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First-timer? Here's what you can't miss at the Minnesota State Fair

From the great Pronto Pup vs. corn dog debate to witnessing "butter head sculpting" firsthand, we asked Great Minnesota Get-Together diehards what to see and do.

FALCON HEIGHTS, Minn. — If you're from Minnesota, know someone from Minnesota, know someone who knows someone from Minnesota or have simply just been to Minnesota, chances are, you've heard at least something about the Minnesota State Fair, even if you've never been.

From the great Pronto Pup vs. Corndog debate to witnessing the lore of "butter head sculpting" firsthand, we asked Great Minnesota Get-Together diehards what fair first-timers should seek out when it comes to the foods, exhibits and activities they just can't afford to miss.

Editor's note: By no means is this an exhaustive list of all the things the State Fair has to offer. You can check out the fair's official website so you don't miss a thing while planning your visit.

A brief history

Credit: Samantha Fischer/KARE 11

Last year, the Minnesota State Fair recorded 1,842,222 visitors total in 12 days, down slightly from its overall attendance record of 2,126,551 in 2019. 

That's a lot of curds!

But, according to State Fair historians, it started from much humbler beginnings.

The first official gathering happened in 1859 near what is now downtown Minneapolis. While the fair has since made its permanent home in the St. Paul suburb of Falcon Heights, in those early days, the event was held in different cities each year, including Minneapolis, St. Paul, Rochester, Red Wing and Owatonna.

The original 210-acre farm plot in Falcon Heights was finally donated to the fair by Ramsey County in 1885. Over the years, it's grown by 112 acres, becoming the sprawling grounds fairgoers are familiar with today. While the fair used to be all about agriculture, it's expanded to include a wide scope of exhibits, activities and entertainment.

Since its inception, the State Fair has only been shuttered a total of six times: the Civil and U.S.-Dakota Wars (1861, 1862); scheduling conflicts with the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1893); travel restrictions imposed by the U.S. during World War II (1945); the polio epidemic (1946); and the COVID-19 pandemic (2020). 

But in 2023, the show goes on.

Gotta eat it: Food

We all know that no two palates are exactly the same, but below is a short list of lasting mainstays that folks seem to agree on time and again. 

  • Sweet Martha's Cookies

You'll recognize Sweet Martha's by a mound of cookies, warm with ooey-gooey chocolate chips, presented straight out of the oven and into a bucket that requires you to eat at least 10 before you're able to put on the lid. Last year, it was technically the favorite at the fair, drawing in millions of dollars in revenue and topping the list of highest-grossing food vendors over the event's 10-day span. 

Pro tip: If you're a chocolate chip cookie purist and you're in need of an ice-cold glass of milk, you have two options: For extra convenience, grab a glass from the gang at Sweet Martha's. If you're planning to make a significant dent in that bucket while you're there, head a few blocks over to the Midwest Dairy's All You Can Drink Milk Stand for a $2 cup without a bottom.

  • The Mouth Trap Cheese Curds

Located in the Food Building, Mouth Trap boasts fried Ellsworth Creamery curds that are so good, their euphoric effects have even been linked to marriage proposals!

The deep-fried version of the Wisconsin creamery's award-winning treat is also regarded as the best cheese curds you'll find at the fair by Minnesota chef and restauranteur Andrew Zimmern. 

Credit: Samantha Fischer/KARE 11
  • Pronto Pup 

One-half of the aforementioned great debate! #IYKYK

According to stories literally passed down through generations, the story of this particular battered hotdog on a stick begins in the early 40s and intersects with the Minnesota State Fair in 1947. That's when the first Pronto Pup stand appeared, which eventually grew to eight locations on the fairgrounds in the years since. 

Legend has it, the Pup's arch-nemesis — the corndog — debuted at the fair a few years later. 

It's a fair fact that a lot of Minnesotans have very strong opinions about which iteration of dog they prefer, so to learn what exactly sets the two apart, I spoke with Gregg Karnis, owner of the Minnesota State Fair's Pronto Pup franchise.

"The main difference that separates us from corn dogs," said Karnis, "is the fact that we have a blend of five different flours. That's what makes our texture so smooth,"

As for the cornmeal-less myth that most people associate with the Pronto Pup? Karnis said, "You're right about the myth, that's for sure. Cornmeal is the second ingredient on our label."

And whether you're #teampp or #teamcd, at the end of the day, the numbers don't lie.

"It's by far Minnesotans' No. 1 choice," said Karnis. "The gross revenue that all the hotdog-on-a-stick vendors bring into the fair, we have about 64% of that share. The other eight competitors share the 36%."

Gotta watch it: Live Music & Entertainment 

  • The Grandstand

If you don't take the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand seriously as a music venue, you run the risk of missing out on some of the most iconic touring acts ever to walk a stage. From legends like Aretha Franklin and Ringo Starr, to contemporary faves like Brandi Carlile and The Jonas Brothers, the Grandstand's annual concert series has historically offered entertainment almost anyone can get behind.

For a list of this year's shows, click here.

  • Free stages

Can't pull the trigger on a Grandstand ticket, but still want to rock? Check out the fairground's free stages, which offer 900 shows and more than 100 acts — all included for fairgoers in the price of admission. 

Even if you are willing to hit the Grandstand, it's worth checking out the list of artists and performers at any one of the fair's free stages. Who knows? You might even be surprised by some of the names you see.

To peruse that schedule for 2023, click here.

Credit: Samantha Fischer/KARE 11
Country artist Pam Tillis plays the Leinie Lodge Bandshell Stage.
  • KARE 11 Barn

For the second year at the KARE 11 Barn, eight local bands were invited to play the live stage, spanning genres from soul and funk to rock and rap. To get a feel for the bands playing this year, click here and here.

And while you're at it, might as well take a quick virtual tour around the Barn!

Gotta try it: Rides & Amusement

  • Mighty Midway

Got guts?  Superior skills? Grab your group and head over to the Mighty Midway for lights, cameras and a whole lot of action at the Mighty Midway. 

From 10 a.m. until 11 p..m., fairgoers can choose from a list of dozens of rides and carnival games to itch their amusement park scratch. 

Click here to see the Midway's schedule, ticket costs and special promotions to help get the most out of your visit.

Credit: Samantha Fischer/KARE 11
  • Skyride/SkyGlider

If you really want to get a feel for the fair, check out the gondola-style Skyride that runs east to west between the Blue Barn and the Agriculture-Horticultur Building. For $6 one-way or $10 round-trip, you can get a whole day's worth of people-watching within a matter of minutes -- but from above.

Similarly, the State Fair's SkyGlider chairlift-style ride brings you from the center of the fair at the Butterfly House (also worth stopping by!) to the fair's North End. The same prices apply to the SkyGlider.

Credit: Samantha Fischer/KARE 11
  • Giant Slide

I mean, who wouldn't want to ride down a waxed-up, five-story slide on a smooth, felt mat? If it's you, I suggest you keep that to yourself while inside the fairgrounds.

For over half a century, the fair's Giant Slide has both delighted young children and made grown adults want to cry (looking at you, KARE 11 Sunrise anchor Jason Hackett).

But don't worry, there's a lovely group of Giant Slide workers ready to catch you at the bottom if things start to go haywire.

Gotta see it: Buildings & Exhibits

  • CHS Miracle of Birth Center/Animal Barns

Have a soft spot for soft animals? Good thing the State Fair's all about that #aglife. 

First things first: Go straight to the CHS Miracle of Birth Center to see brand-new baby animals — sometimes born that very day! The center boasts calves, lambs, goats, piglets and chicks, some of which are all snuggled up and ready for a good pet. The center also offers educational information about topics like veterinary science.

Once you've seen the babies, you can walk down the street to any of the other two dozen animal buildings to see prize-winning cows, horses, poultry, pigs, rabbits, sheep and more. 

Click here to see a schedule of live events and shows featuring a spectrum of creatures across the farm-animal kingdom.

Credit: Samantha Fischer/KARE 11
Piglet at the CHS Miracle of Birth Center
  • DNR Building

Nature, but at the fair! 

The DNR Building at the fair is a Minnesota mainstay. A 50,000-gallon outdoor pond filled with various fish species native to the state is the exhibit's crown jewel, but there's more fun to be had with live demonstrations, music and a birds-eye view of the fairgrounds atop its 65-foot tower.

  • Crop Art

Last, but certainly not least, is the Crop Art exhibit inside the Ag-Hort Building where competitors have brought the heat for nearly 60 years. Whether it's a portrait of soul singer Marvin Gaye or a seed showpiece of Spongebob, the exhibit is a must-see for admirers of all things fair, food and farm.

Want to know more? We went behind the seeds for a look at the cream of the crop.



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