Your Blue Ribbon Guide to the Iowa State Fair

How to Get the Most Out of the Cherry (Pie) on Top of Your Summer

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 history behind the fair
  • Featured events and attractions
  • Fair foods to try 
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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.” 

Fairfield was later joined by Rosetta, and the two, now beloved symbols of the Fair, can be found roaming the Fairgrounds and posing with visitors. Image courtesy of the Iowa State Fair Blue Ribbon Foundation

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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. 

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The Butter Cow

No Trip to the Iowa State Fair Is Complete without This Buttery Bovine 

Fairgrounds Location: the Agricultural Building 

While butter cows started making appearances at the Fair as early as 1903, the first butter cow, sculpted by J.K. Daniels, was displayed in 1911—and in 2011, the Fair celebrated 100 years of the world-famous cream queen. Image courtesy of Fox News

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

Sky Gliders

Take a Ride Through the Iowa Sky 

Fairgrounds Location: Gate 5 Near Campgrounds Entrance (East) and Gate 10 Near Walnut Street (West) 

Get a hawkeye-view of the Hawkeye State when you ride the Fair’s Sky Gliders across the Fairgrounds. Image courtesy of @macipalmer_ on Instagram.

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

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Avenue of Breeds

See and Learn about More Than 125 Different Animals 

Fairgrounds Location: Swine Barn

You can see an array of animals at the Fair, especially when you take a trip down the Avenue of Breeds in the Swine Barn. You can even vote for your favorite animal!  Image courtesy of @csif_on Instagram.

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

Contests and Competitions 

Just as Fun to Watch as They Are to Enter! 

*Locations Vary

From bench-presses to big boars, you won’t believe some of the things you see at Fair contests and competitions! Image courtesy of Radio Iowa

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

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Pioneer Hall

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) 

The only original building from the 1886 Fair still standing, Pioneer Hall houses a collection of antiques, artifacts, and souvenirs from throughout the Fair’s history. Image courtesy of @mmiwig on Instagram.

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

The Giant Slide

Fun for All Ages

Fairgrounds Location: Near the Livestock Pavillion on E. Grande Ave

With a height of forty-five feet, the slide might only have one drawback—climbing the stairs to get to the top! But the ride down definitely makes up for it. Image courtesy of The Bulletin

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

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Iowa State Fair Concerts

From Small Town Talents to Grandstand Headliners

*Locations Vary

Whether you see a big name band at the Grandstand or check out some new sounds at the Fair’s free concerts, the music scene at the Fair might take you by surprise. Image courtesy of K/O Architects

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

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. 

Fried Faves

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

“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

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
The Iowa State Fair boasts a wide array of sweet and savory bites that are sure to impress Fairgoers of all ages. Image courtesy of @thebrookbookblog on Instagram.

“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.  

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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 

“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

Traditional Treats 

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 Fair has so many food options that even the pickiest of eaters won’t have any trouble finding something they like. Image courtesy of Lazer1033

“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

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!

Albion Skeldon

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