By Jennifer Cuellar, on August 2, 2019

Ultimate Iowa State Fair Travel Guide

Why do you need to book a trip to Des Moines ASAP? The Iowa State Fair, of course! This is one of the oldest and most famous summer festivals in the country, with over a million visitors every year.

Get ready for fried foods that stick to your gut, giant butter sculptures that will leave you smiling, music that has everyone up and dancing, and even high-wattage political candidates roaming around (Iowa is the first state to vote in the presidential primary). From thrills, to fried candy bars, to the next madam president shaking hands, the biggest state fair in Iowa knows how to celebrate. Here’s a helpful guide to the Iowa State Fair!

What You Need to Know

Brightly colored food stands at the Iowa State Fair
Via Phil Roeder/

When does the Iowa State Fair take place?

Every August, typically two weeks before Labor Day. This year’s event runs from August 8-18, 2019. Future dates are already posted; the 2020 event will take place August 13-23, and the 2021 event will take place August 12-22.


How much does it cost to go?

  • General admission – On July 1st, tickets go on sale at various Fareway, Price Chopper, Cash Saver, and Hy-vee Drug stores—though you can also purchase them online. Tickets range from $8 for adults; $4 for children, and free for kids under the age of 5.
  • Family Fun Pack – Brought the whole fam with you? A Family Fun Pack is $20 and includes a reloadable wristband with five credits; one admission to the train exhibit, kids bungee jump, giant slide, and the Ye Old Mill; two admissions to the Sky Gliders; and five $1 food and drink tickets.
  • Fair After Dark – If you’re over 21 and want to drink local brews while crafting souvenirs like wood art and bracelets, pick up an after-hours ticket for $30. The event takes place from 9:30 to 11:30 p.m.


What are the top events at the Fair?

  • Big concerts – Like many fairs, the lineup leans country, but there are often some surprises on the Iowa State Fair Grandstand. The 2019 lineup includes superstars like The Chainsmokers, Slipknot, and Foreigner. Plus, you can see country stars like Zac Brown Band and Luke Bryan. Grandstand tickets run from $25-70. There’s also free live music throughout the fairgrounds.
  • Fried Food – What’s a fair without fried snacks that will clog your arteries? Iowa State Fair food doesn’t disappoint. Chow down on favorites like honey sriracha cheese sticks, brown sugar pork belly on a stick, fried portabella mushrooms, fried chicken livers, and apple egg rolls.
  • Butter Cow – It’s a rite of passage. You simply must stop and admire this year’s butter cow. Carved from 600 pounds of Iowa butter, the cow sculpture has been a tradition since 1911. Fun fact: Sarah Pratt is only the fifth sculptor in the fair’s history.
  • Rides and Games – What rides are at the Iowa State Fair? There are three different amusement areas in the park that range from kid-friendly to stomach-dropping. You’ll find favorites like a carousel, tilt-a-whirl, and roller coaster, along with games everyone can play.
  • Political Soapbox – With Iowa voting first in presidential primary, the Political Soapbox often hosts well-known candidates making stump speeches. Previous speakers have included presidents like Eisenhower, Carter, and Obama, and candidates like Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.


How’s the weather?

Temperatures tend to hover between 80 to 85 degrees in the day, but can hit up to a toasty 95. Warm nighttime temperatures range between 63 to 67 degrees. The main thing you need to consider is humidity. The average day hits about 60% humidity. Bring light clothing and plenty of sunscreen. The fairgrounds make up about 445 acres, so you’ll have plenty of ground to cover in the warm weather.

Fun Facts
The Iowa State Fair started in 1854! It moved to its current spot on East 30th and East University in 1886, making it one of the oldest fairs in the country. It’s also one of the busiest, with over a million visitors a year.

Where is the Closest Airport?

View of an airplane wing, on the way to the Iowa State Fair.
Via Phillip Capper/
Des Moines flights land at the Des Moines International Airport (DSM), which is less than 10 miles away from the fairgrounds. From taxis to rideshares to rental cars, it’s a super quick trip to the fair.


What are the Transportation Options?

Parking lot near the Iowa State Fair
Via Mark Zhu/
  • Parking – How does Iowa State Fair parking work? For $10, you can park at the North, Northeast, and University Lots. You can then take the free Blue Line Parking Tram to the fairgrounds.
  • Rideshare and Taxis – Rideshare options like Lyft and Uber will pick up and drop off at Gate 8.
  • Park and Ride – Park your car at one of the DART Park and Ride stops. Just show your fair ticket and receive half off round-trip fare. The parking itself is free at all locations from 8:30 a.m. to midnight during the fair. With the discount, round-trip fares run $1 for adults; $0.50 for children, seniors, and those with disabilities; and free for kids under 5. All buses are wheelchair accessible.
  • Fair Tram – Feeling tired after walking around and eating too many fried Oreos? The free tram travels through the fairgrounds.

Where to Stay?

View of downtown Des Moines, near the Iowa State Fair
Via Henryk Sadura/

Where can you find the best hotels near the Iowa State Fair? Try staying in these top spots to keep you close to the fairgrounds.

  • Downtown – The Iowa State Fair is only five miles away from downtown, making this hot spot a good area to park your spurs for the night. When you’re ready for a new day at the fair, just hop on the 235-E to the event.
  • West Des Moines – West Des Moines has a cluster of hotels that are not only close to the fairground (13 miles away), they’re also near a bunch of grocery chains. Helpful tip: Keeping snacks at the hotel can significantly cut costs when you’re traveling as a family.

What to Do in Des Moines?

Outside view of the grand Iowa State Capitol, which is near the Iowa State Fair
Via DesMoinesMike/

Now that you’ve officially experienced the state fair in Des Moines, Iowa, what’s next? Here are some other popular things to do in the city.

  • State Capitol – One of the most impressive structures in Des Moines is the state capital. The golden crowned building looks like a palace on the outside, with old-world oak bannisters and checkered floors on the inside. Tours are offered Monday through Saturday and are free of charge.
  • John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park – There are roughly two dozen works of sculptured art in this popular green space. It’s always one of the most photographed areas in the city, so if you’re looking for a good spot for a new Instagram pic, this is the place.
  • Des Moines Art Center – O’Keeffe, Monet…there are certainly some bigwigs hanging out in the Des Moines Art Center. Aside from displaying famous art pieces, the center also puts on various events throughout the month, like yoga in the museum and film screenings. Admission to the art center is free.
  • Des Moines History Walk Tour – Want to get to know the background of city? A walking tour through the East Village district will teach you everything you wanted to know.
  • RAYGUN – It’s quite possibly one of the most famous shops in the city. With stickers, buttons, shirts, and coffee mugs with attitude, there’s always something funny on the shelf.

When you’re ready to see what Iowa is all about, the State Fair will leave you with incredible memories and maybe even a bag of kettle corn to take home.