Your Blue Ribbon Guide to the Iowa State Fair
How to Get the Most Out of the Cherry (Pie) on Top of Your Summer
With a history that dates back to 1854, the Iowa State Fair is the most well-established—not to mention famous—state fair in the United States. Every year, thousands of people from all over (and outside of) the country travel to Iowa’s capital city to see, shop, and eat their way through the state’s largest event.
Are you planning a trip to Des Moines to top off your summer? If so, just keep reading to find out everything you need to know about the Iowa State Fair, including . . .
- The history behind the fair
- Featured events and attractions
- Fair foods to try
Booking a trip to Des Moines?
History of the Iowa State Fair at a Glance
The Iowa State Fair is an agricultural showplace, an entertainment extravaganza, and, above all else, a celebration of the state and its people. The very first Iowa State Fair took place in October of 1854, and it was in Fairfield, Iowa, not Des Moines. Fair-goers arrived in covered wagons and paid twenty-five cents for admission.
Iowa Fair Fun Fact: The State Fair’s iconic first place ribbon wasn’t always blue—it was originally red! At that first State Fair in 1854, red ribbons were given for first place, and blue ribbons were given for third.
The State Fair did not find its permanent home in Des Moines until 1879. However, before it acquired its own site on the east side of the city, it was hosted on the west side in Brown’s Park, which is now a residential area. It wasn’t until 1886 that the event took place at its present-day fairgrounds.
In 1919, the State Fair saw its largest turnout up until that point at what was called the “Victory Fair,” the theme of which was “Food Won the War.” A record-breaking number of attendants streamed onto the State Fairgrounds in the wake of the First World War, both reveling in the Allies’ victory and commemorating the magnitude of the country’s many losses. Unfortunately, the optimism that powered the festivities that year was not meant to endure: While it was able to persevere through the Great Depression, the Fair was called off from 1942 to 1945 due to the Second World War.
The Fair exceeded one million attendants for the first time in 2002. It was during this year that the Fair’s mascot, Fairfield, made its debut. In 2006, the Fair celebrated a five-year streak of attracting one million visitors, solidifying its title as “America’s Favorite Fair.”
Featured Events and Attractions
With so much to do, see, and eat at the Iowa State Fair, you might not know where to start! We’re going to break down the Fair’s top events and attractions because trust us, you don’t want to miss some of these must-see stops.
The Butter Cow
No Trip to the Iowa State Fair Is Complete without This Buttery Bovine
Fairgrounds Location: the Agricultural Building
You could say that the butter cow is the golden calf of the Iowa State Fair. Even for the lactose intolerant, this legend-dairy creation is something every fairgoer should see. Despite being enough butter for nearly twenty-thousand pieces of toast, the sculpture isn’t made out of solid butter—rather, it features a combination of wood, wire, and steel mesh.
Take a Ride Through the Iowa Sky
Fairgrounds Location: Gate 5 Near Campgrounds Entrance (East) and Gate 10 Near Walnut Street (West)
The Sky Gliders are one of the Fair’s most popular attractions—and between the views and the fun, it’s not hard to see why. There are two different rides: the East Sky Glider and the West Sky Glider. A one-way trip is $4, and it’s $7 for a round-trip.
Avenue of Breeds
See and Learn about More Than 125 Different Animals
Fairgrounds Location: Swine Barn
Sponsored by the Coalition to Support Iowa’s Farmers, the Swine Barn’s Avenue of Breeds will introduce you to dozens of breeds of cows, horses, sheep, pigs, and more. With everything from typical farm livestock to exotic animals, the Avenue of Breeds is a diverse menagerie that animal lovers are sure to adore.
Contests and Competitions
Just as Fun to Watch as They Are to Enter!
The Fair hosts a variety of contests and competitions that you can watch—or, if you want, take part in (just make sure to check the registration criteria ahead of time). These fun, sometimes wacky, challenges and good-natured rivalries are an integral part of the Fair and entertaining, regardless of whether you participate or not. See mohawks, mom-calling, Miracle Whip salads, and much, much more!
Journey Back into the Past When You Set Foot in This Historic Building
Fairgrounds Location: East Side Near Campgrounds Entrance (Part of the Richard L. Easter Museum Complex)
When the Fair first moved to its current location in 1886, sixty-seven buildings were constructed—and Pioneer Hall is the lone survivor. Taking a walk through this venerated space is to feel the true significance of the Fair. Here, you’ll find relics from the past on display and traditional trade workers making furniture, baskets, and more.
The Giant Slide
Fun for All Ages
Fairgrounds Location: Near the Livestock Pavillion on E. Grande Ave
Over the many, many years that the Giant Slide has been present at the Fair, it has become a long-held tradition and, likewise, a rite of passage for new fairgoers. Pop a squat on a gunny sack, and get ready for 150 feet of fun! A ride down the oversized attraction is only $2.50—but, needless to say, the experience is priceless.
Iowa State Fair Concerts
From Small Town Talents to Grandstand Headliners
Every year, the Fair curates a star-studded lineup for its Grandstand concerts. You have to buy tickets for these shows ahead of time, but if you don’t want to go through the hassle, there are plenty of free concerts to choose from! Don’t underestimate the talent that can be found on the Fair’s free stages—lots of now-famous performers once started there before taking on the Grandstand, including John Michael Montgomery, The Band Perry, and Lady Antebellum.
Musts on the Menu: Fair Foods to Try
As much as there is to do at the Fair, there might be even more to eat! Sample old recipes and new creations from vendors all over the Fairgrounds. Whether it’s deep-fried, on a stick, or a craft brew, the Fair is a food adventure that will leave you wanting more.
If you can eat it, why not fry it? Whatever fried food you’re looking for, you can find it at the Fair, including:
- Fried Avocado Slices
- Deep-Fried Deviled Eggs
- Deep-Fried Cherry Pie
- Deep-Fried Fruit Kabob
- Fried Ice Cream
On the Go: Food On a Stick
Any food can be made portable—you just have to put it on a stick! And many vendors at the Fair do just that. These are just some of the foods that you can find on a stick at the Fair:
- Apple Pie On a Stick
- Funnel Cake On a Stick
- Pork Chop On a Stick
- Lamb On a Stick
- Chicken On a Stick
- Waffle On a Stick
- Onion Rings On a Stick
- Salad On a Stick
- Smoothie On a Stick
Deep-Fried AND On a Stick
Get the best worlds by combining two Fair traditions: fried food and food on a stick. Here are some of the combos that you can try:
- Deep-Fried Pecan Pie On a Stick
- Deep-Fried Brownie On a Stick
- Deep-Fried Milkyway On a Stick
- Deep-Fried Pickle Spears On a Stick
- Deep-Fried Pineapple On a Stick
- Deep-Fried Snickers On a Stick
- Deep-Friend Twinkie On a Stick
While the Fair certainly isn’t short on wild food innovations, it still has tons of traditional fair foods like turkey drumsticks, funnel cakes, corn dogs, tacos, burgers, hotdogs, ice cream, nachos, and more. You can use the Fair Food Finder app or site to track down any craving that you might have!
Time to Cross One Off of Your Bucket List
The Iowa State Fair is a travel destination that people from all walks of life dream of seeing. In fact, it’s even featured in the best-selling travel book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. And once you experience it for yourself, you’ll know why!
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