Ultimate Guide to the NC State Fair: All you need to know to have a wonderful time!

There’s probably no bigger celebration of local than the NC State Fair, the largest annual event in North Carolina and the place to indulge in rides, food, animals, and entertainment.

Mother and daughter standing in front of a ferris wheel and entrance gat to the North Carolina State Fair
Ready to have fun at the Fair!

Held in Raleigh every October at the NC State Fairgrounds about a 15-minute drive west of downtown Raleigh, the Fair draws in about one million visitors over 11 days from across the state and beyond.

When I was a child growing up in Australia, each year our family would attend the Royal Easter Show in Sydney. It was very similar to this Fair, except on a much larger scale and they had Show Bags.

For the weeks and months leading up to the Easter Show, I’d do all the chores humanly possible to earn as much money as I could to spend on rides and show bags – filled with treats and toys!

Chair lift ride and ferris wheel at the NC State Fair in Raleigh
North Carolina State Fair rides

The Sydney Royal Easter Show was an important tradition for our family to connect to each other and our culture and community. Those happy memories are still quite vivid and just as precious decades later.

What I most remember is the different version of my hard-working father. It was a time where he could really switch off, reconnect to joy, and enjoy the rewards of his sacrifice and commitment to providing for his family.

I can now see why many hard working Carolinians flock to the North Carolina State Fair every year. It’s an important annual tradition for NC natives for most of their lives.

People enjoying a State Fair
Crowds flock to the Fair each year!

They come to the fair to have fun on rides, listen to music, see animals, and devour all the greasy fair food on offer. And to let loose and create happy memories with those they love the most.

I’m excited we have the State Fair to create those North Carolina memories with our own daughters now.

While we’ve enjoyed theme parks together in Australia and across the USA, including the hard-to-beat Universal Orlando Resort and Carowinds, this State Fair gives us the opportunity to connect to and support our beloved North Carolina home, year after year!

family standing in a cardboard cutout at the fair
Creating fun family memories!
Two girls sitting on a ride at the State Fair in Raleigh
Our two girls loved the rides!

The North Carolina Department of Agriculture has been running the fair every year since 1853. And every year brings something new, whether it’s a ride, a dish, or different vendors.

We hope this guide will help you plan your visit in the most effortless way. We’ll be updating this every year to include the new attractions, food, events, and prices for each year.

When & where is the N.C. State Fair 2022?

google map of nc state fairground location

For many, the State Fair is the start of their Fall festivities and fun. In 2022, the State Fair is being held on Oct 13-23. Gate hours change throughout the fair ranging from 8am to midnight. Subscribe to our email below so you don’t miss the 2022 State Fair updates.

The North Carolina State Fairgrounds are located in West Raleigh at the corner of Hillsborough Street and Blue Ridge Road. It is conveniently located to I-40, I-440, and I-540.

The fairgrounds hosts more than 600 events per year in 400,000 square feet of building space on 344 acres. The grounds also offer 350 full-service RV access sites, and amenities include free parking.

How do I get N.C. State Fair Tickets?

Mother and kids buying lemonade at a lemonade stand

Let’s help you save a little bit of money on your State Fair tickets:

  • You can purchase discounted tickets online (usually from early Aug), or at Circle K locations leading up to the opening day of the fair. After opening, you’re looking at full price!
  • If you purchase online, you get the FastTrack Gate Admission, which just means you skip the ticketing line at the showground.
  • Admission tickets are just that. They do not include carnival rides, the State Fair Flyer or the State Fair SkyGazer. They are all extra fares. You can learn more about discount ticket days in the tips for the State Fair section below.
  • Active-duty service members, reservists, retirees, National Guardsmen, and their dependents (ages 13-64) pay only $8 daily at the gate. ID required.
Roller coaster ride at the state fair
Super Cyclone
  • The Fair will release a few ticket packages in advance of the Fair opening (usually August). One I am keeping my eye on is the Dizzy Pass, which includes admission to the fair and an unlimited ride wristband.
  • If you have a huge group of 40 people or more you can take advantage of the Group Discount Ticket, which saves $5 per ticket. You can purchase group tickets online or at the State Fairgrounds, State Farmers Market, or N.C. Museum of History ONLY. Group tickets are NOT available at Circle K.

See further down below for ride ticket prices.

Tips for the State Fair (save money & time)

Ferris wheel and chair lift at the NC State Fair

The NC State Fair can get expensive, especially if you have a large family. I would do the calculations and compare it to a trip to Disneyland or Universal – instead of doing the Fair every year, it may be better value to use your vacation time with that once-in-a- lifetime experience instead!

Here are some ways you can save money and time at the State Fair.

Visit on Hunger Relief Day

Each year, the fair designates one day as a food drive day. In 2022, Hunger Relief Day is Thursday, October 20.

You can gain free admission in exchange for six cans of food. This is a fantastic way to save money on the fair. But, be warned, this will be the busiest day! So bring your patience and follow the tip below: arrive early!

Visit on Friday Frenzy

Friday Frenzy is when students can gain $8 admission tickets with their school identification or recent report card. These tickets are not available online!

Attend Senior Citizens Day

Senior Citizens Day is when attendees aged 65+ get free admission to the fair. Starting at 9am, the Fair also serves Bojangles biscuits and coffee!

For 2022, Senior Citizens Day will be on Tuesday, October 18.

Go Early

Mother and kids walking through a State Fair
Look, no crowds at opening time!

We visited for an early opening at 10am – before they opened the rides. This gave us a chance to walk around, have some biscuits for breakfast, get our bearings, and be ready to ride.

We had barely any lines for rides until the crowds poured in around midday. We got most of our rides out of our system by then. We will do anything to avoid crowds. That gave us the remainder of our time to wander around the fairgrounds and experience the other attractions at the fair.

Get a ride wristband (ride tickets)

Swinging chairs ride at the state fair
Swinging chairs ride

If you plan to go on a lot of rides at the fair, your best value will be to purchase a wristband. You can do it online, or once you arrive at the fair. It costs $30 (pre-sale) or $40 at the Fair for unlimited rides.

If online, you will receive a ride voucher, which you can redeem inside the gates, at one of the three Ride Ticket Redemption tents.

They are located near Gate 8, on the north side of Dorton Arena or in Kiddieland. As we arrived early, we had no lines for this. It got quite long later in the day.

Roller coaster at the state fair

Otherwise, it costs $10 for a sheet of 18 ride tickets in the advance sales or $18 for 18 tickets after presale. Most rides require 5-6 tickets each. So, you can see you’ll only get around 3 rides for that price. An unlimited ride pass will be around the same price as 7-8 rides. See all tickets here.

Make use of the free activities

People learning how to milk cows
Learn how to milk cows

You can save a bit of money by skipping some of the rides, not overindulging on food, and taking advantage of the free activities and events inside the fair.

Apart from the Show Bags, my favorite thing about our Easter Show adventures was the wood-chopping competitions and equestrian events in the main arena.

The NC State Fair has many free events and activities like this for you as well.

Mini tractor inside a buiding

You can listen to a beautiful carillon of bells, witness the log-splitting powers of real-life loggers, see the spinning and flipping tricks of aerial acrobats, and get swept up in the excitement of the super-fast racing pigs. Plus, there are plenty of exhibitions to see and experience. (See below for more)

Be sure to plan your days schedule ahead of time so you don’t miss the events you are most interested in.

Bring your own water bottle

Child in front of a water feature at the state fair

We do not encourage purchasing single-use plastic water bottles. It is bad for Mother Earth AND your wallet! Typically, the State Fair experiences the hot and humid weather of summer. It’s important you stay hydrated.

You can bring in your own water bottle. There are two filling stations across from Casey’s Clubhouse and in the grassy area, under the trees, between Kiddieland and the Scott Building.

Plan your day in advance

People standing in front of a ride at the state fair
What type of rides do you like?

As there are so many things to do at the North Carolina State Fair, including shows, exhibitions, rides, and live music, you will want to carefully plan your day before you arrive.

Check out the Fair schedule to see what you are most interested in doing. Plan the non-scheduled events around them.

Be mindful that the further into the day it gets, the longer those ride times will be. That’s why it’s good for you to arrive early, get the rides out of the way with the small lines, and then you can enjoy all the other fun things the fair has to offer.

Top Things to do at the N.C. State Fair

Your list of top things to do at the N.C. State Fair may be very different to ours. Your careful planning combined with our tips will help you figure that out.

Here are what we found to be some of the top things to do at the State Fair. Please list your favorites in the comments at the bottom!

Enjoy the Rides and Games at the NC State Fair

Mighty Mouse roller coaster ride at the state fair
Mighty Mouse

Most visitors love the endless ride options from wild mouses and upside-down coasters and stomach turners, to haunted houses, high-flying swings, and spinning vomit inducing rides.

  •  Our girls loved the Genesis and the Mighty Mouse Coaster
  • The Wacky Worm was their favorite ride of all
  • Coaster lovers will want to ride the Super Cyclone, Alien Abduction Ring of Fire, and Freebird
  • The Mega Drop will give you thrills and views of the park

  • Itsy Bitsy Spider Wheel and the Sky Hawk were new in 2021
  • The Air Raid always had a lengthy line but was way too spinny for us!
  • There’s an entire ride zone designated for the kids

New Rides for 2022

  • Air Maxx
  • Crazy Cabs
  • Techno Jump
  • Wave Swinger 2
  • WipeOut

Which one are you going on?

Don’t miss the State Fair Flyer

Chair lift ride at the state fair

Your ride wristband won’t cover the State Fair Flyer – this experience comes at an extra cost. I highly recommend doing it though. It was my favorite thing to do at the State Fair.

I loved riding the slow-moving chair lift for the birds-eye view of the rides spinning, people wandering around, and the omnipresent sounds of people enjoying themselves.

A couple riding the chairlift at the state fair
The most relaxing ride

A one-way ticket should suffice for the 10-minute ride. The chairlift moves 1.400 feet across the midway and goes as high as 45 ft in the air.

Ride the State Fair SkyGazer

Time to spin around for another great view of the park. We missed this one but take this as your sign to not make the same mistake.

This 155-foot-tall Ferris Wheel holds more than 200 people and has the title of the largest traveling wheel in the USA. You need to purchase a separate ticket for the SkyGazer!

Indulge in Food at the State Fair in North Carolina

Donut at the NC State Fair
The iconic Peachey’s donuts

If you like greasy Southern food and have a spare notch on your belt buckle, you will love overindulging on food at the State Fair.

It wasn’t such a huge highlight for us – I have gluten intolerance and we like eating healthy.

Craig and I will never forget our first state fair experience in 2004 and discovering giant turkey legs. We found it hilarious that people walk around eating them. It was a cultural experience, one that we’re still yet to try ourselves even though we love Turkey. This year!

People at the state fiar lined up for food
Get your Funnel Cakes!

In my previous teaching career, I remember each year during State Fair time my students avidly recalling their experiences indulging in the State Fair food. Their stories were culturally entertaining to me. It’s how I first learned of funnel cakes!

Other fair favorites are funnel cakes, deep fried Oreos, cotton candy, and cheesy fries and tater tots (now that one I’ll do!)

Here are a few classics we recommend:

  •  Howling Cow Ice Cream: a local ice cream from NC State. This local institution from the NC State University’s dairy farm has been serving creamy ice cream since the 40s and at the state fair since the 70s. (See our post on Historic Yates Mill County Park to learn where you can indulge in Howling Cow Ice cream on a regular day in Raleigh!)
  • Buttery Biscuits: Craig enjoyed his melt-in-the-mouth ham breakfast biscuit from the First United Methodist Church of Cary, an NC State Fair staple since 1916.
Bacon & egg biscuit at the NC State Fair
Bacon & Egg biscuit
  • Peachey’s donuts: High on the list of food to try at the state Fair is the iconic Peachey’s donuts, a mobile bakery that also serves pretzels. Lines may be long, but they churn them out fast so your wait won’t be too long.
  • Neomonde has healthy food with kabobs, pita, and a delicious lamb nachos. They also have gluten free, pumpkin spice cupcakes BUT they were all out when we visited. Boo Hoo!

READ MORE: 50+ Essential places to eat in Raleigh (Neomonde is included!)

New NC State Fair Food for 2022

The most anticipated announcement of the NC State Fair each year is what new food additions will there be. Here is a snapshot of what to expect.

  • Quesadillas with Cactus, Chorizo, Aguas Frescas Pineapple and Horchata, Guayaba, Gorditas
  • Deep Fried Piggy Tails
  • Deep fried pickle fries loaded with bacon, ranch and beer cheese.
  • Banana Cream Pie Donut
  • Korean Corn Dogs
  • Pumpkin Spice Mini Pancakes
  • Oreo Crumble Cookie Dough on a Stick
  • Curry Goat Platter
  • Sweet Potato
  • Country Ham Biscuit

There is nothing like the food combinations at the State Fair. Click here to see more. Maybe check your health insurance policies before you indulge!!

Grab a local brew at the NC Public House

Lady holding a cup of beer

Head to the NC Public House in the Dorton Arena for a pint of a local brew. There are dozens of breweries, wineries, cideries and craft soda makers from across North Carolina with a range of styles of their drinks.

You can purchase beer and wine tickets for $10 each for 2 servings (3 oz wines, 8 oz beer or cider) Tickets for $5 for sodas. This was one way we escaped the mad crowds for a little bit of a rest.

New for 2022 will be the NC Beer Night on Friday Oct 14 from 5pm-8pm. There’ll be an exciting array of beers from NC craft breweries, and several brewing education opportunities including ask the brewer!

READ MORE: 20 Local breweries in Raleigh

Visit The Got to Be NC Agriculture Pavilion

Truck and people inside a building at the NC State Fair

For those wanting to learn more about North Carolina’s agricultural community, The Got to Be NC Pavilion is where you want to head.

From local products to farmer spotlights, cooking demonstrations to pop-up competitions you can learn how important NC agriculture is to your everyday life. It will inspire you to support local!

Relax at the Flower and Garden Show

Garden of flowers at the NC State Fair

The Flower & Garden Show area is a true oasis for a long and muggy day. Follow the shady winding pathway through beautiful gardens and artistic plant displays.

Demonstrations are held throughout the fair to help you learn how to grow plants!

Family getting their photo taken
Nice spot for a family photo

Climb on the giant Adirondack chair, or pose with our signature mum tree for a classic photo op. There are exotic birds in this area and on weekend nights you can check out the skills of our fire dancer.

Watch our NC State Fair Video (then keep reading below)

See Giant Pumpkins and Animals at The Expo Center

Giant pumpkins at the NC State Fair
Giant pumpkins

One of the highlights each year of my trip to the Easter Show in Sydney was to see the incredible produce display. Farms would create these elaborate landscape scenes made purely from fruit and vegetables. Each year, I’d eagerly run to the center to see what they created and judge them myself.

The State Fair doesn’t have anything as elaborate, but they do have gigantic pumpkins and watermelons on display at the Expo Center – all hoping to win the “biggest” prize.

Goats on parade at the NC State Fair

It’s not just the vegetables competing, but animals as well. Goats, calves, and other livestock strut around the arena. You can even milk a cow at the N.C. State University Animal Science Club’s Milking Booth.

You’ll find a buzzing atmosphere at the Bee and Honey competition area. Beekeepers are on hand to talk about beekeeping and the critical role bees play in producing our food.

Step Back in Time at the Heritage Circle

An old mill by the lake

Right near the Flower & Garden Show area is the Heritage Circle, a lovely area to have a more chilled State Fair Experience. It’s on the edge of the pond with picturesque scenery, old buildings like a schoolhouse and the Old Grist Mill. Volunteers are on hand to explain how the engine works and helps transform timber into boards.

Anyone interested in crafts of yesteryear will enjoy the different demonstrations throughout the day from the crew maintaining the tobacco farm, to the blacksmiths and wood makers displaying their traditional artisanship.

Two red tractors parked by a lake

A popular experience in the Heritage Circle is drinking apple cider and eating hush puppies from the Grist Mill (while touring it) . My favorite experience is listening to live music on the Bluegrass stage.

For a unique fair experience, attend the church services on Sunday, 8:30 and 11 a.m. at the Church in Heritage Circle.

We did not stay at the State Fair until late in the evening, but the Tobacco Pavilion has a fire and storytelling at night. This area is meant to have the best views of the fireworks.

Near here is also the Village of Yesteryear, which is a popular thing to do for fair attendees. We did not experience it. But inside the Holshouser Building are more than 75 artists and crafters displaying their skills and selling their homemade crafts.

Enjoy free live music with the Homegrown Music Fest

Two musicians playing music on a front porch

The N.C. State Fair was the first state fair in the country to highlight local musical acts (began in 2015) Whoop Whoop!

The Homegrown Music Festival features more than 100 daily concerts of local artists across two stages: The Heritage Circle Bluegrass Stage and the Live and Local Waterfall Stage.

lady with guitar playing on stage at the NC state fair
The Waterfall Stage

We ate lunch while listening to local talent at the Waterfall Stage and a couple of songs on the bluegrass stage as we were wandering through the Heritage Circle. This year I’ll devote more time to listening to music.

Check the official line up online to see what local talents are playing, where and when.

More Free Entertainment

There will be range of shows and free entertainment at the NC State Fair.

New in 2022 will be:

  • the Brad Comedy Hypnosis Show. Why not volunteer?
  • There’ll be a display of straw sculptors from Brian Sobaski whose artwork appears at festivals and state fairs around the country.
  • Empire Fire Arts will put on a mesmerizing fire show each night in the Heritage Circle.
  • Hog Diggity Dogs is an entertaining animal show with dogs and hogs that kids will love

Annual Fair favorites also include:

  • The live misical one-man band, Bandaloni with loads of audience interaction, humor and astounding novelty tricks executed on his custom made guitar and drum rig.
  • The racing pigs Hogway Speedway
  • The Paul Bunyan Lumber jack show to see axe throwing, crosscut sawing, log rolling and chainsaw carving.

See the Fireworks

Okay, so we didn’t stick around for the fireworks, but if you love them, and have the energy to stay until late, it could be one of the best things to do at the NC State Fair.

The nightly fireworks start at 9:45pm over the large pond. The best place for viewing will be either near gate 8 or Heritage Circle. 

Hotels near the N.C. State Fairgrounds

A tall building in a city
Residence Inn, Downtown Raleigh

If it were me traveling to the State Fair and staying longer than just my day at the fair, I’d stay somewhere near downtown Raleigh and catch a ride into the Fair. 

That way you are closer to more things to do in Raleigh and great places to eat and stay. 

There isn’t a lot to do in the area where the fairgrounds are located. We love the Residence Inn Downtown Raleigh, especially for families. We also love the forest serenity of the StateView Hotel.

The StateView Hotel in Raleigh, NC
Stateview Hotel

Here are a couple of options closer to the fairgrounds:

  • Four Points by Sheraton Raleigh Arena: Located across from the PNC Arena, this will be the closest hotel to the State Fair. The hotel has free airport shuttles, hot breakfast and evening receptions with free beverages and appetizers on Mon-Thurs, and a swimming pool. See rates and availability here.
  • Hyatt Place Raleigh / Cary: This hotel is about 2.5 miles from the fairgrounds. It has a swimming pool and jacuzzi. Check availability and rates.
  • Hampton Inn & Suites Raleigh/Cary I-40 (PNC Arena): Located just off Interstate 40, this hotel is 2.7 miles from the PNC Arena. It serves a hot buffet breakfast every morning and features a modern fitness center that overlooks an outdoor pool surrounded by a lush forest. Check availability and rates.

More Raleigh accommodation options:

FAQs about the Fair

How Accessible Is The State Fair?

The North Carolina State Fair has implemented programs and policies for inclusivity so all can enjoy the fun on offer. They have a variety of services each day and in 2022, they have an accessABILITY day. Stay updated for 2022 accessible events.

What Can You Bring Into The State Fair?

Last year, they made a rule to only allow clear bags. Can you imagine how annoyed I was that so many people were inside the fair with normal non-clear backpacks on, and I left mine at home!

So, I don’t know what happened there and who was dropping the ball, but if you’re going to make a policy stick with it. If I were you, I’d get yourself a clear bag, and only use that.

Where Can I Park?

Free parking is available on State Fair, Carter-Finley Football Stadium and PNC Arena properties.

Surrounding the fair will be private parking lots with expensive parking fees. As we arrived early, we were able to find a free parking space in some of the backstreets opposite the fair.

The N.C. State Fair offers FREE off-site parking at the corner of Edwards Mill and Reedy Creek. With quick access to I-40 via Wade Avenue, this is the easiest lot to access. From here there are FREE shuttles to Gate 8 on Trinity Road and pick up will occur at the same.

Is there public transport to the fair?

A special, temporary Amtrak train station is also in operation during the N.C. State Fair, stopping just outside of gate 1. The Carolinian 80 train arrives at the fair at 9:53am and departs at 3:11pm.

I hope you enjoyed this guide to State Fair in North Carolina. If you have any questions, or suggestions of your own, please leave a comment down below!

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