The North Carolina State Fair begins this Thursday, and people will be traveling from all over the state to experience the fun, food, and festivities. No one is going to enjoy themselves nearly as much as you are, though. Others will overeat, overspend, and generally overexpose themselves to all that the fair is. Much as you would not want to look directly at a solar eclipse or cross the streams when attempting to capture a poltergeist, you do not want to go to the fair without a plan in place.
Fortunately, you will be prepared because you will have read this, the Leith Cars guide to the NC State Fair.
The Fair lasts from Thursday, October 16, until Sunday, October 26. The gates are generally open from 8:00 in the morning until midnight, with some exceptions. You can consult specific hours for exhibits and events on the official website.
If you’re taking your kids and want to make a day of it, the weekend is probably the time for you. Know that it will be far more crowded. There’s usually a teacher work day some time during the fair, so that might be your ticket to a less crowded week day excursion.
What we recommend for an optimal fair experience is to go on a week night such as Tuesday or Wednesday of next week. That middle period will be more manageable both for parking and walking around the fair grounds. If you aim to get to the fair around 6:00 and stay until the fireworks, you’ll be there for long enough to see everything worth seeing and get all the way home without your feet killing you.
The ordeal of finding a parking place is probably going to make you hungry if you aren’t already, so your first stop should be the best of all hot dog stands. Some of you may have been to the Roast Grill in Raleigh, which means you’ll be excited when we tell you they run Steve’s Dogs, located directly across from the waterfall. We usually get a foot-long, but they serve regular size dogs as well, and unlike at the Roast Grill they do have ketchup available. If Steve’s there, say hello, but don’t be surprised if you can’t quite understand what he says back.
What better to complement the best hot dog at the fair than the best french fries? From Steve’s Dogs, head down the row of food stands toward the Jim Graham building and take a right turn. The stands continue across from the Expo Center, and not too long after you turn the corner you should find Al’s Fries. There’s apparently another Al’s Fries somewhere but we’ve never been to that one, so as far as we’re concerned, it’s inferior. A large is the perfect size if you ask us. Small will leave you wanting more and XL will shorten your stay.
The Expo Center
If you’ve read Charlotte’s Web, you know that the fair was started as a place for farmers and members of the agricultural community to bring their livestock and produce so that they could be compared, judged, and sold. You could go to the Jim Graham Building or the Kelley Building to see more cows and chickens than you have ever wanted to, but what you should know is that all the animals in there are losers. You want to see winners (because there are fewer of them and they don’t smell quite as bad).
That’s why you only need to go into the Expo Center to see all that you need to see. These are the blue ribbon winners. There will be a couple of big cows bought by Harris Teeter. There’s going to be a goat pen with baby goats. Somewhere a turkey will be angrily strutting around in its cage thinking about how much of a turkey it is. You will also probably see a humongous pumpkin. As you walk around, think about the fact that all of these animals, cute as they might be if you’re into livestock, are doomed. There are no sentient spiders to save any of them. Leave whenever you feel like it. Note: there’s a clean bathroom in this building that is a good place to wash your hands if you need to.
You need to.
Here we’ve blocked out some time for whatever it is you most want to do. You could cash in on some yearly traditions if you’re an annual fair-goer, or you could venture off to find something memorable and exciting on that side of the fair that most people don’t visit (We’re looking at you, the Village of Yesteryear).
If you have kids, you might want to go to the Midway. We recommend you invest more in funhouses and rides because they aren’t quite as taxing on your wallet. Unlike carnival games, you don’t have to win a ride in order to have fun and besides, they say you should buy experiences, not things. If you don’t have kids, why would you ever go to the Midway? Save yourself a walk.
If you like testing your heart, you could always seek out the deep-fried thing of the year. Apparently this year it’s deep-fried barbecue, which is somewhat less offensive to our southern sensibilities, but it also strikes us as tampering with something that ought not to be tampered with. We don’t plan on finding out. Our fried food of choice is a funnel cake because it knows it doesn’t have to try in order to be delicious. Whatever you do, save room because there’s one last food item we’re going to recommend.
Cheerwine Stand (In Memoriam)
At this point, we recommend you head over to the Education and Commercial Buildings (in the eastern corner of the fairgrounds). There used to be a booth outside the westernmost of these exhibit halls that sold Cheerwine for a dollar a cup. You couldn’t miss it because there was a giant inflatable can of Cheerwine there to mark the spot. As of several years ago, that booth no longer appears at the fair. As you enter the building, please pause a moment and pay your respects to North Carolina’s best beverage.
Within the Education and Commercial Buildings, you will find all manner of booths and exhibits. There are food and design contests, merchants hocking their wares, and people trying to get you to join causes. There are also raffles scattered throughout. A leisurely stroll through the exhibit halls is a great way to wind down the night. Before you leave, you ought to stop by the Optimist Club’s booth where they sell Mellow Buttercup Ice Cream in huge servings. It’s delicious. Moose tracks is our favorite flavor.
The last thing you ought to do is go outside and watch the fireworks. The best view will be from the waterfall by Dorton Arena, where our journey began. The grand finale is worth staying for if you’ve made it this far.
Remember that these are only our recommendations, but we stand by this guide as one of the most comprehensive yet conservative State Fair experiences you can have. Feel free to share your own favorite fair experiences with us. What did we leave out that you consider essential to a fair trip? However you choose to enjoy the fair, all of us at Leith Cars hope you stay safe and have a great time.