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Hop abroad Amtrak’s Coast Starlight train for a Royal European vacation in the Santa Ynez Valley, a train ride away from Los Angeles. Minutes from the Pacific Ocean, find traditional Danish foods and festivals, paired with the best of the Central Californian wine region. With postcard-perfect weather, Solvang offers families plenty of ways to fill a long weekend.
Call it a compromise, but I needed to get away from my car and Southern California. My heart was yearning to explore a quaint European village, but my budget screamed No, you have kids. So I hopped the most scenic train ride in the country and discovered the Danish Capital of the U.S. instead. Solvang,just a handful of miles inland from Santa Barbara, was even better than Europe, since I didn’t suffer from jet lag or whittle away the college fund. Looking to escape, I found 18 things to do with kids in Solvang.
Explore a Danish Village in California
In 1911, a group of Danes living in the Midwest wanted to move away from the brutal winters. After purchasing 9,000 acres from the Old Mission Santa Inez, a Spanish Mission, they established a Danish village in Central California.
It all started with farming and traditional farm-style buildings, just like the Danish architecture back in Europe. Nearly 40 years quietly passed, until a reporter from the Saturday Evening Post discovered the Danish hamlet in 1947. Soon Solvang (Danish for “sunny field”) enticed travelers from Los Angeles and beyond.
Not a kitschy hub for trinkets and souvenirs, downtown Solvang offers a vibrant community steeped in the Danish culture with royal ties to Denmark. During festivals celebrating their Danish roots, girls wearing red pinafores over white blouses dance merrily in their clogs to folk music.
During my visit, I found some of Copenhagen’s most famous landmarks scattered throughout Solvang. Like the 1/3 replica of the famous Rundetaarn, or round tower, originally built in the 17th century for astronomy by Christian IV.
Then on the main throughfare, I found the Little Mermaid. Not the cartoon character, but a replica of Denmark’s national symbol. The original sits along the water in Copenhagen.
Don’t forget the windmills. During my trip to Solvang, I found several, along with traditional storks perched on top of thatched roofs.
Just for the kids, take Solvang trolley tour, a replica of a 1915 Danish streetcar. The horse-drawn trolley takes travelers on a tour of the downtown area.
The Danish Royal Family often makes official royal visits to Solvang, the Danish capital of America. For Solvang’s centennial in 2011, HRH The Prince Consort Henrik of Denmark celebrated the historic, cultural and business ties between his country and Solvang.
Danish Inspired Shopping
As I walked the tree-lined streets, I peered into the shop windows of the traditional half-timbered buildings. Under thatched roofs, I found shops stocked with traditional Danish costumes, authentic Danish Christmas ornaments and Danish-made red clogs.
Don’t think it’s all windmills and clogs; Solvang keeps an eye to the future. I also shopped boutiques featuring modern Scandinavian design, like Copenhagen House, that sells Danish-made products like House of Amber jewelry, modern home goods and LEGOs for the kids.
Traditional Danish Food in Solvang
Windmills lead the way to bakeries, tempting me with sugar-glazed pastries with layer-after-layer of buttery goodness. With five traditional bakeries in town, I sampled my way across Solvang.
I devoured the Danish waffle at The Solvang Bakery. With a pair of flaky cookie-like layers filled with sweet cream and raspberries, it is still part of my fantasies and tops my list of Danish pastries.
Another must try is the Danish aebleskiver at the Solvang Restaurant. They are pancake balls sprinkled with powdered sugar and accompanied with raspberry jam.
Looking for more temptations, I found my go-to indulgence, chocolate. At Ingeborg’s Danish Chocolates, their chocolatier makes traditional treats with marzipan along with truffles.
Santa Ynez Valley’s Wine and Beer
After enjoying the sweets of Little Denmark, I enjoyed some wine tasting. There are close to 20 tasting rooms in Solvang within walking distance, allowing me to sample wines from across the Santa Ynez Valley.
Cooled by sea breezes and nestled among the mountain ranges, wine grapes are the top crop in Santa Barbara County. To tour the wine country, hop in a car and head minutes out of Solvang in any direction. Or hop on one of the organized wine tours.
Beer connoisseurs fear not. Solvang brews up craft beers, pairing them with traditional Danish sausage to transport travelers to the Old World. Imagine sitting outside on the patio sipping a pint and savoring the perfect California weather.
Enjoy Solvang’s Arts and Culture
In an effort to walk off my foodie sampling, I strolled through Solvang’s museums dedicated to Danish art, history and culture. One favorite was the Elverhøj Museum of History and Art (1624 Elverhoy Way), a venue dedicated to illustrating the Viking’s influence on Scandinavia as well as Solvang’s forefathers.
I found another charming space tucked into the attic of the independent bookstore, The Book Loft (1680 Mission Dr.). Upstairs is the Hans Christian Andersen Museum. I found a small museum dedicated to the patriarch of children’s literature. Visitors learn about the author while browsing his collections.
Another museum for kids and their families, The Wildling Museum of Art and Nature (1511 Mission Dr.) features an area for kids to craft. The museum features traveling installations centered around nature.
As I made a pilgrimage to the Old Mission Santa Inés (1760 Mission Drive), I took a moment to reflect in its outdoor gardens. Overlooking a valley with swaying amber grass on the edge of Solvang, the 1804 historic mission settled this area. This is a part of the original Catholic missions that dotted the coast from San Diego to San Francisco; most still survive.
Suddenly the sky burned like an ember before fading to indigo. Not ready to return to my hotel, I stumbled upon the Solvang Festival Theater (420 2nd Street). As the seasonal home of the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts, the outdoor venue is a beacon for theater lovers. In a half-timbered theatre reminiscent of London’s Globe Theatre, I snuggled under a plaid blanket and enjoyed their production.
Celebrate the Season with a Festival
With festivals sprinkled throughout the year, Solvang celebrates its rich culture and agricultural bounty. Since it offers mild weather year-round, the perfect time to visit Solvang is just a weekend away.
As spring blooms, savor the richness of Santa Ynez Valley at the Taste of Solvang in March. To a foodie’s delight, you can sample farm-to-table goodness or traditional Danish cuisine.
As the summer season fades, the golden light of autumn shines and Solvang celebrates Danish Days. As a festival dedicated to its heritage, the celebration features parades, artisans, and folk dancing.
With the year drawing to a close, Solvang sprinkles tiny white lights and green garlands all over town, transforming the hamlet into one of the most Christmassy towns in the U.S. Enjoy the season at the month-long festival, Julefest, with traditional Danish food and a tree lighting.
Where to Stay in Solvang
During my visit to Solvang, I discovered a boutique hotel ripped from the pages of an exclusive travel magazine. The Landsby (1576 Mission Dr.) offers guests a traditional Danish boutique hotel on a bustling tree-lined street with locally-owned shops.
In a 50-room boutique property, the traditional Danish exterior pays homage to its Danish roots with divided-light windows, exposed timbers and a stucco exterior. Behind the front door, I entered a world where the Danish modern aesthetic gets cozy with a mix of rich textures and a palette of pleasing neutrals.
In a room that showcases modern Danish design, the texture of the textiles creates a cozy home base to explore Little Denmark. With modern furniture pieces, like the bench at the foot of the bed and the pair of chairs with an accompanying table, the wood grain makes a design statement.
The wooden wingback headboard dominates the room and the white cotton linens keep it fresh. The yellow accent pillow along with a knitted throw add pops of color. But my favorite detail, a tiny lavender sachet printed with “good night,” sat in the middle of the mound of pillows.
Where to Eat in Solvang
Solvang Restaurant (1671 Copenhagen Dr.) features Danish favorites, like Aebleskiver and Danish sausage. Walk up to the to-go window for an afternoon snack.
Solvang Bakery (438 Alisal Rd.) is a ladies’ delight with a charming place to sit and enjoy a coffee with a Danish waffle.
Fresco Valley Café (422 Atterdag Dr.) offers outdoor dining with a menu of breakfast and lunch favorites.
Ingeborg’s Danish Chocolates (1679 Copenhagen Dr.) makes their chocolates in-house. I found a dizzying selection.
Chomp (1693 Mission Dr.) calls out to families and burger-lovers alike. Blends up top-notch shakes as well.
Mad and Vin (1576 Mission Dr. inside The Landsby) boasts a popular happy hour where locals and hotel guests sample small plates along with wines from across the Santa Ynez Valley.
Where to Shop in Solvang
The Copenhagen House (1660 Copenhagen Dr.) sells products made in Denmark, like LEGOs, amber jewelry and clogs.
Jule Hus-The Christmas Shop (1580 Copenhagen Dr.) offers Christmas ornaments year round with a large selection of Danish-inspired ornaments.