If the Maryland State Fair were any more fun, it might be illegal.
Where else can you cavort happily with farm animals from all over the state, partake of the bounty of Free State agri- and aquaculture (crabcakes and corn on the cob, now that’s eating!), watch thoroughbreds race down the stretch, touch the sky from atop a Ferris wheel and enjoy live country, rock and pop concerts, all in one place?
There’s almost too much here to take it all in in one day. But we’re gonna try.
Here are some suggestions for a perfect day-long stay at the fair, starting in the morning with a cow or two and ending roughly 12 hours later with music to bring the curtain down on your stay. True, there’s a lot that we don’t take into account — one-offs like Aug. 27′s Dog Fair-Live or Aug. 29′s Ranch Rodeo, which are dependably entertaining, but only work if you’re there on a particular day — and some features of the fair may be more to your taste than others (not everyone likes to wander around a carnival midway, though for the life of us, we can’t understand why).
So feel free to adapt, or even improvise. If, in the course of walking around, you encounter Danny Grant and his strolling Cowboy Circus, with his whips, lariats and lassos, don’t pass him by because we said you need to go look at vegetables.
But if you’re looking to sample everything the fair has to offer, here are our suggestions.
10 a.m.-noon: Talk to the animals
Much of the fair doesn’t actually open until noon, but the 4H-ers, horse enthusiasts and other animal lovers are up bright and early, beginning as early as 8 a.m. on some days, but definitely having things going by 10. You can start off even earlier by watching a competition or two — there’s something every day, including a 4-H “swine showmanship” contest set for 9 a.m. Saturday at the Swine Barn and a “Jersey Dairy Cattle Show” set for 9 a.m. Sept. 1 at the Cow Palace — then spend some time wandering through the various animal enclosures. Cows, lambs, pigs, goats, chickens, usually even an alpaca or two: they’re all there, anxious to be stared at (and have their picture taken; anticipate plenty of chances for adorable selfies). Be sure to visit the birthing center, where blessed animal events will be happening throughout the fair’s 12-day run.
Noon-1 p.m.: Just how big are the tomatoes?
Now that you’ve seen the critters, it’s time to take in the fruits and veggies in the Farm & Garden Building, on the east side of the fairgrounds, off York Road. Don’t sell these products of the earth short: tomatoes the size of grapefruits, squash the size of a man’s head, pumpkins the size of a small car: truly, agriculture is a growth industry at which Maryland excels. And don’t forget the nearby Home Arts Building, where quilters, seamstresses and other craftspeople show off what they can do, often with live demonstrations.
1 p.m.-1:30 p.m.: Lunch
Why not use lunch as a first chance to visit the midway? Save the games and rides for later, but take full advantage of the hot dogs, hamburgers, turkey legs, pit beef and other mass deliciousness available as you stroll about, eyeballing the rides and games of skill you’ll be sampling later in the afternoon. This is a great time to people-watch, too.
1:30 p.m.-2:30 pm: A little bit of everything
Time to check out the Exhibition Hall, where dozens of vendors await. Want to get your bathroom re-finished? Need a funky wall-hanging for that space in the living room? If you can’t find it here, it may not exist. End your visit with a trip to the bulk candy space, where a full pound of stuff you really shouldn’t be eating, but oh! it tastes so good, can be had for a mere pittance.
2:30 p.m.-3 p.m.: A look back
With 137 fairs preceding this one, there’s a lot of history here, and the Maryland State Fair Museum, in the Mosner Miller Building, just north of the midway, does a fine job of preserving and presenting it. Wander through the decades-old photographs and ribbons, tickets and souvenirs, handbills and newspaper articles. And if you’ve got any vintage fair memorabilia yourself, the museum is always looking for donations.
3 p.m.-4:30 p.m.: And they’re off...
There’s been horse racing on these grounds even longer than there’s been a fair, and even though the racing dates have been cut back to only two weekends, that’s a legacy that deserves attention. During the week, stop by the track for simulcasting and off-track betting...not quite the same as feeling the horses’ hoof beats as they thunder down the stretch right in front of you, but you’ll at least get a taste of what goes on here. If you show up on race days — Aug. 23-25 and Aug. 30-Sept. 2 — lucky you! You get to see (and feel) the sport of kings live, from the grandstand. Timonium’s relatively tiny 5/8-mile track (the smallest thoroughbred track in the state) allows you to get pretty close to the action. Post time is 1 p.m., and races generally continue until around 5:30 p.m.
4:30 p.m.-6:30 p.m.: Step right up
Here’s where the real gaudy fun of any fair is to be found — the carnival midway, with its games of skill (more than 30 in all), its Ferris wheels, its bold colors and useless (but oh so cool!) prizes. If you’ve got kids, just stand back as they feast on all the visual splendor, then put them on a carousel or a swing ride and watch them have more fun than should be allowed. But don’t neglect your own inner child — those rides you loved as a kid are still around. The Ferris wheel is always a treat, offering a bird’s eye view of the fair and the surrounding area (including bustling York Road) you rarely get to see. And for the truly insane, there’s a new ride called the Space Port that looks like a scissors ride on steroids (you can see a video of what the experience is like here); ride this thing, and your courage will never be questioned again. Once you’re finished with the rides, go ahead, try fooling the guesser or throwing a softball into a milk can or shooting a water pistol. Not only will you show just how talented you are, but you know you’ve always wanted that giant stuffed bear.
6:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m.: That’s good eatin’
Dinner is the perfect time to visit the Maryland Foods Pavilion, for the chance to sample the finest of what the Free State has to offer. You know there’ll be plenty of crabs, and for any true Marylander, that should be enough. But if it isn’t, there’ll be fresh fruit and vegetables to savor, rib-eye steak sandwiches, ice cream, a raw bar and plenty more. For libations, we suggest a visit to the Chesapeake Craft Brew & Wine Garden, located next to the pavilion, for beer and wine from Harford Vineyard & Winery, Fiore Winery, Royal Rabbit Vineyards and more of Maryland’s finest.
7:30 p.m.-10 p.m.: In concert
Cap your day with music. From the Park Free Stage, between the midway and the Mosner Miller Building, an assortment of bands and performers will be playing throughout the week, including: Appaloosa; Barry Prosser & The Ordeal, Billy Harrison & The Haywire Band, Cameron Robertson AKA Mr. Charisma, Charles Parker, Great Train Robbery, Half Serious, Josh Christina Band, Kittyback, Mark Bray & The Steel Soul Cowboys, Midnite Run, Rat Pack, One Life to Lead, Rob Fahey and the Pieces, Ronnie Wayne & Tidewater, That’s What She Said, The 1974, Trilogy and The Uncommitted. The marquee concerts are set for 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday nights on the racetrack infield: Hanson (Aug. 23), Marshall Tucker Band (Aug. 24), LOCASH (Aug. 30) and Night Ranger (Aug. 31). Reserved seat tickets are $25, but just coming in to listen is included with your fair admission; you can even bring a blanket if you want.