Iowa State Fair on the cheap

Ah, the Iowa State Fair. The one time of year when you can eat a corndog and browse horses at the same time.

The Iowa State Fair always starts the second Thursday of August and runs for 10 days. And it seems people either love or hate it. Me? I’m torn. I’m not in love with how much it can cost to go to the Fair, but I DO love seeing the exhibits and how my daughter’s face lights up.

So, here are some cheap ways to “do” the Fair.

Abigail had a little lamb

Abigail had a little lamb

Let’s start with parking. I used to park on the grounds, which is $10. Ouch! Now, we take the bus. Hop on the #1 Fairgrounds route for an easy and direct trip to the Fair, or catch it from one of the three FREE Park & Ride locations:

  • Center Street Park & Ride – (7th and Center Street, enter on 7th Street)
  • Southeast Polk School – (N.E. 80th Street and Highway 163)
  • State Capitol – (East 12th Street near the State Capitol bell)

Regular roundtrip fares are $2 for adults and $1 for seniors (ages 65+), disabled persons, Medicare card holders and children (ages 6-10).


  • $5 off adult tickets after 5: After 5 p.m. each weekday of the Fair (Monday through Thursday), regular gate admission is just $6 for adults and $3 for Fairgoers ages 6-11.
  • Canned food drive: On Tuesday, receive $3 off regular gate admission with a donation of at least two canned food items. Available at the Gate from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. One admission per person, per donation (parking not included).
  • Older Iowans’ day: On Wednesday, Fairgoers ages 60+ get in for just $8.  Available at the Gate from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Extreme Sunday: Enjoy one last day at the Fair with $5 off regular adult admission and $2 off admission for Fairgoers ages 6-11.

Once you’re in, there are lots of things to see, which are free, including:

  • The butter cow sculpture is always a highlight. Lines can be long, so be patient. Inside the same building you can see many garden and agricultural products including floral displays, food and other demonstrations.
  • If you enjoy animals, walk through the barns and visit with exhibitors who brought their animals to the fair. Or, watch the judging and see how good you are at picking the best of the show.
  • The cultural center’s displays of photos and art exhibits. Take time to visit the miniatures or the doll houses, too.
  • Free shows are available every day throughout the grounds. You’ll find everything from spiritual music to old time tunes. Find yourself a spot in the shade. Just check out the schedule.
  • You might enjoy climbing on the huge new farm equipment. You may notice it while driving through Iowa, but you don’t quite realize how big farm equipment is until you stand beside it!
  • If Iowa or State Fair history is your thing, visit the museums on the north side of Pioneer Hall.

Food. Well, that’s a tough one. It seems everything is pretty expensive. If you have a small child, bring in your own water or juice. Outside food and drink isn’t usually allowed, so try to find a restaurant with larger portions so you can split. It tends to be tough to share a corndog, for example, but a burger is a little easier. Some places, like the Cattlemen’s Beef Quarters, have daily specials through Facebook and Foursquare. (One tip: there’s  a Ribbon Tater Fries stand that will refill any cup (up to 32 oz) with Coke products for $1.)

Also, you can renew your driver’s license in the Varied Industries Building!

Have a fun and safe Iowa State Fair! Have more tips? Let me know!

  1. Found out today there’s an area within the Varied Industries Building where you can sample and buy Iowa products. I tried Gino’s creamy parm sauce with carrots today. Also got some tasty samples during the Iowa Farm Bureau-hosted cookout contest today. Yum!