions, there’s something so kitschy and comforting about this annual event that I can’t help but love it.
Naturally, in my years visiting the Iowa State 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’ve created an essential list of things to do at the Iowa State Fair that won’t leave you in a corndog-induced coma. Because, after all, nothing compares to the Iowa State Fair.
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Where to Stay Near the Iowa State Fair
The Iowa State Fair is the state’s biggest event, which means that hotels and accommodations can book out months in advance. Luckily Des Moines has tons of options for places to stay, whether you want to be within walking distance to the Iowa State Fairgrounds or a bit further away from the hustle and bustle.
Things to Do at the Iowa State Fair
Behold the Butter Cow
Whether you’re a fair first-timer or a seasoned veteran, the butter cow is an essential stop at the Iowa State Fair. Don’t overthink it though. This is exactly what it sounds like — a cow molded from butter. J.K. Daniels sculpted the fair’s first butter cow in 1911. 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.
Ride the Sky Glider
Even if carnival rides aren’t your favorite, the Sky Glider is an Iowa State Fair must. It’s also 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. If you’re going to shell out for one carnival ride, the Sky Glider is worth the price at $4 one-way or $7 round trip.
Pro Tip: There are two separate Sky Glider lines at the Iowa State Fair. I recommend the one that starts at the midway near Ye Old Mill and runs up the hill toward Pioneer Hall.
Learn About State Fair History
Did you know that the Iowa State Fair has its own museum? Take a break from the crowds (and enjoy some air conditioning) with a visit to the Ralph H. Deets Historical Museum. Here you’ll learn about the fair’s history, unique oddities and growth over the years.
Plus, the wraparound porch of the museum has a smattering of rocking chairs that are perfect for unwinding and listening to the bluegrass music from Pioneer Hall.
Want to know even more Iowa State Fair secrets? You can learn about the story of Baby Mine, the fair’s former elephant, in Secret Iowa: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.
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 4-H showings. But put me in a room with dozens of different baby animals and I’m in heaven.
Especially if you have younger kids, the Animal Learning Center, located near the Little Hands on the Farm area, will be a popular spot. Don’t miss the chick incubator or the newly-born piglets!
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 is the annual 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.
Relax in the Discovery Garden
As a self-proclaimed plant nerd, I’m always on the lookout for intriguing landscaping. At the fairgrounds, you’ll find some of the prettiest blooms and most innovative installations in the Discovery Garden just outside of the Agriculture Building.
Find More Secret Iowa Places
Want to explore even more offbeat places around Iowa? Even at some of the state’s most well-known places, you’ll discover hidden histories and unique stories that are not often shared. Order your copy of the book, Secret Iowa: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure today!
What to Eat at the Iowa State Fair
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 more than 60 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 list of all the Iowa State Fair foods on a stick here.
Bauder’s Peppermint Ice Cream Bar
Let’s be honest. One of the main draws of the fair is its 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.
Iowa Craft Beer Tent
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! And be sure to keep an eye out for the unique fair-exclusive brews that some of the state’s top breweries collaborate on every year.
Fried Cheese Curds
Sure, you’ve probably had fried cheese curds. But the specialty curds from Brad & Harry’s Cheese Curds take things to the next level. While they no longer have my favorite garlic cheese curds, the new-for-2023 dill pickle curds are a suitable replacement.
A refreshing lemonade is the hallmark of the fair. But before you spend your money on a giant (and let’s be honest, mediocre) lemonade shake-up, head to the Agriculture Building for a real treat. Head to the second floor (just above the Butter Cow) to the Iowa Honey Producers booth and grab yourself a cold cup of honey lemonade.
The best part? A large glass is only $3.
It’s no secret that the Iowa State Fair can get a little crowded. One of my favorite places to escape the throngs is on the hill near Pioneer Hall overlooking the fairgrounds.
This part of the fairgrounds 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.
Plan Your Day at the 2023 Iowa State Fair
Getting to the Iowa State Fair
The Iowa State Fairgrounds are located about 10 minutes east of downtown Des Moines at the intersection of East 30th Street and East University Avenue. From I-235, take the E. University Avenue exit and head east toward the Fair.
Parking at the Iowa State Fair
While you can pay to park at the Iowa State Fairgrounds or on the lawns of residents in the surrounding neighborhood, one of the most cost-effective parking and transportation options is to take the DART shuttle.
With convenient park and ride locations like the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines’ East Village, riding the shuttle is hassle-free and only costs $2 for adults and $1 for kids (ages 6-10) and seniors.
Pro Tip: Round-trip fares for the DART shuttle are cash only so be sure to plan ahead. You can find more information about the fair shuttles here.
Frequently Asked Questions About the Iowa State Fair
What are the dates for Iowa State Fair 2023?
The 2023 Iowa State Fair will be held August 10 – 20, 2023.
How much are tickets for the Iowa State Fair?
Tickets for the 2023 Iowa State Fair cost $16 for adults (ages 12 and up) and $10 for children (ages 6–11). Children ages five and under can get into the Iowa State Fair for free.
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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?