Minnesota is known for its four distinct seasons, but according to avid fair goer, Sue Kowalski, “The Minnesota State Fair is our fifth season.” And now the season is upon us, The Great Minnesota Get Together. Depending on how you feel about the fair, you might be either counting sleeps or leaving town. Or maybe you are like most fair-goers, planning to jam as much State Fairing as possible into one “8 a.m. to when the kids completely melt down” whirlwind of a day.
My daughter and I go every week day. Most people react to that fact with a gasp, imagining that we spend every day the way most visitors do, weaving through crowds from the Cattle Barn to the North End, fried food on a stick in hand, sunbaked and exhausted by 5 p.m.
But that is not our State Fair experience. Because we go so often, we have the luxury of strolling through the quieter parts of the fair (yes, they do exist), resting on lush stretches of grass, and letting whomever is joining us for the day set the agenda because we know we’ll be back again and again. Through years of relaxed visits, I have accumulated a list of tips and hacks for a more pleasurable visit.
We always buy entrance and ride tickets ahead of time. Advance tickets are cheaper before the fair, eliminate the need to stand in long lines at the ticket office and are easily attainable online or at your nearest Cub.
If at all possible, avoid the Snelling Avenue gate (gate 5) or the West End transportation hub gate (gate 16) as those are the busiest. Gates 7, 10 and 18 tend to be much quieter with less lines.
Choose the best day
In theory, Tuesday and Wednesday tend to be the least congested days of the 12-day run. Depending on the weather, those days offer the most breathing room and shorter lines, as well as good deals for military families (Tuesday) or anyone with a library card (Wednesday.)
The Fair does not receive any financial support from government appropriations, and one of the ways it raises funds for maintenance and programs is through the Minnesota State Fair Foundation and its Friends of the Fair program. Being a member of the foundation comes with a variety of benefits from free Blue Ribbon Bargain Books to access to the air conditioned J.V. Bailey House. Two words: Free coffee.
The Minnesota State Fair spans a massive 322 acres. You wouldn’t know it staring at the dense river of humanity in front of the Grand Stand or down Judson Avenue. But there are little oases all around where visitors can get off the main paths and find a moment of respite. My favorite is the little tiny garden behind the Miracle of Birth Center next to gate 9. But don’t tell anyone.
Farm machinery dots the landscape of the quadrant between Randall Avenue and Hoyt. As the fair became less and less about agriculture, Machinery Hill, as it is called, fell out of favor and has been less crowded than other areas. Head up there for family fun at Little Farm Hands, great food like Giggles and Quesadilla Junction and to enjoy the new North End plaza.
Did you know that you can bring your own food and non-alcoholic beverages into the fair? Not only is bringing snacks and water a great money-saving hack, it also saves on time in lines and hangry drama for kids and adults alike. Some of the newer bathrooms have water refill stations and we always bring a couple of inflatable water bottles so when they are empty they don’t take up a lot of space in our bags.
The Daily Parade
Every single day during the fair, a fabulous parade snakes through the ground, starting by the J.V. Bailey House and ending at the Dairy Building. It’s an impressive display of all things Minnesota, including local marching bands, beauty queens and a chance to high five Fairborne and Fairchild. It’s impressive, and another opportunity to take a moment and breath it all in. That’s where I’ll be, in my secret spot, every day at 2:00 sharp.
Alex Lodner is a long time fair fan and former Eater Twin Cities columnist. She and her daughter Millie will be at the fair opening day, anxiously awaiting that first parade. Follow her at the fair @alexlodner on Instagram.