The rolling green hills in Santa Barbara County wine country provide little clue as to what awaits the visitor approaching the little town of Solvang.
Also known as the "Copenhagen of the Pacific," Solvang is a quaint slice of Denmark about 40 minutes north of Santa Barbara. Nestled in the beautiful Santa Ynez Valley, it was founded by Danish educators in the 1930s. To say it works hard to retain its traditional Danish culture would be an understatement.
A refreshing change from your typical small California community, Solvang tries almost too hard to be Danish. I’ve been to Copenhagen and I don’t recall seeing nearly as many Danish flags fly as proudly in Solvang. I sat in Olsen’s Bakery, savored my decadent cream puff pastry, and looked across the street at the Hamlet Motel and Little Mermaid Restaurant directly across from each other.
Solvang has capitalized on its Danish charm by attracting a steady stream of tourists. The 2004 movie Sideways, filmed in town, brought Solvang a certain level of fame and made it a chic place to visit, particularly among cinephiles and wine tasters. The tourist office is welcoming (or Velkommen, as they say here) and informative, eager to hand out free maps and help with directions. It’s open daily 9-5 at 1639 Copenhagen Drive.
My first stop in town was the Elverhoj Museum of History and Art. I was warmly greeted by a docent dressed in period garb who was eager to explain the story behind the Dutch settlement of Solvang. Locals claim that Solvang does not reflect present-day Denmark, but Denmark of 100 years ago. The horse-drawn carriages that roll through town add to that ambience.
Browse the interesting shops offering imported European wares and appreciate the authentic costumes worn by many of the shopkeepers.
Don’t come here if you are on a diet – the pastries are incredibly tempting and the bakeries are numerous. Highly recommended is the aebleskiver, jam-filled, powder-sugar-covered pancake balls.
I watched visitors taking pictures of their children in front of the statue of Copenhagen’s finest son, Hans Christian Andersen. This was reminiscent of the statue of Andersen I saw in Copenhagen. There is also a park here named after the Ugly Duckling author. I don’t know if there’s a replica of the statue of the Little Mermaid that I saw in Copenhagen Harbor, but it would not surprise me.
There are many subtle elements of Danish heritage and culture that escape most of the day-trip visitors. Plastic storks on the roofs of several homes are a symbol of good luck for the Danish. The Danish concept of hygge, translated as "coziness," is evident throughout town and provides ample opportunities for the traveler to relax and savor the surprises and charms Solvang has to offer.
Solvang is a popular spot for wine tasters. There are over 18,000 acres of grapevines around Solvang and 60 wineries. But be judicious in your wine tasting, as many an unsuspecting visitor has received a DUI upon leaving town.
The town prides itself on its cultural activities. The Solvang Festival Theater sells out many of its performances. The Book Loft has frequent literary readings and is worth poking around in, especially for those with a fondness for antiquarian books. The adjacent Hans Christian Andersen Museum is of particular interest to those with an appreciation for the author. The Danish Days festival, celebrated annually in September, is Solvang’s showcase, a mélange of parades and performances celebrating Danish heritage.
Solvang is particularly lovely at night when the spires and windmills light up brilliantly and the streets are mostly clear of tourists. The community has a temperate climate year round, with the majority of days sunny and clear. It was voted one of Sunset Magazine’s ten most beautiful towns in the Western United States.