Solvang looks like any other Danish village. Wildflowers line streets filled with buildings looking like they are straight out of a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale. Heck, there is even a statue of Anderson in the local park! Bakeries are everywhere, serving danishes and butter cookies. The sun is shining, and the nearby Mission Santa Inés…
That’s right, Solvang isn’t in Denmark, although from some angles you’d be hard pressed to tell. It is about 45 minutes outside of Santa Barbara, California. This small town strikes the perfect balance of traditional Danish village, Spanish hacienda, and winery. But how did a Danish village end up in the heart of California’s Santa Ynez Valley wine region?
From 1880-1910, more than 10% of Denmark’s population emigrated, many to the United States. Originally settling in the Midwest, these Danes set up small farming communities centered around a traditional school teaching youngsters practical skills from their homeland in addition to basic education. The communities spread out, and in 1911, 9,000 acres in California were purchased and a small group sick of the Midwestern winters (notoriously even worse than those back home in Denmark) made their way west. They named their new community Solvang, meaning sunny fields.
Initially, most buildings in Solvang were built in the local Spanish style, including the Atterdag College, Solvang’s Danish school. However, after the completion of Denmark’s first traditional windmill in the 1940s, tourists – many of whom had served in Europe in World War Two – began to come to get a small taste of the world they had experienced during the war. Seeing an opportunity, the town gave many of the older buildings a Danish provincial facelift, painting on the exposed wooden beams characterizing the style, and adding fake thatched roofs.
The old Danish style is everywhere in the center of town.
Well, it took off, and today, the entire town’s core is done in the traditional style, from hotels and shops to the fire station. Bakeries serve traditional favorites, and restaurants range from Danish classics to Danish spins on Americana (like lingonberry jam on a burger). Just off of US 101 between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo, the town has become a must-see stop for those driving the California coast and looking for some culture to add to the views.
California or Denmark?
While much of the town is pretty heavily populated by tourists, there are some gems for true Danish experiences for those who, like me, relish such unique character. Start with the Elverhoj Museum, on a quiet residential street a few blocks from the center of town. It is free (though donations are welcome) and chronicles the history of the town. Set in the former home of a local family, the highlight is a looping video of interviews of long-time Solvang residents speaking of their and their parents’ and grandparents’ experiences. Also be sure not to miss the diorama of the early town layout in a small outbuilding.
The Elverhoj Museum is worth a stop.
The museum alerted me to the original Danish-style church in Solvang, so of course I had to take a photo of its unique architecture.
A traditional Danish church.
The tiny Hans Christian Anderson Museum is located above an independent bookstore. Free to see, it is a private collection of memorabilia of the author, ranging from first edition works to correspondences. There is also the chance to purchase some fairy tales in various forms. (Not sure what Anderson wrote? A few highlights: The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling, The Emperor’s New Clothes.)
A bust of the author is prominent in town.
Ready for some food? Three bakeries (at least) have been in business and family-owned for more than 40 years: Birkholm’s, Olsen’s, and Mortensen’s. Try a Danish. Better yet, try three.
When it comes to savory dishes, again Solvang doesn’t disappoint. I was hosted by Solvang Restaurant to try their Danish meatballs and sausages, followed by their famous aebleskivers – Danish pancakes almost donut-esque topped with homemade raspberry jam that is to die for! You can pick these beauties up to go, as well, and leaving Solvang without trying them should be classified as a crime.
Aebleskivers are really wonderful concoctions.
There are some who would call this all cheesy. To those, I say that the world can use a bit of cheesy sometimes. Also, if you don’t like it, you’ll love Solvang as a wine destination, and the Danish portion will grow on you after a glass or two.
I love Solvang. Living in Los Angeles, it is a place I try to visit at least every couple of years. I hope you’ll be inspired to try the best of Denmark in California as well!
To help plan your trip to Solvang, be sure to contact SolvangUSA!
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