10 Things To Do At The Iowa State Fair

I love the Iowa State Fair and I make sure to get there every August. It is a magical thing to be there among all those people, surrounded by so many amazing creations, talented people, and Iowa pride. There is so much to do that it can feel very overwhelming, so here are my top ten things to do at the Iowa State Fair (which will be plenty to try to cover during a one-day visit).

I have a somewhat unique perspective because I actually lived on the fairgrounds for several fairs during high school and college while I volunteered in the 4-H building. And I spent two summers at internships that were centered on planning for and then working full time at the state fair. I’m still always discovering things about the fair, but I really do know my way around it much better than most people. So, here are my recommendations of things to do at the Iowa State Fair. I’d love to hear in the comments what you’d add to the list!

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1. Food
No trip to the fair is complete without consuming lots of food! My top three picks of all time are:

  • Hot beef sundaes from Cattlemen’s Beef Quarters. This is a bowl of mashed potatoes topped with roast beef, gravy, shredded cheese and a tomato on top. My absolute favorite meal at the fair!
  • Warm and gooey chocolate chip cookies from Barksdales (several stands around the fairgrounds). Go ahead and just get the bucket of them – the leftovers make a perfect snack for the drive home after a long day of walking around the fair.
  • The peppermint square from Bauder’s. It’s the most delicious, creamy peppermint ice cream I’ve ever tasted sandwiched between a crushed Oreo crust. This ice cream sandwich is amazing!

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2. Beer & Wine
Try a local brew at the Iowa Craft Beer Tent and then head up the hill to Grandfather’s Barn to sample Iowa wines. You may even get to try out grape stomping! And have no fear, there will be ice cold beverages nearby no matter where you are at the fair.

3. Bill Riley Talent Search + Awesome Concerts
Try to catch the Bill Riley Talent Search while you’re at the fair. It doesn’t matter if it’s the prelims or the finals, every show is great free entertainment (and a welcome break from being on your feet all day). I’d also recommend checking the schedule for free concerts–there are so many stages with great entertainment all day long. Plus, there are always awesome bands playing in the Grandstand!
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4. HUGE Animals
Every year, people gawk at the largest bull, boar, and ram in the state. They are always HUGE and draw big crowds. Definitely something worth stopping to see while you’re walking around the fair.

5. Baby Animals
The Animal Learning Center is a great place to see a sampling of different animals, and there’s always lots of baby ducklings, piglets and calves here. After all, what would a fair be without witnessing a cow give birth right in front of you (and projected on TV screens in the building)?

6. 4-H Exhibit Building
This place is literally the real life version of Pinterest. It is bursting at the seams with all sorts of projects and fun ideas. I always leave with pictures of projects I want to recreate. There are also some great shows and activities going on throughout the day. This building is Pinterest paradise. (Fun Fact: I have spent a crazy number of hours in this building as a 4-H-er, volunteer, summer intern, and now as a communication event judge.)
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7. Rides
I highly recommend everyone ride the Sky Glider, especially those who aren’t very familiar with the fair. It’s an awesome way to get up high and get the lay of the land and a sense of how big the fair really is. I’m not big on rides in general, but there are a lot of carnival rides on the Midway if you’re looking for a thrill.
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8. Butter Cow
Seeing the butter cow is a right of passage for being a fair goer. If you haven’t seen it before, get over to the Ag Building and check it out. Don’t bother standing in the formal line, which is unbelievably long and never really moves anywhere. Follow the faster flow of traffic just outside the roped off line.

While you’re in the Ag Building, grab an egg on a stick and any other free food samples the various agricultural groups may be passing out that day.
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9. State Fair Museum
This place often gets overlooked because it’s tucked away in a corner, but it’s really worth a walk through. You’ll find photos and memorabilia that give a glimpse at fairs past. For instance, you’ll learn about the healthy baby contests, the state fair queens, and the entertaining locomotive crash. Also, the rocking chairs on the porch are a great place to relax for a few minutes when you need to give your feet a break.

10. Queens
Here’s a fun game to play. Challenge your friends to a queen scavenger hunt and see how many tiaras you can spot at the fair. If you go during the first few days when the State Fair Queen contest is taking place, you’ll find 102 high school girls in tiaras with sashes representing their home county. You’ll also discover all sorts of queens you probably never knew existed like dairy princesses, honey queens, beef princesses, cowgirl queens and many more. No joke, there’s a lot of them floating around the fairgrounds. It’s a fun game!
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Here are a few other tips that will help you enjoy your visit to the Iowa State Fair:

  • Buy a big water bottle right away and then refill it at water fountains throughout the day. Believe it or not, there are free water fountains scattered around the fairgrounds so you don’t need to purchase water all day long. I’m pretty sure I’ve scouted most of them out (I despise buying water). Look for water fountains near the restrooms inside many of the buildings.
  • Wear walking shoes. You can wear cute clothes if you want, but don’t sacrifice comfort for fashion when it comes to your footwear. You’ll be doing a lot of walking!
  • Bring cash or you’ll be paying ATM fees.
  • Grab a daily program at the first information booth you see upon arriving. Take a minute to read through and circle events and performances you’re interested in seeing.
  • Ride the free tram. It’s a great way to get off your feet and get an informal tour of the fairgrounds, especially if you’re not familiar with the layout of everything. There are tram stops all around the fair.
  • Don’t park at the fair (unless you have a young child that might require treks back and forth to the car during the day). I highly recommend parking and ride one of the DART shuttles. There are several pickup spots in Des Moines, so you just park at one of them and the bus will drop you off at the fairgrounds. It’s super convenient, much cheaper than paying for onsite parking, and you won’t wear your feet out just from walking through the fair parking lot.

Alright, fellow fairgoers. Who else has recommendations of things to do at the Iowa State Fair?

Happy travels,

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