The NC State Fair is an iconic event that is treated like a holiday in North Carolina, bringing joy and excitement to the state for almost two weeks every year since 1853. Presented by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and sponsored by various businesses, the annual fair arrives in Raleigh every October and sparks a celebration of all things local.
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In the weeks leading up to the fair, whispers of rumors surrounding the new vendors and attractions can be heard in almost any group setting. “Did you hear there’s going to be deep fried frog legs this year?!” “I can’t wait to ride the world’s tallest Ferris wheel!” (Yes, both of those things have made appearances at the NC State Fair.) Many folks even take vacation days from work, check their children out of school, and rearrange schedules to allow for more time to explore the temporary wonderland.
As you can imagine, the State Fair is a big deal. NC natives typically grow up attending every year, each time discovering something new. The expansive grounds, endless vendors, and always changing itinerary make it difficult for newcomers or State Fair “newbies” to plan for their first trip.
Real-Tour Experience partners Alison W of the W Group and Megan of NC Eat & Play are both Raleigh natives who have enjoyed the State Fair almost every year for their entire lives. This guide to the NC State Fair is a culmination of their experiences, tips, and research aimed at helping you make the most of your visit this fall.
Our Guide to the NC State Fair
The first thing you should know as you plan your trip to the State Fair is that there are a few different ways to get tickets. Discounted tickets are available online and at Circle K locations leading up to the opening day of the fair. After opening day, tickets can only be bought at the gate or Circle K for full price.
If you’re looking for a more budget-friendly way to visit the fair, you can visit on the designated food drive day allowing you to earn free admission in exchange for six cans of food. This is typically one of the most crowded days of the fair, but is an excellent way to save money while supporting the local food bank. This designated Hunger Relief Day falls on Thurs. Oct 21 this year.
One of the more popular parking options is to park for free at the corner of Edwards Mill and Reedy Creek and take the complimentary shuttle to and from the fair. This option allows you to skip walking and traffic, but does require you to wait for the shuttles. As the buses run continuously and the parking lot has a covered waiting area and portable restrooms, the short waits shouldn’t be an issue for most.
Free parking is also available in multiple lots near the fairgrounds such as the Carter-Finley Stadium and PNC arena, but will require some walking to the gates. For most, the walk is very doable. You will also likely come across various privately owned lots where there is a fee to park.
Public transit as well as the train also operate throughout the state to bring fairgoers to the gates.
The State Fair offers exciting attractions included with admission.
A fairgoer could have a fun-filled day at the fair without spending a dime aside from admission (though we highly recommend buying some delicious fair foods, which we will get to soon). Around every corner of the fairgrounds, you can find free activities and demonstrations that seek to entertain guests and highlight local talent.
It would take far more than one blog post to delve into each of the offered attractions. For that reason, we are highlighting just a few of our favorites and encourage you to check out the official NC State Fair site for more information about the numerous exhibits.
Enjoy outdoor concerts from talented musicians.
The Homegrown Music Fest allows guests to enjoy entertainment on outdoor stages. Various shows are scheduled throughout the duration of the fair, giving you many opportunities to enjoy a free concert with admission. We recommend checking the official line up online and planning to grab a delicious meal from one of the many food vendors to enjoy while listening to local talent.
Prepare to be wowed at the Flower & Garden Show.
If walking through themed gardens while viewing artistic plant displays appeals to you, visiting the Flower & Garden Show is a must. With beautiful exhibits and more than thirty educational demonstrations, this section of the fair is perfect for photo opportunities and a calming escape from the wild lights and sounds of the rest of the fairgrounds.
Got to Be NC creates an exhibit worthy of a mention on our guide to the NC State Fair!
The Got to Be NC Agriculture Pavilion is a favorite presentation among fair regulars, but may be easy to overlook as a newcomer. This exhibit is not simply a display of produce and crops. It is a celebration of farmers, products, and local food. Taste samples of products (don’t miss the House Autry hushpuppies!), view demonstrations, and enjoy farmer spotlights.
Explore endless wonders at the Expo Center.
The Expo Center is a large section of the fairgrounds that houses many exhibits that are sure to make you say “WOW!” Imagine pumpkins and watermelons of unbelievable size on display, a honeybee exhibit, baby animals, and more!
Admire local talent at the Commercial/Education Building.
The Commercial/Education building showcases awe-inspiring crafts, baked goods, decorations, and more. Roam the walkways while admiring award-winning creations.
Live it up with games and rides.
There is no shortage of fun games to be enjoyed at the fair. Try your hand and you might just win a fun keepsake! Check out the endless ride options for both children and adults. Ferris wheels, haunted houses, coasters, trains, swings, and more! Ride tickets can be purchased online before opening day, or at the fair.
A Guide to the NC State Fair Food: Bring your appetite!
If you ask around what people think is the best part of the NC State Fair, the majority will enthusiastically tell you it’s the food. We’d have to agree. As we are sure you’ve already put together, our fair is far from average and the food is no exception.
Sure, you will find classic favorites like funnel cakes, turkey legs, and fried Oreos. What sets the State Fair apart, however, is the copious amounts of incredibly unique and delicious vendors. Some of these vendors are homegrown right here in the state, while others travel hundreds to thousands of miles to participate in what they know is one of the greatest State Fairs in the nation.
Okay, we know what you’re wondering. “But what should we eat?!” The truth is, there are so many options, even we discover new favorites every time. You will find some great treasures on your own while wandering around, but we will share a few icons to get you started!
Refresh with NC State’s own Howling Cow Ice Cream
Created in the 1940s and sold at the fair since the 70s, Howling Cow ice cream is made locally on NC State University’s dairy farm. With its creamy texture and fun flavors (like campfire delight and wolf tracks), you’re sure to love it.
Indulge in Hot Wisconsin Cheese
Look for the bright yellow booth selling Hot Wisconsin Cheese, order plenty of stretchy, oozy mozzarella fingers, and enjoy!
Peachey’s Baking Company brings donuts that can’t be missed.
Peachey’s is a mobile bakery that creates fresh donuts and pretzels right in front of you. The line can get long because they are very loved by regulars, including Megan of NC Eat & Play who shares “They are the best donuts I’ve ever had!” The line moves quickly so you’ll have hot yeast donuts in hand in no time.
Sip on sweetness from Tropical Delight Smoothies.
You will likely notice guests walking around with over-the-top drool-worthy smoothies. You will be tempted to get one yourself and you should absolutely give in to that temptation. Try a smoothie in a pineapple bowl or go for their new strawberry cheesecake smoothie!
First United Methodist Church of Cary has been bringing buttery biscuits to fairgoers for more than 100 years.
First United Methodist Church of Cary began making biscuits from scratch to sell at the NC State Fair since 1916. Their ham biscuits are legendary and one of the oldest fair food traditions making them a must eat!
Homemade chocolate chip cookies by the bucket?
Make sure to keep an eye out for The Cookie House, which serves fresh, hot chocolate chip cookies paired with ice cold milk. Order a bucket of cookies to easily share with family while walking around the fairgrounds (or eat it all yourself, we don’t judge here).
No guide to the NC State Fair is complete without Al’s French Fries!
Al’s French Fries serves just that: French fries. A simple concept, a great execution, and a cult following of fry-lovers. Some choose to drizzle the famous malt-vinegar on their fries while others opt for ketchup.
Clearly, you need to bring your appetite to the NC State Fair!
Every year, the list of fair foods grows and 2021 is no different. NC Eat & Play was invited to check out the new food options this year at a media preview event. In addition to the strawberry cheesecake smoothie from Tropical Delights, her top picks are the jerk chicken slider with Caribbean slaw from Cool Runnings Jamaican, fried lobster pop from Oak City Fish & Chips, and the shrimp macaroni and cheese egg roll from Waypoint Oyster Bar.
We hope our guide to the NC State Fair is useful to you. Have any tips, tricks, or favorite foods that we missed? Leave a comment below as we will continue to update this guide!