Solvang Windmill on Copenhagen Drive, California © Ellie Seymour

Screen-famous California on America’s West Coast is ripe for a bucket list road trip, with enough big-hitting sights to discover to keep you entertained for weeks and lure you back again. If, like me, you enjoy adding places with off-beat charm to your travel itinerary, here’s one on the Golden State’s sunny central coast to bear in mind.

Solvang is a little-known picturesque city with an old-world European feel, dubbed the ‘Danish capital of America’. At just over two square miles in size, it’s easy to explore on foot and makes for a fun stop-off. Here are my tips on how to visit Solvang, a unique destination in California.

street of danish style architecture in california
Mission Drive, Solvang’s main high street © Ellie Seymour

How to visit Solvang, California

Solvang is a fairytale-like city in the Santa Ynez Valley, an hour north of Santa Barbara and 2.5 hours north-west of Los Angeles. Framed by the Santa Ynez mountains, it celebrates Denmark’s architecture, food, and culture. Walking around feels like you’ve stepped into a European toy town or onto a Scandinavian film set.

Solvang’s quaint streets are lined with Danish-style half-timbered houses with immaculate gardens, art galleries and museums devoted to Danish culture, cafes and restaurants serving Danish food, shops selling Danish-themed souvenirs – and not just one but four (albeit fake) windmills.

Look up, too, and you might just spot one of the many plastic storks – a symbol of good luck in Denmark – perched up on the rooftops.

© Ellie Seymour

A brief history of Solvang, California

Solvang was founded in 1911 by three Danish immigrants, Reverend Benedict Nordentoft, Reverend JM Gregersen, and Professor PP Hornsyld, on 9,000 acres of land in the sun-soaked Santa Ynez Valley, which they named Solvang, the Danish for ‘sunny field’.

In 1914, they built a Danish ‘folk school’, where traditional music, literature, and English language and American history were taught. It later moved to a different location and became the Atterdag College, a one-time busy hub of the Solvang community. In 1928, when the Lutheran Church was built incorporating traditional Danish architecture, residents followed suit and began adding Danish flourishes to their homes.

It became famous in 1947 when a local paper wrote a feature about the city, calling it a “spotless Danish village that blooms like a rose in California’s charming Santa Ynez Valley.” Today, only a few Danish families live in Solvang, and it’s more of a tourist attraction than a real-life Danish community which sees a whopping two million visitors a year.

Things to do in Solvang, California

man playing accordion in tourist information centre Solvang
Dean Klitgaard greets visitors in the Solvang information centre © Ellie Seymour

Say hello to Dean Klitgaard at the tourist information centre

Follow the sound of the accordion to Solvang tourist information office where you’ll find Danish maestro, Dean Klitgaard. ‘I bought it Denmark in 1958,’ he tells me of his prized instrument, ‘but it goes back to 1948. It’s showing some wear and is a little out of tune, but still going strong,’ he says, before talking me through things to do in Solvang.

little mermaid statue in california
A replica of Copenhagen’s The Little Mermaid statue in Solvang’s Denmarket Square © Ellie Seymour

Follow a Hans Christian Andersen trail

As synonymous with Denmark as pastries is Hans Christian Andersen, the Danish author known for literary fairytales like The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling, and Thumbelina, to name a few. Hidden above The Book Loft bookshop is this museum dedicated to his life. Here, you’ll find hundreds of volumes of Andersen’s works, including many illustrated first editions and a model of Andersen’s childhood home.

Next on the Hans Christian Andersen trail around Solvang is the half-size replica of Copenhagen’s iconic sculpture, The Little Mermaid, on top of a fountain, inspired by Danish children’s author Hans Christian Andersen’s famous fairy tale, and a statue of the author in the city’s main park.

Spot solvang’s Danish street names

According to information at the Elverjhoj Museum, it wasn’t until 1953 that several streets in Solvang were given Danish names. Here are some you’ll pass during your future visits, plus the meanings behind them:

• Atterdag Road: Danish for ‘another day’⁠
• Bakke Way: Danish for hill or slope⁠
• Copenhagen Drive: After the capital city of Denmark⁠
• Kronborg Drive: After the famous ancient castle in Helsingør, Denmark⁠
• Oster Sted: Meaning ‘eastern place, spot, or house’
• Vester Sted: Meaning ‘western place spot, or house’

Discover Solvang’s range of museums

Despite its diminutive size, Solvang manages to pack in a colourful range of museums, some more bizarre than others:

Danish culture is preserved at The Elverhøj Museum of History & Art through Danish arts and crafts exhibits dating back to the Vikings. A highlight is the diorama in the garden cottage, which shows what Solvang looked like before it became a quirky tourist hotspot.

The small, informative California Nature Art Museum tells the story of the local ecology through ever-changing exhibitions of nature-centric art, from paintings to photography.

The fascinating Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum displays dozens of rare classic American, Japanese and European motorbikes.

Learn about when the Vikings discovered America at the Solvang Viking Museum. Another highlight is an authentic Viking Ship built by the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum in Denmark.
For a view of the Santa Ynez River Valley and the Santa Ynez and San Rafael mountain ranges, head to the Old Mission Santa Ines, the 19th of 21 missions built in California from 1769 to 1836 by Spanish Franciscan priests led by Father Junipero Serra.
a traditional Danish bakery in California
Spot the plastic stork on the top of the Danish Mill Bakery © Ellie Seymour

Danish Bakery hopping

When it comes to food, a highlight of a visit to Solvang is sampling traditional pastries at one of the city’s traditional Danish bakeries. ‘You know we only have five,’ says Dean, joking, listing them out, which I can vouch are all excellent in their own way:

Open since the 1960s, The Danish Mill Bakery & Coffee Shop offers high-quality modern takes on traditional Danish bakes. Their buckets of Danish butter biscuits make a good souvenir.

Packed with locals come the weekend, Olsen’s Danish Village Bakery is known for its delicious traditional kransekager, almond pastries dusted with icing sugar.

Catching sight of impressively decorated gingerbread houses is a highlight of visiting The Solvang Bakery, a good spot for sampling Denmark’s famous aebleskiver, fried pancake balls, the perfect road trip snack.

Old-school traditional Danish pastries are what long-standing family-run Birkholm’s Bakery is all about. Bestsellers? The bear claw – a light flaky pastry filled with almond paste – and owl eyes – biscuits topped with marzipan and jam.

At Mortensen’s Danish Bakery, another long-standing Solvang favourite, packed with day trippers come a sunny weekend, it’s all about the cream cheese Danish pastry.

pink timber fronted danish house in california
© Ellie Seymour

Shopping for Solvang souvenirs

Across the street from the Danish Mill Bakery, Ingeborg’s Danish Chocolate Shop is a great stop for sweet souvenirs. Its old-fashioned cabinets are filled with dainty-looking luxury handmade chocolates, like dark chocolate orange sticks and chocolate marzipan bars. They ship worldwide, too. It’s also a great place for ice cream.

Where to eat in Solvang

At long-standing city favourite, The Solvang Restaurant, the walls are illustrated with scenes from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales. It’s famous around town for its aebleskiver – pancake balls – and other Danish classics, like meatballs and Danish-style schnitzel.

For smorgasbord – Danish food served buffet style – the Red Viking Restaurant gets rave reviews, while newcomer Peasants Feast is a clever choice for seasonal, farm-inspired dining. They also have an extensive local wine list.

Wine tasting in Solvang

In 2004, the Santa Ynez Valley region was made famous by the 2004 film Sideways, which also features Solvang in a couple of scenes. After this point, the number of wine businesses in downtown Solvang boomed, with many of the area’s 120-plus wineries opening tasting rooms in the city, like the sleek Sanger Wines.

When to visit Solvang

traditional Danish folk art in California
© Ellie Seymour

Solvang is a year-round destination. I visited in April, when the crowds were smaller and spring was ushering in warmer temperatures. In September, the city celebrates its Danish folk traditions at its annual Danish Days event, usually held during the third weekend of the month.

Where to stay in Solvang

sigh for Solvang inn and cottages
© Ellie Seymour

If you want to make a long weekend of it, there are plenty of places to stay in Solvang, from hotels and guesthouses, like the Solvang Inn and Cottages and The M Solvang, both of which look like old Danish farmhouses and are close to shops, restaurants and wine-tasting rooms.

Plan your trip to Solvang here.

Enjoy reading this post? Fancy buying me a coffee?

New here? Visit the check-in desk for a welcome tour, join other curious travellers and subscribe to Ellie & Co • A Far Out Travel Guide by email or follow me on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.

Write A Comment

Pin It