Did you know that the San Diego County Fair annually welcomes upwards of a million visitors during its month-long summer run, making it the largest county fair in America? Attending this summer’s Fair leaves little question why.
The San Diego Fair over-fills the Del Mar Fair Grounds, weaving between and within the various outbuildings, the majority of the Grandstand, and even spilling out onto and beyond the historic racecourse itself. Sensory overload pervades the space, with so much to see and enjoy, but fear not: This handy quick guide and top tips can help you get there and experience all the San Diego County Fair has to offer.
When is it?
The fair lasts from June 7th until July 4th, 2023 Wednesdays through Sundays, from 11 am to 10 pm, or until 11 pm Fridays and Saturdays. The San Diego fair will be closed Mondays and Tuesdays in June.
San Diego County Fair Tickets
New this year, the Del Mar Fairgrounds require all visitors to purchase entry tickets and parking spaces online prior to attending the event. Tickets cost 15 for weekdays and 20 for weekends (plus ticketing fees), with lower fees and free weekdays for kids. Costco also has a family pack of tickets on sale, so that might a cheaper option. You can get your tickets here online>>
Sitting right off the 5, driving remains the easiest way to attend the County Fair. Parking costs 15 dollars, with a preferred lot running 30 dollars. Alternatively, visitors can park at Torrey Pines High School (Address: 3710 Del Mar Heights Rd, San Diego, CA 92130) for free, then ride the free shuttle to the event. Trams also connect all lots to the various gates of the Fair.
Attendees can also ride the Coaster, either north or south, to the Solana Beach station, where the special route 408 bus takes them directly to the Fairgrounds.
Once at the gates, make sure to grab a map and daily schedule. There are so many attractions and events, and the place is so enormous, that even seasoned visitors get lost and forget when things begin. Friendly volunteers also meander through grounds and have a wealth of information. Feel free to ask anything of these folks, including recommendations. No one knows the place better than they do.
Food and Drink at the San Diego County Fair
Ah, the fried, grilled, and smoked scents filling the air. Everyone knows the sort of gut-busting monstrosities one can find at a County Fair, and San Diego’s is no exception. I seek out the biggest, craziest concoctions I can find, and am never disappointed.
Like every year, many vendors attempted to one-up themselves on last year’s foods. Chicken Charlie’s offers a chicken sandwich slathered in a sweet, Kool-Aid-based sauce, for example, and the funnel cake stands sell giant lime green varieties named after the Hulk. Ramen noodles wrapped in a tortilla, huge servings of orange chicken, and every variety of fried potato and roasted corn you can imagine abound.
Patrons can also find the classics: Fried Oreos and Twinkies, enormous roasted turkey legs, foot-long hotdogs, corndogs, and that one burger with glazed donuts instead of buns. One amazing new sweet I missed was the half-and-half brownie, made with 50/50 brownie batter and cookie dough.
I can recommend all these treats, and only wish I had had stomach for more. Half the fun comes from hunting through the Avenue, the long main thoroughfare next to the Grandstand, containing most of these stalls. At one end sits the beer garden, complete with arcade machines, live music, and plenty of tables to enjoy your meal. And don’t forget to look for the secret speakeasy overlooking the Grandstand. Find the door with the mustache and indulge in a tasty cocktail or two.
San Diego Fair Speakeasies: Destination Unknown & Stache
While I would never tell anyone what they had to do, I would be remiss if I forgot to mention the annual speakeasy, this season called Destination Unknown. Located at the top of the Grandstand, it requires a special wristband to enter, which visitors can acquire near the eastern entrance to the first floor. The Destination charges no admittance fee and offers stunning views over the racecourse, the rides, and the Family Fun Zone, and an overall unbeatable experience.
Once you’ve climbed the stairs—or taken the elevator; it is six stories—this ritzy area has transformed into an incredible tiki lounge, outfitted with palms, steel drum music, and more flamingos than you can count. It felt like the one calm center in the park where attendees can relax with a cocktail and friends while processing everything going on below.
They offer regular beer and wine, but you didn’t climb stairs for that. I recommend any of the specialty cocktails on their menu, particularly the Weekend Vice, the Pineapple Express, and the Mai Tai.
And don’t forget to look for the second secret speakeasy overlooking the Grandstand. Find the door with the mustache by the Shave & Haircut booth and indulge in a tasty cocktail or two. This prohibition-style speakeasy offers 6 cocktails and 4 martinis to choose from and is open daily from 12:30 – 7:30 PM.
San Diego County Fair Rides & Games
A county fair would feel incomplete without a Midway housing dozens of rides and games. San Diego’s contains the usual rides—the swings, a Ferris wheel, a carousel, a spooky indoor ride, and the like—and all of them offer plenty of fun, even to cynical adults like me. The two roller coasters, the gondolas, and the Ferris wheel (enjoyed at sunset, no less) were favorites on my last visit. In addition to the more adult rides, the Family Zone, in the middle of the racetrack, contains dozens of rides for smaller visitors, as well as a small petting zoo.
The Skyrider, a gondola system reminiscent of the Skyfari at the San Diego Zoo, deserves special mention. It connects the Avenue, where the food stalls sit, with the Family Fun Zone, in the center of the park. Visitors ride high above the action in quiet peace, enjoying spectacular views from the beach to the inland hills, and can help with orientation issues.
The Midway area also hosts a variety of games, such as water-pistol games, ring tosses, and balloon-popping games. Winners choose from huge stuffed animals, or sometimes goldfish in small bowls or food prizes.
To enjoy both the rides and games, patrons must purchase tickets from vendors, which can become something of a headache. To streamline the system, the Midway has provided an app for your phone, or several handy kiosks for credit card purchases. Tickets run $1.25 apiece, with most rides needing 5 or more tickets. Yes, it can get expensive, but it’s generally worth it here.
As the 22nd California District Agricultural Association puts on the Fair, it presents numerous opportunities to get in touch with the farming world. Multiple halls display a variety of agricultural products and animals, all near the main entrances and the Grandstand.
Animal lovers should not miss out on the Livestock Halls, where judging of livestock occurs. Just next door, in the Del Mar arena, visitors can watch horses perform dressage and jumping events. A smaller arena also offers milking demonstrations, and the California Grown Hall and Hollandia Hall both showcase agriculture and handicraft displays from throughout the state. These halls also showcase artisans performing their crafts, such as spinning thread from wool or making quilts.
Perhaps the most interesting of the display halls remains the Theme Hall. Each fair comes with its own theme, and this place presents information and interactive exhibits for that theme. As this year’s theme is Heroes Re-Unite, the hall showcases exhibits on comic book superheroes. In light of the pandemic, the theme expanded to include local fire, police, and first responders, who give talks throughout the day in this space, too. These exhibits bring home the connected message of the Fair.
One of my personal favorite attributes, the Fair hosts competitions in dozens of art media. Located primarily in the grandstand and one hall adjacent to it, patrons can look through the various displays to admire and see which won prizes. These include kid’s art, woodworking and furniture making, various handmade items, floral arrangement, and gems, fossils, and jewelry displays. Other spaces host the fine arts, photography, and painting sections, all of which warrant a visit. Some of the competitors even discuss their art or provide demonstrations.
The coolest, at least in my estimation, are the outdoor garden displays, located in the Garden Show. Here, entrants build a living garden and decorate it with furniture, rocks, signs…whatever they want to use. With so much creativity on hand—as well as a small stage with local music and a wine-tasting space—make sure to check this section out.
What would a county fair be without huge shopping arcades? The San Diego County Fair boasts four areas full of vendors hawking their wares. Patrons can purchase just about anything, from what I saw, including jewelry, snacks, drinks, beds, hot tubs, fans, household goods, video games, cars, and even modular homes, among so many other items. Strolling along the helter-skelter bazaars can easily fill hours of time, just listening to people haggle and discuss products, so make sure to duck in and see the sales.
Shopping stalls stand throughout the Fairgrounds, but the best options are the Crosby Hall and the Seaside Pavilion.
The Fair puts on so many amazing shows throughout the day at a dozen different stages—another reason visitors should grab a map and schedule on the way in. The shows do not charge admission and many change daily.
First, the big stuff. On the racetrack in front of the Grandstand, a big-name act, such as John Fogerty or Gabriel Iglesias, will perform at 8 pm every Friday and Saturday night. Likewise, at 8 pm, the Turf Club, located on the third floor of the Grandstand, will host comedians for your enjoyment. Either of these events represent a great way to wind down after a fun day before heading home.
The smaller stages, however, hardly lack excitement. The Swifty Swine Pig Races held three times daily, present one of the best-loved events, situated near the entrance gates. Three little piglets race around a track for an Oreo cookie, captivating all spectators. I cannot recommend this goofiness more highly.
Farther out, in the Kid’s Zone, attendees find the Extreme Dogs and Extreme Events shows. The dogs perform tricks similar to those seen in kennel clubs, offering lots of fun for younger fans. The Extreme Events offers more classic acrobatics, the sort of thing one sees in a circus. Both, naturally, are worth the time to visit.
The fair celebrates several different festivals throughout the month, such as Asian and Pacific Islander and Irish Heritage Festivals. On these days, a large stage in the center of the Midway allows multiple cultural organizations to showcase their talents and heritage for a wide audience. Even if the theme doesn’t speak directly to you, it can make the fair much nicer and give some food for thought, if nothing else.
Finally, the fair supports various adult-only festivals, such as the San Diego International Beer Festival and the Distilled Spirit and Cocktail Festival. These come at increased costs but definitely appease those looking for a wilder time.
If you get the chance, go. Or, better yet, make the time to spend a day at the Fair. It certainly does not disappoint, and it offers something unique for every visitor. From great food and drink to spectacular art and exciting shows, from stellar rides to intimate animal attractions and extensive shopping, anyone can find a reason to enjoy the San Diego County Fair.
Last Updated on June 17, 2023 by Maria Haase