What to Do in Solvang, California: Explore Little Denmark

Itching to travel in Europe? Solvang offers a taste of Northern Europe without ever having to leave the U.S. Founded by Danish-Americans in 1911, Solvang is known as California’s Little Denmark.

The name means “Sunny Fields” in Danish and has plenty of old-world charm. Surrounded by the vineyards of the Santa Ynez Valley wine country, Solvang is a special gem in the heart of Santa Barbara County and California’s Central Coast.

Here are “Insider Tips” for What to Do in Solvang, California

Whether you’re visiting Solvang for the day or making a weekend of it, there are plenty of activities as well as great places to eat and drink.

Solvang, California, is a great place to brush up on your Scandinavian culture and history. But if you prefer to be active, the many sunny days offer ample activities in the outdoors.

Take a photo in front of the clog of California

red clog, dutch clog, solvang, california, scandinavian shoe
When you come to Solvang, get your picture taken near the giant red clog. Photo © Nancy D. Brown

When you come to Solvang, get your picture taken near the giant red clog at the corner of Copenhagen Drive and First Street in front of the Solvang Shoe Store. The shoe is a symbol of the Northern European heritage, as clogs originate from the Danish community.

Visit the four authentic windmills

dutch windmill, solvang, california, things to see,
Photo © Nancy D. Brown the 4 windmills of Solvang

 

Another not to be missed photo op is to visit the four wooden windmills throughout downtown. The best vantage points are taken by standing at the corner of Copenhagen Drive and Alisal Road and capturing the large windmill in the background.

These windmills are traditional to Danish communities.

Take a hike in Solvang’s beautiful countryside 

In Solvang and the surrounding Santa Ynez Valley, the call of the outdoors is loud and clear. The golden and sage-green hills and Santa Ynez and San Rafael mountain ranges that hug the valley provide inspiring scenery along with outdoor opportunities galore. There’s something here for all ages and interests.

Here are a few ideas: 

  • Climb to Gaviota Peak, offering Pacific coastline views, and take a dip in a hot sulfur spring just a short hike from the trailhead.
  • Have a relaxing picnic next to a seasonal waterfall—it’s an easy 15-minute hike at Nojoqui Falls County Park.
  • Visit Los Padres National Forest’s hundreds of miles of trails that meander through mountains, rivers, and streams, and includes the federally designated Dick Smith Wilderness and the San Rafael Wilderness.

Rent a bike in Solvang

Bicycling (road and mountain) is a popular sport in Solvang. Several 25/50/100-mile amateur cycling rides are held throughout the year and the area proudly hosted the Individual Time Trial stage of the professional cyclists’ Amgen Tour of California in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2011.

Even Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong and many pro bicycling teams train on valley roads and mountain passes. Take a spin on bicycles and four-wheeled surrey cycles from Wheel Fun Rentals.

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danish rooftop, architecture, solvang, california
Solvang’s Danish architecture. Photo © Nancy D. Brown

Go horseback riding in the Santa Ynez Valley

The nearby Santa Ynez Valley is known in the equestrian world for its horse ranches, with a focus on quarter horses, thoroughbred and Arabian breeds, as well as respected training, breeding, and veterinary facilities.

Up at Rancho Oso Guest Ranch & Stables for year-round horseback riding, with or without an overnight stay. Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort in Solvang offers its guests private horse-back riding experiences. Vino Vaqueros takes guests on exclusive vineyard horseback rides.

Get out on Cachuma Lake

Water activities are sure to float your boat, especially at Cachuma Lake Recreation Area, which offers boating and fishing, and now welcomes kayaks and canoes. Guided nature cruises are offered year-round aboard the Osprey, a 49-passenger pontoon boat.

If you’re yearning for saltwater and surf, you’ll find it nearby, just 11 miles south of Buellton off US Highway 101 at Gaviota State Beach Park. The oceanfront park is a popular spot for swimming, picnicking, hiking, camping, fishing, and scuba diving.

little mermaid bronze sculpture, solvang, california
Solvang treasures abound, including the Little Mermaid bronze sculpture. Photo © Nancy D. Brown

Immerse yourself in Danish art and history

danish fisherman, danish woman, solvang, california
Founded by Danish-Americans in 1911, Solvang means Sunny Fields in Danish and has plenty of old-world charm like this Dutch mural on display downtown.

If you are a museum lover,  you’ll be in heaven in Solvang. Here are a few ideas:

  • Soak up Solvang’s Danish background at the Elverhøj Museum of History & Art featuring historic photos, artifacts, Danish arts, crafts, and period pieces.
  • The Hans Christian Andersen Museum honors the Danish father of the modern fairy tale. A bronze statue of Andersen graces Solvang Park.
  • Don’t miss the 1804 Old Mission Santa Ines, a National Historic Landmark District and the Mission Mills State Historic Park (being developed by the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation).
  • Solvang’s Vintage Motorcycle Museum pays homage to two-wheeled wonders. Solvang architectural treasures abound including Bethania Lutheran Church and the Little Mermaid bronze sculpture.
  • A 1/3-size replica of Copenhagen’s famous 17th-century Rundetaarn (Round Tower) is on display behind one of the village’s four large windmills at 436 Alisal Road.
  • Take a moment to relax on the sladerbænken (gossip bench) located at 1518 Mission Drive. Solvang’s world-famous chiming carillon clock tower atop at 486 First Street plays seasonal tunes –and serves as a reminder that there is always plenty of time to relax here.

You can tell a lot about Solvang from visiting and watching the annual Danish Days Celebration every September or the Julefest winter festival every December.

What to Eat and Drink: Indulge in the Foodie and Wine Scene of Solvang

There are plenty of opportunities to try Danish delicacies in this town, and the wine scene parallels that of Sonoma and Napa Valley.

bit o denmark, restaurant, solvang, california
I recommend the Bit O’Denmark Restaurant. Photo © Nancy D. Brown

Solvang’s dozens of restaurants and cafés are noted for fresh local foods, many of them sourced from the local farmer’s market.  Between Mission and Copenhagen Drive on 1st Street, every Wednesday afternoon, Solvang’s streets truly come alive.

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The farmer’s market also holds several events throughout the year. Since 1982, the third weekend of March each year celebrates Danish and local foods, wines and live entertainment during the Taste of Solvang.

Friday evening kicks off the weekend with a dessert reception & live entertainment. Saturday is the Walking Smorgaasbord with 40 taste stops downtown from 11am-4pm followed by a Saturday evening Wine Tasting Room Walk featuring local vintners.

If you are looking for typical Danish cuisine, I recommend the Bit O’Denmark Restaurant, in a historic 1911 building that has been serving Danish foods including the popular Smorgaasbord since the 1960s (full bar, lunch, and dinner).

Indulge in traditional Danish sweets

aebleskiver, danish pastry, solvang, california
Enjoying a Danish favorite called aebleskiver. Photo © Nancy D. Brown

The name may lead you to believe there are apple slices inside—and in many places of Denmark, that is how they are served. But in Solvang, the tradition is aebleskiver dusted with powdered sugar and served with raspberry jam.

Legend has it that when Vikings were roaming up and down the coasts of Europe they used their dented horn helmets and shields to cook their favorite pancakes—which turned out round!

Solvang’s bakers also create other Danish pastries such as kringles, marzipan, almond rings, cakes, cookies, tarts, and breads. I would recommend checking out the Danish Mill Bakery, Mortensen’s Danish Bakery, and Olsen’s Danish Village Bakery.

Besides the Danish baked treats, sweet offerings include Ingeborg’s Danish Chocolates–handmade chocolates and an old-fashioned ice cream parlor or the Old Danish Food Farm with fresh fudge and candy apples.

Sip in the heart of Santa Barbara wine country 

Solvang is in the center of Santa Ynez Valley wine country (where the movie Sideways was filmed.)  A part of Santa Barbara’s wine country, the region contributes to 23,000+ acres of grape vineyards that annually produce more than a million cases of wine. These include Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah, but also Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Viognier.

The unusual east-west orientation of the area’s coastal mountains creates transverse valleys that funnel cool Pacific Ocean air and fog inland during the late afternoon and evening. For wine country cuisine, don’t miss Root 246 at the Hotel Corque; River Grill at the Alisal; Cecco Ristorante (Cal-Med); Mirabelle Restaurant and Fresco Valley Café to name just a few of the many dining choices for any taste or budget.

If you want to get adventurous, book a wine tour with Stagecoach Co Wine Tours or even bike through Santa Barbara wine country with Santa Barbara Wine Country Cycling Tours.

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Where to Stay in Solvang: Be in the Center of it All…Or Nearby

Solvang has several luxury hotels as well as affordable options right in the city center, but if you’re willing to drive, you have even more options that will open up the California coast to you.

alisal guest ranch
Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort offers a unique breakfast ride on horseback. Photo © Nancy D. Brown

I was a guest at the Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort, which sated my thirst for horseback riding on its 50 miles of riding trails, while also offering luxurious accommodations and top-notch food. Read my review of the Alisal here.

Mirabelle Inn is located right in the heart of Solvang and features beautifully-appointed rooms furnished with antiques and luxurious touches. Its on-site five-star restaurant, First & Oak, offers wine country cuisine and local ingredients.

If you want to see more of the Central Coast, book a stay at the Ritz-Carlton, Bacara, in Santa Barbara. Just 35 minutes from Solvang, the hotel’s two beaches, three infinity-edge pools, and 42,000-square-foot spa will keep you occupied.

Insider Tip: Check out the often over-looked parks in town: Hans Christian Andersen Park on Atterdag Road is a woodsy green space with picnic areas, tennis courts, a playground and Skate Park for boarders; and the whimsical playground and ball field at Sunny Fields Park on Alamo Pintado Road is a family favorite. or take an easy hike to a waterfall at Nojoqui Falls County Park.

The best way to see Solvang is to STROLL and enjoy the friendly, sunny atmosphere, architecture, shops and attractions! 

What are your favorite things to do in Solvang, California?

Thanks to Laura Kath and Solvang Conference & Visitors Bureau for assistance with this post.  Photos, YouTube video and article by  Travel Writer Nancy D. Brown.

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. At no extra cost to you, I earn a commission on any hotels you may book through my custom links.

3 thoughts on “What to Do in Solvang, California: Explore Little Denmark”

  1. Nancy, do you know if some of the ranches will offer open houses and tours like they did last year…I think it was in August. Thanks!

  2. @ Nancy
    I’m located in San Francisco, so I’m not sure about this year’s open houses. If you click on the link for the Solvang Visitors Bureau that is listed at the bottom on the post, I’m sure they will be able to help you with your questions. http://www.solvangusa.com

  3. Pingback: 50 States / 5 cities – Great Places to Vacation in California | Trip Logic

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