With its maze of over-the-top eateries, carnival rides, winding exhibits and music performances, one does not simply wander through the New York State Fair.
Last year over a million people attended the fair during its run and this year, on the first day alone, 74,027 people attended, setting a new record, even with a rainy morning.
If you’re going to go, you’ve got to have a game plan.
Growing up, visiting the New York State Fair in Syracuse was an end-of-summer tradition that my family rarely missed. We’d make the short drive from our house to the fairgrounds to try the most curious culinary creations, see all the animals and go on rides that redefined the phrase “butterflies in our stomachs.” We usually mapped out where we wanted to go the night before.
However, since I moved to the Capital Region, planning has taken me a bit longer and this year, it started with Amtrak.
For the fair’s entire run (Aug. 21-Sept. 2), you can catch a train from Albany or Schenectady right to the fair. This year, your train ticket allows you to get into the fair for free (regular admission is $10). The trip takes a little more than three hours from the Albany/Rensselaer station, which is the route I opted to go on opening day.
It’s the way that Governor Andrew Cuomo decided to visit the fair this year as well, departing from Albany early on Wednesday. I hopped on the train right after his and settled in for the ride.
The near-constant quiet rumble of the train, the scenic Mohawk Valley views and a good read (“Trick Mirror” by Jia Tolentino) made the hours fly by. There's no permanent platform at the fair's stop, just a stepladder. Thus, when you step off the train, the fair is just a few steps away.
Heading to the NYS Fair by train seems like an ideal way to arrive, not so much because you skip the traffic and parking/entrance fees, but because there’s a sense of nostalgia to both the mode of traveling and to the fair itself.
The fair started in 1841, according to the New York State Fair Exhibit. For many years, it traveled to different cities each year and was only a few days long. Then in 1888, Syracuse area residents rallied to keep the fair in the town of Geddes, where it's has been held ever since 1890. In its 172nd year, it’s become America’s third-largest fair. It runs for 13 days and is packed with live music, animals from near and far, classic carnival rides, and what seems like enough food to feed a small country.
Make no mistake, it’s impossible to actually eat your way through this fair in one day. Though, if vendors started making everything in sample sizes, I’d guess more than a few people would try.
The fair is known for its over-the-top dishes, like kangaroo on a stick and the two-foot-long pizze fritte.
After trying the latter, I think it’s safe to say the lengthy fried dough dish lives up to its reputation. Covered in sugar, the $4 pizze fritte from Villa is served in a paper bag hardly long enough to carry it. The dessert is sweet but not tooth-achingly so and though it’s fried, it tastes lighter than most fried dough I’ve had.
The pizze fritte fits into the fair’s theme of “fried everything.” If you’ve ever wanted to try fried Oreos, fried brownies, fried tacos, fried olives or fried pb&j, then this is the fair for you.
Perhaps the most famous spot for these dishes is Fried Specialties. Over the last few years, they’ve come up with new over-the-top sandwiches to debut at the fair, including the Defibrillator, the New York Harvester and Heart Attack.
This time around they debuted a monster of a sandwich called The Sudden Death, a name which seems to fit their brand. Two burgers stuffed with mac and cheese, pork belly and cheddar cheese are wrapped in bacon and then deep-fried.
I did not have the guts to try it; the description was enough to scare me off.
Instead, I opted for a burrito bowl from inside The Eatery, one of the many food centers of the fair that houses a smorgasbord of dishes.
I also made sure to stick with a few of the fair’s traditions, like the $1 sweet potato in the Horticulture Building and the 25-cent chocolate milk from the Dairy Products barn (where I also checked out this year’s butter sculpture, another fair tradition).
However, I didn’t completely stick to my customary culinary route and tried wine ice cream. Served at the Hershey’s creamery, Mercer’s offers a few different types, including peach white zinfandel, lemon sparkling, port, and cherry merlot. I tried the latter, which had five percent alcohol, and was surprised by the flavor, the cherries hit first and the wine comes in after. It was smooth and not overpowering.
I also went out on a limb to try the confectionery drink from Beak & Skiff and 1911 known as the Dizzy uNYcorn. Debuting this year, the cocktail will have dentists across the state at the ready. The base is 1911 Tropical Vodka with frozen lemonade and blue curaçao. It’s topped with whipped cream, rainbow rock candy, gumdrops (to make up the unicorn’s ears) and a waffle cone dipped in blue frosting for the horn. It’s by far the sweetest drink I’ve ever had and it gave me a sugar rush that lasted most of the day.
Which worked out well because I walked everywhere across the 375-acre fairgrounds — according to my phone, I walked more than five miles the first day. There are trolleys and even mini train rides people can take but I opted to burn off some sugar and walk instead.
Seeing the animals
It gave me a better vantage point to people and animal watch.
Over the course of a few hours, I ran into people leading their llamas, horses and cows around. There was probably a goat or a calf that I missed along the way too.
A large portion of the fair is centered around New York’s agriculture, with competitions and demonstrations running daily. You can watch a dressage competition or the rooster qualifying contest or the llama performance class. Even during non-show hours, visitors can wander through the dairy barns, or the poultry barn to meet sleepy ducklings, crowing roosters and jumpy rabbits.
There’s also a zoo dedicated to the more exotic animals: giraffes, camels, etc.
One of the animal-related highlights of the fair was the SkyRiver Butterfly Exhibition. Tucked away in the Horticultural building, more than 37 species of butterflies flutter around, often landing on visitors' heads and shoulders.
“This is the best part of the fair,” I heard one man remark, as three butterflies landed on him. Not too far away, one woman had seven of the creatures perched on her hat. Visitors fed the butterflies and stayed in the exhibition for as long as they’d like for $2.
In the 20 minutes I was there, several monarchs, pearly eyes, and others landed on me, looking for food or just a place to perch.
While meeting the animals was fun, one of the most surprising things I noticed at the fair was the absence of cell phones.
People had them, sure. But hardly anyone I saw used them for anything other than snapping photos of their curious dishes, of friends playing giant Jenga in the 1911 bar, or of family members screaming on the carnival rides. Hardly a gaze was glued to a screen. Everyone seemed to be focused on the present, whether they were trying to find somewhere to eat, heading to a show, or finding their next ride on the midway. Everyone seemed to be on a mission.
It brings us back to just how much there is to do at this fair.
The list of live music from the Chevy Court stage, the Experience stage, the Pan-African Village, the Empire Theater and the Grange Building, is extensive. Some of the big names on the line-up include Lindsey Sterling, Grace Potter, Vince Neil of Mötley Crüe, lovelytheband and Gavin DeGraw.
On the opening night, an estimated 26,800 people packed the Chevy Court stage to see Bad Company. Most people couldn’t grab seats so the crowds spilled out into the walkways to catch a glimpse of the rockers, who have been performing for five decades.
The concert was a good way to end the day, though I left realizing just how many other things there were left to try: paddleboard yoga, ax throwing, putt-putt golf and a host of other recreational games.
It’s a lot to do in one day, which is why the downside of taking the train might actually not be so bad. Going to the NYS Fair via train from Albany all but forces you to stay around Syracuse overnight, or to figure out a different way back (there are buses running from Syracuse to Albany, but departure times are relatively early in the evening).
Lucky for me, my family still lives in the area so I was able to stay with them and cut down on costs. However, for those who don’t have friends or family to stay with, count on booking a hotel and departing the following day, or figuring out another route home.
The second day
With 50 buildings to explore and so many foods to try, it helped to have the cushion of a second day. Early on Thursday (fair gates open at 7 a.m.), I headed to Fluffy’s for a decadent donut. The fair newcomers brought out their maple bacon donuts, their s’mores donuts, sprinkled donuts, and cookies and creme donuts.
However, their dishes don’t stop with sweet and savory toppings; their specialty is donut sundaes, with soft ice cream filling the center of the donut, along with hot fudge and sprinkles.
It’s intense first thing in the morning and I could barely do more than try a few bites, but that was enough to convince me the donuts were worth it (maybe just not at 7:30 in the morning).
I also visited some of the show horses and made my way through the chickens, rabbits, pheasants and ducklings in the poultry barn, before boarding the train home around 9:30 a.m.
I left slightly tired, the kind one feels after a long Thanksgiving dinner, and I came away with a few recommendations:
- Head out early from Albany. The first train from the station leaves at 10:20 a.m. and gets in around 1:20 p.m. Buy your train tickets a few days in advance because they fill up quickly. Plus, you can get them cheaper.
- Make a list of things you want to do or see, whether you want to eat your way through the fair, ride as many rides as you can or just take in the sights.
- Grab a map. You can get them from guest relations staff and they’re handy to have.
- Try some new dishes, but don’t forget the traditional ones, like the pizze fritte, the 25-cent milk, the $1 potato, etc.
- Don’t spoil the butter sculpture. I’m not sure why, but people like to be surprised by the butter sculpture’s design each year. So don’t spoil it for those who care.
Pros and cons of taking the train:
- With the purchase of one adult ticket, one child is able to ride free. According to the fine print, tickets must be purchased at least three days in advance.
- Your train ticket also gets you into the fair for free.
- You don’t have to worry about driving and parking.
- The train schedule mandates when you get to the fair and when you leave.
- It takes a little longer. According to Google Maps, it takes about two and a half hours to drive. By train, it takes about three hours, possibly more if there are any train delays.
- Returning home by train the same day doesn't leave you much time at the fair.
Chevy Court Concerts - free with fair admission
- Sun. Aug. 25 - 2 p.m. Jimmie Allen
- Sun. Aug. 25 - 8 p.m. Dropkick Murphys
- Mon. Aug. 26 - 2 p.m. Herman’s Hermits starring Peter Noone
- Mon. Aug. 26 - 6:30 p.m. Country Swagg
- Mon. Aug. 26 - 8 p.m. Midland
- Mon. Aug. 26 - 9:30 p.m. Country Swagg
- Tue. Aug. 27 - 2 p.m. Blood Sweat & Tears
- Tue. Aug. 27 - 8 p.m. Farruko
- Wed. Aug. 28 - 2 p.m. The Mavericks
- Wed. Aug. 28 - 8 p.m. Ice Cube
- Thu. Aug. 29 - 2 p.m. Why Don’t We
- Thu. Aug. 29 - 8 p.m. Vince Neil of Mötley Crüe
- Fri. Aug. 30 - 2 p.m. Country Swagg
- Fri. Aug. 30 - 8 p.m. Granger Smith
- Sat. Aug. 31 - 2 p.m. Atkins Riot
- Sat. Aug. 31 - 8 p.m. Theory of a Deadman
- Sun. Sept. 1 - 2 p.m. Sheila E
- Sun. Sept. 1 - 8 p.m. The Roots
- Mon. Sept. 2 - 1 p.m. lovelytheband
- Mon. Sept. 2 - 6 p.m. Gavin DeGraw
The New York State Fair
Where: New York State Fairgrounds, Syracuse
When: Through Sept. 2
Tickets: $10 regular admission; nysfair.ny.gov
Today: Christmas in August. The Expo Center will be packed with antique sleighs, holiday movies, and more. Santa will visit from 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. and kids can visit with him and drop off their Christmas letters. Admission into the fair on Sunday will be $1 for anyone donating a new toy at the main gate.
Wednesday: Comic-Con Day. People arriving dressed up as their favorite superheroes or characters get in the fair for $1. Throughout the day, there will be appearances from cosplayers.
Those who purchase a Spider-Man comic with a “State Fair” cover for $10 will receive free fair admission. The comic, which shows the superhero swinging over fairgoers outside the Exposition Center, was created by Marvel Comics. The comics can be purchased online.
Wednesday: Women’s Day. The theme for this year's Women's Day is the 100th anniversary of women's right to vote. Admission to the fair will be $1 for women and there will be several speakers discussing the anniversary and the suffrage movement.
Thursday and Friday: FunkFest. The Experience Stage will be packed with performances from national and international artists, including Cuerda de Viento, Karen Don Dancers, United Praise and others. Check nysfair.ny.gov for the full line-up.
Friday through Monday, Sep. 2: Latino Village Weekend. In its third year, the weekend is centered around the Youth Building, with performances from the likes of Grupo Karis and Latino drag queens from “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
Saturday and Sunday, Sep. 1: Gospel Music Weekend. The New York State Youth Gospel Choir and other groups will perform throughout the weekend on the Talent Showcase Stage.