10 County fair activities you can’t miss

Alameda-county-fair-cows

The county fair is a staple of US life. We’ve all seen them in movies – they’re a snapshot of life wherever it is that you live. And this being America, there’s no shortage of interesting food to try and things to do once you’re there.

So far I’ve sampled a few fairs; from the San Mateo County Fair to the Gilroy Garlic Festival, the Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival and, most recently, the Alameda County Fair. All of them have been great for different reasons but there are common threads running through them.

Here’s the top 10 countdown of county fair activities that you just can’t miss. You’ll be glad you visited.

1.EATING

Fair food is legendary. There is every type you could ever imagine: huge turkey legs, Greek gyros, seafood, fries of the chilli, garlic and cheese varieties and deep-fried anything on a stick.

County-fair-food

That’s not even putting a dent in your savoury options either. Hotdogs, pizza, BBQ, curly fries, Mexican fare. The list doesn’t seem to have an end.

It’s everything you never knew about and most probably wouldn’t eat anywhere else. Your arteries won’t thank you but you’ll be fulfilling the Great American Dream of eating life to the full. I don’t know, I’m still in a coma from everything I ate yesterday.

2. THE RACES

These come in different forms, depending on the county fair you’re at. Sometimes it’s tractor pulling, other times it’s garlic braiding (I’m looking at you Gilroy Garlic Festival).

But I’ve got a soft spot for animal races (obviously the nice kind). My favourite is the All-Alaskan Racing Pigs, which fulfills the cuteness and competitive quota for the day.

County-Fair-All-Alaskan-Racing-Pigs
Look at them, flying like the wind! They travel to lots of fairs, so check out the website for details. Photo Credit: All Alaskan Racing Pigs.

These “races” are all a bit of fun, complete with a few hurdles thrown in for good measure. I’ve honestly not been in a crowd where the adults have as big a smile on their faces as their kids. It’s lots of fun.

The children get picked to help out in opening the starters gate and the judging, and for once I wished that I was about 20 years younger to qualify. The kids also get to ride on pedal-driven mini tractors – a dream come true for any littlie who likes the idea of farm life.

Horse racing is part of the Alameda Country Fair and if you’re keen on a flutter you can put your money where your mouth is, otherwise just enjoy the fast-paced excitement!

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Alameda County Fair horse racing

3. FILLING YOUR DESSERT STOMACH

If you’re saying that this technically falls under the “eating” category, then I’m pleased to inform you that you’re oh-so-very wrong. Dessert goes into, and is processed by, an entirely separate stomach compartment, like so:

Dessert-stomach-slowrobot
Much obliged to Slow Robot for this concept.

I’ve spent the past two years studiously examining, taste testing and baking American desserts and think I have enough evidence to support my very own hypothesis.

US pastry chefs spend an inordinate amount of time and energy pumping as much sugar, butter, oil and chocolate into their creations as possible, without sending their diners into an instantaneous sugar coma.

What is the one county fair staple dessert that really ticks every single box on that checklist? Funnel Cakes. *shudder* Just saying the name sets my teeth on edge. For the uninitiated, funnel cakes are a pancake-like batter, poured through a funnel or jug into a deep fryer into a circular shape usually.

Then they’re flipped, cooked for maximum oil seepage and doused in icing sugar and toppings like whipped cream, jam, chocolate sauce, etc. I tried to like it. I was optimistic about it. But for me, sugar and oil-soakedness don’t mix. Sorry.

4. TALK TO THE ANIMALS

For all the Aussies out there, this is where it really gets to feel like the Sydney Royal Easter Show or the Royal Melbourne Show.

When I was a kid, I was not a huge fan of traversing the aisles of the animal pavilion with my farmer father, who would tell us all about the 40 billion different breeds of chicken. But now I’m a fan of checking out all the animals and saying hi.

county-fair-isa-brown-chicken
I see you chicken! Looking at me with your beady Isa Brown eyes.

The trick, especially with tween-age kids in tow, is not to linger too much. I loved checking out the reptiles, rabbits, ducks, chickens and turkeys. If your kids don’t like snakes they’re bound to like the fluffy bunnies and ducks. There’s definitely something for everyone!

county-fair-bearded-dragon
They even had some Aussie bearded dragons!

Then broke up the barnyard visits with some other exhibits before heading back to check out the livestock. I saw the tallest sheep ever, which were fascinating AND two sheep behaving like total goats.

These were particularly smart livestock, hanging out by the fans on a hot day.

county-fair-donkey
A literal representation of the coolest donkey in show

5. THE COUNTY FAIR RIDES

I took a quick straw poll around the office and it seems that not everyone is keen on fair rides. I think it’s all of the constant putting up and taking down of all of those moving parts that can make them a little scary when you think about it.

county-fair-amusement-rides

According to Brad from Southern Idaho’s 95.7 KEZJ New Country radio (the authority on county fair rides) it’s totally safe! Americans and the like took 1.7 billion rides in 2011 and 1,204 people were injured. Pocket change!

Plus you get to spin and whirl and see things from a great height. If you’re lucky, you just ate something cheesy and greasy that might just come back to visit.

6. BUYING AN OVERPRICED STUFFED ANIMAL

Also known as, playing the sideshow games. Carnival games? Whatever you call them, there are some good ones in the US.

Pitching baseballs at a wall of beer bottles, throwing darts at a wall of balloons, water guns – you name it they’ve got it. With some fluffy prizes to go with it as well. All you have to do is spend enough money and knock over the plastic ducks and you’re golden.

county-fair-carnival-games

We’re building up a menagerie at my place. So far we’ve got a giraffe and a blue cow, courtesy of Mr M.

7. YE OLDE FARM EQUIPMENT

If you’re at all interested in the way machines are put together and how they work, head on over to the tractor and motor pavillion.

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Having grown up on a farm, I have a certain appreciation for an old tractor, especially since my uncle’s still getting around on a 1952 Ford 8N. He’s got to jump start it and all that, but it runs.

But I digress, county fairs usually have farm equipment a-go-go and there’s nothing like crossing your arms, shifting all your weight to one leg and just staring at machinery.

8. ART, CRAFT AND DRINK COMPETITIONS

This was one of my favourite parts of the Sydney Royal Easter Show – the competitions. Who made the best jam? What are the art works like? What crazy-looking cake is best decorated? And were is the crochet?

Soussan-Farsi-On-The-Beach
On The beach by Soussan Farsi was entered in the Fine Arts (adult) category.

To be honest, I haven’t been to a state fair, so I can’t say whether they stack up to the Sydney talent, but I had a great time looking at art, photography, cakes, place settings, doll houses and crochet dragons and squid.

There’s also wine, beer and garden contests. Just like the Chelsea Flower Show! My favourite from the Alameda County Fair was this country garden. It made me want to retire to the woods and live off the grid… ok, maybe not quite.

county-fair-country-garden

9. SHOPPING

Shopping is a little lower on the list of must-do’s because it’s probably not for everyone.

I don’t usually buy but I don’t mind perusing the aisles of the shopping pavilion to see what wacky kinds of fruit and veggie choppers are available this year. Or the amazingly non-stick frypans that are so easy to clean even after you’ve burnt rubber onto them.

Knives made out of God-knows-what that will slice through your hand with the greatest of ease, and pens that will write in space. You get the idea.

There are also hot tubs. I almost forgot, but Mr M would be highly disappointed if I didn’t mention that you can purchase your own hot tub at the county fair.

10. THE MODEL TRAINS

Don’t you feel like model trains are synonymous with American life? I do.

county-fair-model-train

I just picture a bunch of middle-aged gentlemen, sitting around with conductors hats on, building train sets through towns and villages. It’s probably an outdated view now – they’re building legos and playing with drones.

But you can still see model train clubs at some county fairs, like the one in Alameda that spanned an entire shed and was very impressive.


So there you have it, my rundown of the best of American county fairs. What are you waiting for? Grab a hat, empty your stomach and get amongst it!

County fair | fair | US fair | state fair | festival | US animals | fair food | carnival food | carnival rides | Aussie | Expat | Aussie Expat in US | expat life

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19 thoughts on “10 County fair activities you can’t miss

  1. I’m stuck at the ‘racing pigs’ thing. Really?! How incredibly bizarre!

    And it’s funny, when I think of ‘county’ fairs I think more of small English villages than of the US, so it’s amazing to be reminded how limited / stereotyped our views (well, mine!) can be!

    1. I know right? But incredibly adorable at the same time! They are the cutest, funniest things you’ve ever seen.
      Funny, I didn’t think of English county fairs. I never went to one when I lived there… now I feel like I missed out 😉

    1. Really? That’s awesome! I’d never heard of them before I saw them at the San Mateo County Fair. So much fun!

    2. There were the piglets racing at the Melbourne Show, I used to watch them, hilarious! Funnel cakes are disgusting, never again… same goes with those corn dogs. They need to have show bags!!!

      1. How did I never know about this? I wonder if there were racing piglets in Sydney and we just never got to them. Hahaha, I am NEVER going to try a corn dog. I can guarantee you that!

  2. Oh wow. I loved that post..So cool to see the similarities and the differences in US and Australian shows..or fairs! From the time I could walk I was taken by my loving aunty to the Dapto Show. It was a highlight of my life till I was 10. Then we’d moved to Sydney and I soon discovered the Royal Easter Shows. I went to them each year with friends and when my then boyfriend had tickets to the members’ stand that was the place to be for the night time. Sigh. Many memories! Last time I went to the Royal was with 2 grandkids aged 6 & 4 and we travelled to Olympic Park on the bus. That was one of the highlights for them, along with the ring events. Thank you linking up….and I shall be back!! Denyse xx

    1. It took me a whole week to write but I got there in the end! It was great to be reminded so much of the Royal Easter Show, although I felt the distinct lack of showbags, which was always the most exciting part as a kid. I didn’t know there was a show in Dapto! That sounds like lots of fun, proper agricultural :). My absolute must-see at the Easter Show was always the wood chopping. My dad got us into it and I love it so much, especially the one where they have the huge pole and they have to chop niches into it to be able to climb up it! The best! I’m sure your grandkids will cherish the memory of you taking them to the show as well!

  3. Great post! I love markets and fairs, but haven’t been to one in a while. I especially love when the markets have second-hand books for sale 🙂

    1. Oh don’t get me started on second hand books. I could stand at those stalls for hours. Unfortunately we have a tiny apartment, which limits my book-keeping capacity. I have remedied this situation by living across the street from a library.

  4. I would love to go to a county fair! Bring on the deep fried butter sticks! No idea what garlic braiding is but I’m in. #FarawayFiles

    1. I had never heard of deep fried butter until my brother brought it up last week and now you! It sounds truly awful 😉

  5. I was lucky to have grown up in the countryside and we had similar fairs in Germany as well. The food is definitely the best about it but also meeting people you know and just the mere fact that finally something is happening in your small town 🙂

    1. I can understand that sentiment. I think that festivals in villages in Malta are the same. It’s about getting out and meeting your friends, family, neighbours, old school friends and spending time together.

  6. This is really interesting, Katherine, and it sounds as though the American county fair is remarkably similar to the agricultural shows we have in the UK. Sadly, we don’t have any pig races, which sound absolutely brilliant! Thanks for sharing on #FarawayFiles

    1. You’re the second person to tell me that. I guess I need to go to a UK agricultural show. I bet there’s cream teas there, and those trump any and all US desserts every day of the week 🙂

  7. Oh yes. Americana out the hoohah! County Fairs can be charming, but a STATE FAIR – now that is next level. The Texas State Fair fries just about everything there is to be fried. Fried Snickers? Yup. I usually pass on that and the funnel cakes too, but give me a fresh corny dog on a stick with lots of mustard and I’m happy. Or the corn on the cob dripping with butter. Ummm. And I am a little wary of the fair rides as well. Do you know what they call the people who set up and run the rides? (Thanks for sharing on #FarawayFiles!)

    1. Right, so I need to move up another rung on the ladder and get myself to a state fair next. I’m trying to talk Mr M into going to Sacramento for that… It’s not going well. Bahaha, the Texas State Fair sounds like Scotland to me. Just deep frying everything they can get their hands on. I’ll skip the corn dog but that corn on the cob is right up my alley. Uhh, in Australia we call the ride/game folk “carnies”. Not sure if it’s the same here!

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