a day at the Iowa State Fair
We’ve been going to the Iowa State Fair for 10 years now, and I think we are finally getting the hang of it! It’s such a big place and takes a while to become familiar with where everything is located. Plus we now have fond memories of past years and a little bit of nostalgia that adds to the magic. I still remember the first time we went with friends and saw The Nadas perform. I remember when I was 11 weeks pregnant with Rooney and enjoying a free Tenth Avenue North concert (my second favorite band). I remember the first time we took each of our kids. I can still picture little Rooney in a stroller eating mini donuts, Rooney with a broken collar bone doing Little Hands on the Farm, and breastfeeding Finch on the floor of the nursing room. The fair has s l o w l y become a summer favorite for our family!
Eric and I love when we are able to have a date day or night at the fair, but that didn’t work out this year. Going with kids can still be fun, but you have to mentally prepare yourself. My strategy this year was to lower my expectations and then lower them again. It actually worked! Haha.
I wanted to jot down some of the things that helped us have a fun day so we can have an even better time next year—always learning!
Before you go
Download the apps
Iowa State Fair Authority (for schedule/events)
Iowa State Fair Food Finder (map of food vendors with a good search tool)
Check the schedule for live events/concerts and plan your visit around them! They are nice breaks to sit for a while and stay entertained.
Make a list of your must-dos (food, attractions, rides, contests, exhibits, concerts)
Buy tickets — doing this before the fair starts will save you money. Consider the Family Fun Pack!
WHAT TO DO
Here’s a sample schedule of what we did this year in case you are needing some ideas on how to see most of the fairgrounds while keeping your kids semi-happy, eating a lot of food and enjoying air conditioning when possible. (But seriously, get ready to eat!)
Park in north lot ($10) and enter through the north entrance. Get there around 9:00 am if you can, which is when the buildings open. We got there around 9:30 am this year and it was a great experience.
Go straight to Little Hands on the Farm — hopefully there’s no line yet. Your kids will get a treat at the end which will win you some early points!
Head to the Animal Learning Center to see baby animals that have been born during the fair (this is also a good spot for a bathroom break).
Walk to the Triangle for JR Donuts (we got a small bag to share as a family).
Walk down the Grand Concourse (Grand Ave.) and take a family photo while everyone is still smiling. Then get a corn dog and cheese curds (yes, you are eating lunch at 10:45 am because you need to pace yourself).
Head back to the Triangle around 11:00 am to watch Bandolini perform a few songs.
Walk to the Giant Slide and enjoy the ride.
Ride Sky Glider East (buy round-trip tickets but get off at Pioneer Hall).
Grab a Parlo Pizza by Grandfather’s Barn and then head to Expo Hill to eat, sit in the shade and watch The Red Trouser Show at 12:00 pm.
Head to the nearby Cultural Center for a bathroom break and to view the award-winning photography as long as your kids will let you (hopefully longer than five minutes, which is our kids’ current record).
Ride the Sky Glider East back down.
Find a shady seat at the Anne and Bill Riley Stage and (re)apply sunscreen. Take turns going to get food to share (I highly recommend tater ribbon fries with cheese, fresh lemonade and cookie dough on a stick).
When you just can’t eat another bite, walk through the Cattle Barn (Super Bull), Swine Barn (Avenue of Breeds, Big Boar), and Sheep Barn (Big Ram).
Walk (or ride Sky Glider West) to the Varied Industries Building for air conditioning, a bathroom break, and a visit to the Iowa State Cyclones booth for a temporary tattoo (or Iowa Hawkeyes if you’re my husband). Eric and I are Simpson College alums so we like to swing by their booth as well on our way to get a cup of Barkdale’s Chocolate Chip Cookies.
Head to the Ye Old Mill ride (not ideal for those who get motion sickness, I quickly found out).
Next, go to Bauder’s Ice Cream for a peppermint bar (my absolute favorite fair treat)!
If you’ve still got a little energy left, head to the bathrooms behind the Ag Building to change the kids into swim suits and then let them enjoy the Pella Plaza sprinklers/misters. This helps give the kids a second wind to push through the last hour of the fair, and gives the parents a chance to sit for a while. There is also the nearby Discovery Garden and Fun Forest playground.
While the kids play, get a Pickle on a Stick from the Ag Building — sneak a peek at the Butter Cow while you’re at it! (If you like hard boiled eggs, they are free in here, too!) Use this time while the kids are busy to take turns and go get any last food items on your list.
If you have more energy than we did, depending on that day’s schedule, head to the Exhibition Center for a horse show in the air conditioning, or up the hill (east of First Church) to see the Chainsaw Carvers (Eric’s fair favorite).
On your way out, grab two bags of cotton candy on the way out just to make sure the kids have gotten enough sugar for one day.
At this point you still haven’t seen it all, but you’ve spent $100, have a blister on your heel, and walked 10,000 steps in eight hours! Congratulations! Head home to give those kids a bath. You won’t need to eat for the next 24 hours. You swear you’ll never fair again, but you’ll be back again next year because by by then you’ll have forgotten just how hot it really was. (Can you tell I have a love-hate relationship with the fair? Ha! I’ve tried to stay away, but I just can’t!)
What’s your favorite thing to eat or do at the fair?