Image courtesy of @joelvanwert on Instagram.
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 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“Whether or not you have been here before, it is not to be missed! There is always something to do at the Fair. From the concerts to the hundreds of food selections to the livestock exhibits to the famous Butter Cow—you will not be disappointed!” -Jason V. on TripAdvisor.
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.
“I have been to the Fair a number of times and have visited other Midwest fairs, but this is my favorite. Butter cow, ice cream at the dairy barn, sky gliders, big yellow slide, and the building with the baby animals—I love them all!” -Sara Craig P. on TripAdvisor.
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.
“The Iowa State Fair is a 10-day long celebration of agriculture, concerts, food, and family! You should check it out at least once in your life! . . . You should probably try to find the butter cow and check out the ‘Avenue of Breed’ in one of the animal barns . . . Highly recommend! We try to do the Fair every year!” -Annette K. on TripAdvisor.
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!
“There is are a million things to do and see. The event program includes all days of the Fair, so you can plan . . . Lots of free entertainment on various other stages. Growing a beard? You can get it judged. Or can you throw ‘cow chips’? If so, I think that there is a contest for that, too!” -Carol H. on TripAdvisor.
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.
“One of the best events was the mounted shooting in the Jacobson Arena. We also enjoyed Pioneer Hall, the various animals, and the horticultural building. All of the food was great, including the bacon corn dogs, pork chops on a stick, regular corn dogs, etc. Overall, there is something for everyone at the Iowa State Fair!” -Dan H. on TripAdvisor.
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.
“The Giant Slide is a mandatory tradition, no matter how old you are.” - Liz A. on TripAdvisor.
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.
“The Iowa State Fair is the best fair around. The grounds are fairly easy to navigate, and there is something for everyone! A detailed schedule of the Fair can be found online. Every day includes free concerts, art, crafts, animals, great food, and more! Throughout the year, the grounds also hold other events, which can be found on its website.” -Carrie N. on TripAdvisor.
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:
“The fair has everything: a playland for children, as well as petting ‘zoos,’ music for every age, farm animals galore for the backyard farmer, demos on all sorts of items, and the prerequisite largest farm animals, i.e., hogs and bulls. But let's not forget the carnival food, practically anything deep-fried—huge turkey legs, desserts, including great ice cream and all things that can be impaled upon a stick. Start early and stay late.” -Jo B. on TripAdvisor.
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:
“It truly is the best state fair in the U.S.! Forget your diet on this day—eat something on a stick, have some lemonade, and share some freshly made chocolate chip cookies. Catch a free music act and wander through the Varied Industries Building. Don't forget to go down the Giant Slide and see the butter cow. Great for the family!” -Julie K. on TripAdvisor.
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:
“Not that I've been to every fair in the world, but you can't beat this fair's food, atmosphere, and agricultural strength. I go every year and buy the Cookies in a Cup and a turkey leg. This year, I tried Bauder's peppermint ice cream bars, and they were pretty good. Also, other good foods to try: Chicken on a Stick, Salt Water Taffy, Leimon's Pizzaria, and Cinnie Smith mini cinnamon rolls—AND basically any food on a stick. Of course.” -Raey H. on TripAdvisor.
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!
“The food might give you indigestion, but you won't be able to resist. Perhaps the one bright spot for food is the Jennie Grinder. I can never go to the State Fair and not have a couple. This is serious comfort food! Now, remember this is a state fair, but also keep in mind it is like no other state fair. A million-plus people all coming to one place for ten days. More like an agricultural Woodstock than a carnival.” -Steve L. on TripAdvisor.
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!