This Storybook Town Will Transport You Straight to Europe
A pastry-filled splash of Scandinavian culture awaits in California's wine country.
Solvang is straight up mystical. The city of just under 6,000 people is in the heart of California's Central Coast wine country, but looks like a northern European village. Founded by Danish settlers in 1911, nearly every structure in the town’s center is based on traditional Danish architecture, with plenty of brick and half-timbered framing, arched ceilings, spires, and hand-carved woodwork.
Splashes of color are seen in brightly painted doors, detailed window trim, and a Danish obsession with flower gardens. Look closely and you’ll spy storks perched on rooftops—a symbol of good luck in Danish culture. Some buildings are replicas of Copenhagen landmarks like the Round Tower, modeled after a 17th-century observatory (and now the home of Tower Pizza), or the King Christian Tower, inspired by a historic stock exchange building.
What you won’t see are the typical tourist-town trappings like t-shirt huts, convenience stores, and parking meters. Danes really do still live here—although the population of Scandinavian immigrants isn't as high as it used to be. (You know, it's hard to turn down free healthcare and all.) To explore Solvang is to be utterly transported; the aroma of Danish pastries fills the streets. And with vineyards getting ready for harvest season and a few big events on the way, fall is the perfect time to check it out.
Live in a fairytale. Buy some wooden clogs. Become a Viking and never leave.
Solvang gives you reasons to stick around and get swallowed into the fairytale forever (or at least until checkout). Start your visit at the Elverhøj Museum of History & Art, a free museum dedicated to the heritage of Solvang that has a new exhibit every 90 days or so (including a recent collection of Rembrandt etchings). The building was originally a home built by hand in 1949 with interconnected beams. No nails. No power tools. In true Danish style, the front entrance has a latch string instead of a doorknob.
Next, go full fairy tale. Even if you don’t know the name Hans Christian Andersen, you're definitely familiar with his work—the Danish writer is responsible for classic fairy tales like "The Princess and the Pea.” Solvang is really into Hans: There are tributes to him spread across town, from the Hans Christian Andersen Park with its mythical castle entrance to a bust of the author in Solvang Park, as well as a fountain depicting "The Little Mermaid" (a replica of the officially sanctioned one in Denmark). Wander into the free Hans Christian Andersen Museum, located above the Book Loft boutique shop. You'll see vintage books by the author (including rare first editions) and a dollhouse recreation of his childhood home.
Head around the corner to The Copenhagen House, basically a Scandinavian department store, set in a former bank that now has an amber museum in the old vault. Amid higher-end designer brands, you can find a wooden Viking display and, of course, Legos for the kids. Just down the street, the Solvang Shoe Store actually has a big, red clog outside the front door. And Jule Hus sells nothing but Christmas-related items, but remains busy year round.
Eat a Danish danish
Authentic Danish bakeries are among the most popular reasons to visit Solvang. With butter cookies and fruit-topped danishes or a variety of house-baked bread loaves to go, Birkholm's is the oldest bakery in town, going on 70 years now. Meanwhile, Olsen's may have the best kringle in town. The almond, custard, and raisin pastries are similar in shape to a large pretzel, but also available in small slices. Mortensen's is relatively no-frills with a sparse, modern design, but lines linger out the door for the fruit-topped almond "owl eye" cookies and pistachio squares. If you just want to browse, feel free to ogle the four animatronic bakers at the Danish Mill Bakery or the baking bunny at the Solvang Bakery, because that’s what they’re there for.
But few people pass through Solvang without trying aebleskiver at least once. It's the signature dish at Solvang Restaurant (where part of the Oscar-winning movie "Sideways” was filmed) and is basically a serving of pancake balls. The exterior is soft and light—no crunchy shell—with the sweetness determined by how much you want to dredge it through the accompanying red jam. Is it really worth all the attention? Not really, but it's a fun thing to cross off your Solvang bucket list.
Solvang does have food beyond just sweets, though. There’s Sear Steakhouse, which combines prime steaks with produce from the owners' private farm. They serve a mean Old Fashioned prepared with an absinthe-like slow-drip with cinnamon and house bitters. At First & Oak inside the Mirabelle Inn, guests can customize their own multi-course tasting menu. At Peasants Feast, the taco tortillas are pressed to order; the burger is made with a flavorful combination of ribeye, chuck, and short rib; and the "cappuccino" appetizer of roasted mushrooms and duck egg is weird, but totally works.
And wash it all down with wine, because you are still in California
Solvang has more than a dozen wine tasting rooms. And if there isn't one on every corner, it sure feels like it. The hard part is narrowing down your choices, but you can't go wrong with Lucas & Lewellen (and its sister Toccata label), Crawford Family Wines, or Dana V. Wines. No matter where you go for wine, tasting flights are the norm. In most cases, you won't be presented with four or five glasses at once. It's more common to receive each on its own about 10 minutes apart.
Serious wine nerds will be more eager to explore the vineyards and wineries that surround Solvang in the rolling hills of Santa Barbara County. Buttonwood Farm has always been about biodynamic wines and is a lush, pastoral location for a picnic. And nearby Los Olivos is just a 10 or 15-minute drive from Solvang and has nearly 40 wine tasting rooms within just a few blocks of each other. Favorites include Dragonette Cellars (a pioneer for producing Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc in the area), Solminer (dedicated to organic, natural, biodynamic wines) and Liquid Farm (a cult label known for its Chardonnay).
Also amid the wine tasting rooms in Solvang are craft beer and cocktail bars to quench your other thirsts. The Good Life has more than 150 options for craft beer with a focus on California producers and a nice selection of mead (booze made from fermented honey). Due to the limitations of not having a full hard-liquor license (and the ambition to do something creative and different), the High Roller Tiki Lounge specializes in cocktails made with wine as the base spirit. Like most classic tiki bars, the recipes are heavy on tropical flavors and served in a moody atmosphere with kitschy decor. For serious cocktails, Vaquero Bar at Coast Range is your best bet.
Catch a fest
Unfortunately, the annual Solvang Danish Days fall festival is now cancelled for the second straight year due to the pandemic. When it returns, typically in September, you'll see free Danish entertainment—dancers, musicians, vikings—all over town and the traditional Aebleskiver Breakfast in the center of Copenhagen Drive.
In more optimistic news, Scarecrow Fest is confirmed with Solvang taking on a Halloween theme throughout the entire month of October and hosting an outdoor haunted house October 29-30. But for many visitors, Julefest is the best time of the year to visit, with Solvang going all-in on Christmas throughout December. There’s usually a parade, and shops and restaurants get decorated for the season with prizes at stake in a go-at-your-leisure scavenger hunt.
Where to stay in Solvang
Solvang keeps things small and cozy; you won't see big overblown hotels here. The Landsby, for example, has just 50 rooms, including the two-level Tower Suite with a loft-style bedroom. The entire property follows a clean, bright Scandinavian design with rustic touches (and killer cocktails in the lobby bar). Vinland has a similar modern aesthetic with a heated pool and wine lounge. Its sister concept, The Winston, is more exclusive with 14 rooms, a luxury feel, and a self check-in system for "invisible" service.
Outside downtown Solvang, the zen-like Inn at Zaca Creek has six suites (with stone walls for a wine-cellar vibe) and a hillside lagoon-style pool deck with a bar and cabanas. Its restaurant, The Tavern, offers tasty farm-to-table dishes, steaks, and a killer bourbon selection.