Travel

The 10 Most Charming, Wacky, and Delicious State Fairs In America

Get ready for some deep-fried fun.

Star Tribune/Getty Images
Star Tribune/Getty Images
Star Tribune/Getty Images

We really don’t give America’s state fairs the love they deserve. We love them, for sure, but we love them with an irresistible and morbid fascination for carnival ride freak accidents, and for the painstaking sculpture of hundreds of pounds of butter, and also for the food. Even when it comes to that food, we love them for their very specific genre of excellent and disturbing foodstuffs, the most notable of which are Food, But Deep Fried, And On a Stick. In other words, we love them as punchlines.

So while state fairs have our attention, they often do not quite have our respect. This is silly because state fairs are wonderful events that are best attended earnestly. Many of them go back 100, 150 years, showcasing the very best that their respective state’s farmers, ranchers, artists, bakers, and local governments have to offer. And you should, of course, respect what they represent in terms of sheer ambition. State fairs are where we find what new heights the human race can reach, what ideas can be willed into corporeal form by those who dare to look at foods they have already fried and wonder if they could perhaps fry them again, or differently, or more.

Here are 10 of the biggest, boldest, and best of the country’s state fairs, eager to sell you something On A Stick, ready for you to fall in love.

Photo courtesy of Indiana State Fair
Photo courtesy of Indiana State Fair
Photo courtesy of Indiana State Fair

Indiana

When is it: August
The Indiana State Fair is one of the country’s oldest. Especially famous is the Swine Barn, where each year you will find the state’s largest hog, which is about 1,000 pounds. That is the size of a medium horse, a grand piano, or a small-ish giraffe. This year’s food creations included popcorn chicken-topped mac n’ cheese, a grilled cheese with waffles where one traditionally expects bread, and a beef parfait, comprised of chopped smoked beef brisket over mashed potatoes. Lotta farmers at this particular state fair, too, which makes sense considering, y’know, which state you’re in. Keep an eye out for tractors… driving through the crowds. To date, no one has been run over. Do not be the first.

Yes/Shoot Models/Shutterstock
Yes/Shoot Models/Shutterstock
Yes/Shoot Models/Shutterstock

Florida

When is it: February
Florida switches it up a bit by hosting its state fair in the wintertime-or as wintertime as things get in Florida-making it the first one out of the gate each year. (For the record, the 2021 fair was held in spring, but 2022 will be business as usual.)  Held in Tampa, it draws more than half a million people every year. You can expect equestrian shows, every conceivable barnyard animal, and more than 110 rides, not least of which is the largest traveling Ferris Wheel in North America-155 feet tall. Newcomers on the food scene included gelato nachos (with Dutch stroopwafels instead of tortilla chips), as well as a grilled cheese stuffed with BBQ pulled pork & mac n’ cheese.

Flickr/NC State Fair
Flickr/NC State Fair
Flickr/NC State Fair

North Carolina

When is it: Late October
Acrobats, livestock shows, extremely large pumpkins, a life-sized pirate ship, and loads of live shows like a five-day Folk music competition and the much-beloved Homegrown Music Fest. If you should have any questions-any at all-about milking cows, the Mobile Dairy Classroom will answer them for you while you munch on your deep-fried Jello (or deep-fried Cuban rolls, or deep-fried strawberry cream puffs …). Or go milk a cow yourself at the State Fair Ark, so named because that is where you will find a whole lot of animals. Oh, and remember that big-ass Ferris wheel? Yeah, it gets around.

New York State Fair
New York State Fair
New York State Fair

New York

When is it: Around Labor Day
The Great New York State Fair (the cheapest state fair in the US, at just $3 a pop for admission!) is held each year in Syracuse, and as of this year includes a “Heart Failure” (a hot dog wrapped in bacon, deep-fried, and served in a Twinkie topped with cheddar cheese peanut butter glaze and bacon bits… yup), plus wine slushies. Maybe hit the rides before you do that rather than after. While you’re digesting, what about some drag shows? Equestrian shows? Rodeos? Hay bale-throwing competitions? What, you’ve seen all that before? Fine, what about Hollywood Racing Pigs? Or the chance to witness the live births of baby calves? They’ve got it all.

Photo courtesy of Iowa State Fair
Photo courtesy of Iowa State Fair
Photo courtesy of Iowa State Fair

Iowa

When is it: August
Another of the country’s best-attended state fairs, Iowa’s pulls in more than 1 million visitors each year. It is also especially famous for one thing, a thing of which you’ve probably seen photos. Heard tales. Lore, if you will. That thing is the Butter Cow. In past years, there have also been accompanying Butter Sesame Street characters, Butter Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and even a Butter “The Last Supper.” Speaking of butter! What sorts of Food On Stick would you most like to consume during your state fair outing? Cookie Dough In A Waffle On A Stick? Smoothie On A Stick? Pie (Apple, Cherry, Pecan) On A Stick? Bologna On A Stick? Salad On A Stick? All is possible at the Iowa State Fair.

Photo courtesy of Ohio State Fair
Photo courtesy of Ohio State Fair
Photo courtesy of Ohio State Fair

Ohio

When is it: Late July or early August
The Ohio State Fair was closed to regular fairgoers this year, but should return in full, deep-fried force in 2022. In past years, we got … pork butt tots, deep-fried tofu, and the Extremely Ohio buckeye funnel cake. You could get your deep-fried mac ‘n’ cheese either in ball form or On A Stick form. Someone also took gummy worms, made them into tiny burger patties, deep-fried them (as is the law this time of year), and finished them off with Fruity Pebble cereal topping. And, okay, so here is the thing about the Butter Cow. Iowa is not the only state fair that does it, which is fantastic news for anyone living outside Iowa. Ohio, for instance, also does a Butter Cow. It’s also had a Butter Apollo 11 Crew and a Butter Furby. The Ohio State Fair also has professional pogo stick…ers. Pogo athletes? People On Sticks.

Flickr/V'ron
Flickr/V’ron
Flickr/V’ron

Wisconsin

When is it: August, usually
We could talk about a lot of cool stuff from the Wisconsin State Fair, like the Milwaukee Mile-the oldest continuously operating race car track in the world-or the iconic Giant Slide. But by this point in the list, you’re probably pretty hungry? Maybe I’m just hungry. Anyway! Let’s talk deep-fried stuff. Deep-fried garlic cheese curds. Cajun crawfish nachos. Still hungry? Have a Peanut Butter Squealer, which goes as follows: First, a maple-infused breakfast sausage is baked inside a Belgian waffle. Then, it’s drizzled with syrup. Then, it’s topped with bacon. This state fair also gets a special shout-out for their incredibly convenient list of Foods On-a-Stick.

Gregory E. Clifford/Shutterstock
Gregory E. Clifford/Shutterstock
Gregory E. Clifford/Shutterstock

Arizona

When is it: October
No enormous concerts happening at the 2021 Arizona State Fair, but there will be-you guessed it-enormous amounts of fried and fantastical foods. There’s gonna be fried butter. Fry bread. Some pickle shooters. Chocolate-covered Tamales On Sticks. Cheetos On Sticks. Entire Pigs On (Big) Sticks. Maybe a deep-fried watermelon or two, not On Sticks so far as we know. (Yet.) All that’ll be topped off with rodeos, carnival rides, and pig races.

Photo courtesy of Texas State Fair
Photo courtesy of Texas State Fair
Photo courtesy of Texas State Fair

Texas

When is it: Late September through mid-October
Joke all you want, but things really are bigger in Texas. The Texas State Fair is the largest in America, beginning around the last Friday in September and carrying on almost an entire month. It is attended each year by more than 2 million people. Naturally, there will be rodeos and rides. I have also heard whispers of cotton candy tacos at the Texas State Fair. Butter sculptures, most certainly. Recent years’ new foods included deep-fried Nutella custard stuffed French toast, which sounds like several separate foods but is one, and deep-fried seafood gumbo balls.

Photo courtesy of Minnesota State Fair
Photo courtesy of Minnesota State Fair
Photo courtesy of Minnesota State Fair

Minnesota

When is it: Around Labor Day
Minnesota, a state known for not messing around at all when it’s time for winter, goes just as hard in the late summer when it’s time for what’s known as the Great Minnesota Get-Together. The Texas State Fair might be largest in terms of overall attendance, but that’s sort of on the basis of a technicality-it lasts twice as long as the Minnesota State Fair, which draws in more people per day and thus, in this respect, is the true most popular state fair in America. Entertainment this year included a Traveling Reptile Show and performances from TLC, Shaggy, and Tim McGraw. Minnesota also did a lot of things with tacos this year, such as deep-frying them and putting them On Sticks, or deep-frying them into the shape of ice cream cones, or filling them with brisket, which I think is the only one that actually bothers me. There’s BBQ sauce, something about the nature of which strikes me as … not belonging on a taco. America, however, clearly thinks otherwise, and I’m not gonna argue with that. Yes, there is sculpted butter to be found here, too.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.

Kastalia Medrano is a writer and editor. You can find her on Twitter at @kastaliamedrano, and Venmo tips at @kastaliamedrano.

Travel

Hollywood's Favorite Mountain Town Isn't Where You'd Think It Is

It's all hot springs and Hemmingway lore here.

Michael Godek/Moment/Getty Images
Michael Godek/Moment/Getty Images
Michael Godek/Moment/Getty Images

“Idaho is like the new Colorado, and Sun Valley is like the new Aspen,” a woman leaned over and said as we began our descent into Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey, Idaho. “Everyone’s coming here now.”

Similar to Aspen-which has seen an unprecedented influx of transplants from around the country since the pandemic began-Sun Valley has served as Idaho’s venerable ski town ever since it was established as the country’s first designated ski resort in 1936. But those same snow-covered mountains people swish down all winter look awfully pretty come summertime, surrounded by the nearby Sawtooth Mountain range and set within the sweeping Wood River Valley.

Peter Jacobson/500Px Plus/Getty Images
Peter Jacobson/500Px Plus/Getty Images
Peter Jacobson/500Px Plus/Getty Images

Celebrities, artists, and fiercely passionate locals have long been a part of the fabric of this town ever since Ernest Hemingway was invited to live and write in the Sun Valley Lodge in 1939.

“Many celebrities were invited to come for free.” actress and Sun Valley resident Ali Larter told me at The Sun Valley Film Festival (SVFF) in April. “Hemingway was one of the first famous people to come and help build up what this mountain town was, and it’s become a part of what makes this valley the creative hub that it continues to be even today.”

Sun Valley’s cach√© remains alive and well, with its contingent of laid-back locals, cool bars, restaurants, and always-sunny Sun Valley vibes. While the secret about this idyllic mountain town may be out, Aspen, I can assure you, it is not. From spending some time soaking in the local hot springs to visiting a few of Hemingway’s favourite haunts, here are all the ways to enjoy Hollywood’s favourite mountain town, no matter the season.

Karl Weatherly/Photodisc/Getty Images
Karl Weatherly/Photodisc/Getty Images
Karl Weatherly/Photodisc/Getty Images

Walk in Hemingway’s footprints or drink amid the flowers

With 50 peaks, 300 lakes and rivers, and 250-miles of trails, wherever you are in Sun Valley, adventure isn’t far behind.

A good place to get your bearings is the White Cloud Trail. One of the most popular hiking loops at a leisurely 2.5 miles, it’s a short walk or bike ride from the Sun Valley resort area. As you make your way along the trail, plan to stop by the Hemingway Memorial, which is a fantastic place to soak in some views.

About four miles down the Wood River Trail is the Sawtooth Botanical Garden, which makes for a lovely bike-ride destination. The garden is a beautiful place to spend a few hours, especially in the summer when numerous events take place, like tours, wine tastings, and cocktail evenings.

Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images
Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images
Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images

Spend the morning soaking in local hot springs or angling for rainbows

Just 10 miles west of downtown Ketchum on Warm Springs Road, Frenchman’s Bend is the best place to soak in local hot springs. This shallow spring has long been a local Sun Valley hot spot, though it’s very much not clothing optional, so skinny dippers beware.

But getting hot and pruny isn’t the only way to enjoy the water here. Stretching 137-miles long and running directly through Sun Valley, Big Wood River is a great spot to go white water rafting in nearby Stanley or try your hand at fly fishing.

If you’re angling to get out and catch those elusive rainbows, try a guided fishing trip or even a women’s intro to fly fishing clinic with Sun Valley Outfitters. Big Wood is known for wild trout, though Silver Creek Preserve is another excellent spot (and a Hemingway favourite).

Warfield Distillery & Brewery
Warfield Distillery & Brewery
Warfield Distillery & Brewery

Eat homey dishes in cozy settings

Sun Valley’s food scene rivals that of any big city, starting with coffee and a ham and cheese croissant at Konditorei. Otherwise head straight for The Kneadery for a country frittata and ultimate Belgian waffles topped with whipped cream in downtown Ketchum.

Walk it all off before heading to Warfield Distillery & Brewery, which serves up some of the best elevated pub food. The beautiful rooftop is perfect for drinking in the views over downtown Ketchum and Baldy mountain. Don’t miss the signature Warfield Burger and Bacon Blue Ridge Salad and save some room for the carrot cake if you can.

Set on a side street in downtown Ketchum, The Covey‘s hearth style, seasonally inspired menu more than delivers when it comes to homemade pastas and some of the best locally caught trout you’ve ever had. It’s also got a killer wine list and a gorgeous new outdoor garden to enjoy it all in. If push comes to shove, don’t be afraid to post up at the bar, where you can chat with some of Sun Valley’s coolest team of locals and longtime friends who own and operate this awesome spot.

Rickshaw
Rickshaw
Rickshaw

Rickshaw is the cozy [read: tiny] neighbourhood joint to satisfy all your Asian- fusion cravings. The Korean Fried Chicken (KFC), Chiang Mai Curry Noodles, and Green Papaya Salad are cooked to chef-kiss perfection. Just note that this place packs up quick and reservations can be tough to come by, so if you can’t get a spot, grab your food to go and post up for a picnic in any of the nearby parks.

One absolute can’t miss when you’re in Ketchum is the chance to guzzle down schooners at Grumpy’s, a true Sun Valley legend. You can sit out front and enjoy the chilli fries and beers, but you’ll be missing out on the indoor ambience of this time-capsule-of-a-ski-town dive.

Come nighttime, head to Pioneer Saloon for margaritas, pints at The Cellar Pub, a tipple and some of Tom’s Mom’s Meatloaf at the Sawtooth Club, before an obligatory lap at Casino.

The Gold Mine Thrift Store
The Gold Mine Thrift Store
The Gold Mine Thrift Store

Strike gold at the local thrift

There’s no shortage of high-end boutiques in and around the Sun Valley Resort and downtown Ketchum, but for a real taste of local goodness, Gold Mine Thrift Store is considered the ultimate choice for all your thrifting needs. There’re always gems to be found here and it’s an added bonus that all of the proceeds go towards The Community Library next door.

For all your gear and outdoor needs, head to the Elephant’s Perch; or for some great local reads, look no further than Chapter One Bookstore on a side street off the Main drag. Finally, The Farmer’s Daughter is the perfect place to pick up some cool, local home d√©cor and Idaho knick knacks.

Sun Valley Resort
Sun Valley Resort
Sun Valley Resort

Sleep like a star at Sun Valley’s best hotels

The Sun Valley Lodge is the go-to spot for a five-star stay in Sun Valley. Dating back to 1936, it’s also the former residence of Ernest Hemingway, whose room here is said to still house his typewriter.

The hotel’s pool area and bowling alley are always buzzing with activity, but if you’re in the mood for some bonafide “me time,” head straight to The Spa at Sun Valley, where a spin inside one of their “Experience Showers” in the locker room is enough to make you a believer in the power of one really good shower.

Right across the courtyard from The Lodge, the Sun Valley Inn is a bit more rustic than its glamorous counterpart-but recently remodelled and offering access to all of the same amenities as the Lodge at a fraction of the cost, the Inn is a more economical way to stay in the resort area.

Just off Main Street in Ketchum, Limelight Hotel is the perfect, pet-friendly place to stay if you want to be in the heart of the action. Word to the wise, snag a room with balcony views over Baldy, and don’t miss a chance to wind down with a dip in the pool and hot tubs.

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Michelle Gross is a travel, food and lifestyle writer who loves a small-town vibe. An alum of the University of Colorado Boulder, she spends a lot of time enjoying the great outdoors. This summer you’ll most likely find her on a paddleboard or on her porch in Beaufort, South Carolina.

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