Last updated on August 4th, 2019
I’ve always been told that Minnesota has the best State Fair in the country. As a Minnesotan, we are very proud of our state and the bragging rights. But when some lists mentioned that The Iowa State Fair ranks next to MN as the best State Fair, I laughed. As Minnesotan’s should we be a little concerned? I realized that the only way I could keep making the claim that ours was the best; I would have to go on a road trip to see how it holds up. The results were surprising.
Getting to the Iowa State Fair
Leaving around 6 in the morning was just the beginning. Des Moines Iowa is stretching the capacity of the Day Trip, but with it all highway, we could pull it off. The next mission was trying to figure out where to park. They offer offsite parking and shuttle services just like in MN, but they didn’t have a free bus lot. You could park in a variety of different lots, including one at the Iowa State Capitol and then pay $4 a person to go there. All an all, not horrible. But when you can park at the U of M shuttle for free, it was kind of a letdown.
Getting dropped off was anticlimactic. We were either the only people that used that location or public transportation wasn’t a big thing. So the buzz and excitement of being at the fair was fizzled with a lackluster entrance. On the plus side, it meant that there were only a few people in line waiting to get their tickets. After getting tickets, we strolled right in.
Wandering Around the Fair Grounds
One thing for sure is Iowa loves their food. Right away we saw the Food Building. This food building though didn’t have food for purchase. It had case after case of tasty prize-winning cakes, jams, pastries, and other treats. Some judging was occurring live, while others were waiting until a later date to get determined. The collection of cakes was amazing. Iowa certainly has talent when it comes to baked goods.
We meandered around to the DNR building. The building had interactive exhibits filled with props and education information. Instead of a fish pond, they had aquariums of fish. They also had an outdoor section complete with ducks and geese, native to Iowa.
On the way to more exploring, we found one of the best buildings I’ve ever been in. It was the only air-conditioned ones in the Iowa State Fair. And considering it was 90+ degrees when we went, it was heavenly. The Varied Industry building was filled with schools, manufacturers, home remodelers, churches, and businesses. When they say varied, they meant it. Outside the building, it was lined with salesmen doing their hawking of goods. You know the kind. The ones where if you buy 1, they’ll throw in the carrying case for free. I love listening to their pitches on things you can only get if you purchase it now!
That’s when we decided to get something to drink. The fair had an icy shop outside, and kids drinks were only $1. Who can beat that! We let the kids pick out one. My daughter went with a banana flavor, and my son picked Tiger Blood. Boy’s.. mix Tiger and Blood together, and you’ve got a guaranteed sale. But the taste was just like a Lava Flow minus the alcohol. A lava flow is a mixed drink they do on the Hawaiian Islands that is pina colada and strawberry daiquiri. Amazing. I almost went back to get one myself.
The Animals of the Iowa State Fair
In search of more entertainment, we stumbled into the Animal Barns. The most significant difference I noticed in the barns was the education component compared to Minnesota. One farmer had their cow out of the stall and let people come up and pet and take pictures with the cow. As impromptu as it probably was, it’s not something I’ve seen in the 34 year’s I’ve been going to the MN State Fair. The milking demonstration was going on, with ample seating for everyone to see and hear.
Some things we decided to pass up seeing were the Biggest Animals. The line to get into the barn was ridiculous. And as an outsider, seeing a sign that said ‘Super Bull,’ I wasn’t really sure what I was waiting for. We bypassed it and kept walking towards the Giant Slide. I think it was the right decision.
The giant slide is not that unique by any means. But it was right next to a beer booth, so that can make for some interesting interactions. While it may look crazy at the bottom, it really is mostly people trying to get a picture of their loved one going down. This was my daughters first time going down by herself. I knew she would be fine. But getting to the top, I could tell she was a little nervous. I gave her a 2-3 second head start and then pushed off. That’s when I started to get a bit nervous because I was traveling faster than her. I just envisioned myself veering off and plowing her over. Mom’s worst fears! But thankfully the way the slide is designed, you don’t get off your tracks. It was a lot of fun.
Iowa’s Famous Butter Cow
I had a few goals at the fair, and at this point, I hadn’t done one of them. They all seemed to radiate around the Agricultural Building. The first was to find that famous Butter Cow. Getting inside the building was met with little difficulty. We’ll accept for the misting fountains outside, which was a good detour and was packed with kids, parents, and strollers.
The most entertaining things I noticed upon entering the building was everyone carrying around a hard-boiled egg on a stick. I love a good hard-boiled egg, but does it really need to be on a stick? And who peeled all those eggs? On a hot day, I can’t say that I’m really craving a good egg! So we just kept on going. There was plenty of other prize-winning fruits and vegetables to see. Another cool part about the buildings was that it has the second floor of displays.
After a little searching, we found the butter display! Then we backtracked the line to get up to the glass, only to discover that it wrapped around the eggs stand and almost out the door. I was defiantly missing something. But I didn’t have the patience for 30 minutes to see the butter cow. We opted for the fast lane… AKA right next to the lines rope and saw it just fine. Only partially obstructed. While the sculpture was impressive, my only critique was that it was an additive sculpture, held together with a wire and wood frame. It is much larger in size and butter quantity than Minnesota’s Butter Busts, it doesn’t compare to the challenges faced with a freestanding, subtractive sculpture. At the end of the MN Fair, the princess gets to keep their butterheads. The butter in the Cow is dismantled and frozen and reused for up to 9 years. If you look a the detail of the sculpture, Iowa’s is defiantly better.
Food Options at the Iowa State Fair
Lunchtime was rolling around, so we decided to hunt down our food mission. My other blogger friends recommended things like the bacon wrapped rib on a stick and pork chop on a stick. They even threw out suggestions like a Beef Sundae and a pickle dog. Unfortunately, the meat options were over-hyped. All of them came with long, slow-moving lines, poor cuts and lacked the seasoning to their MN comparisons. I’d skip them if I were you or maybe give them a try if the lines are short.
One interesting aspect was the organization of the food. The meats were grouped by type. All the pork was in the pork producer’s section, beef in with the beef and so on. That being said, the beef got entirely bypassed because of the line. But we did wait it out for the pork chop and bacon wrapped rib.
The Best Things I Ate
The pickle dog was amazing. Going into it, I had no idea what to expect. I started being asked all kinds of questions, like the type of meat and spice level. In the window, all I could see was hot dog buns… I started to imagine a hotdog with a pickle spear on it… or maybe the spear was in place of the dog? What they handed me was something that resembled a corn dog. But after biting into it, I was blown away. It turned out it was a pickle spear, wrapped in ham, with a layer of cream cheese between it, dipped in a batter and fried. Just amazing!
Next up, the Bouder Bar. This time when they asked what kind I wanted, I asked them what their most popular is. I made the mistake of picking the safe option at the Worlds Best Donut Shop, and was totally let down. At this booth, I got a giant ice-cream bar filled with peppermint ice-cream, the kind only available during Christmas. Outside the ice cream was sandwiched in a cookie crumble and thick fudge. The only challenge was trying to eat it fast enough without getting a brain freeze in the heat before it melted all over the place.
That Was a First
We meandered around for a little longer checking out the sites and seeing all the food options. We considered explore more of the other activities, like the Little Hands farm, wine experience, and cultural center, but with it being as hot as it was, we just wanted to cool off. The four of us got on the sky ride and took the bird’s eye view of the fair. We enjoyed the other half of the air-conditioned varied industry building and even found a few people swimming in one of the pools outside. After a quick double take, they were supposed to be there, showing off the ability to swim. Still, a first for me.
The Iowa State Fair also has large a couple midways, Thrill Village and Thrill Town for kids. But I’ve always preferred my roller coasters and thrill rides to be stationary at a theme park. And it cuts our costs in half by skipping that section. One thing that did save us with the heat as the abundance of trees through most of the Iowa State Fair. They were providing enough shade, so we weren’t baking the entire time. The Minnesota State Fair is really lacking that component.
Heading Back Home
Then it was off to the bus to head back to the cities. Well, we did make one pit stop at the Iowa State Capitol. How many times do we get that opportunity! The Iowa State Fair itself was a lot of fun. Given a cooler day, we probably would have stayed longer. I also wouldn’t have minded tagging along with a local to get the scoop on some of the weird traditional sites and to help with getting our barrings.
I severely apologize for offending anyone in this post. I’m sure there are plenty of things that you don’t get about our love of the MN State Fair, and I accept that. By all means, feel free to comment with any you don’t agree with or even better, what you find crazy about Minnesota’s Fair.