California is home to many diverse communities and cultural districts, but few are as memorable and romantic as the Danish Capital of America. Welcome to Solvang, where the comforts are American but the experience is like traveling to rural Scandanavia without a passport. There are plenty of fun and engaging things to do in Solvang: Sample tasty Danish cuisine, feed some of the biggest birds in the world and taste a selection of award-winning wines, all while enjoying the California sunshine.
Recognized for its authentic culture and cozy vibe, Solvang is often labeled one of the best historic small towns in the U.S.A. One reason for this distinction is the charming Old Mission Santa Inés, one of the original 21 missions established by Spanish priests starting in 1769. The mission remains among the oldest surviving structures in the state, and the adobe construction and delicate artwork require constant maintenance. Museum admission and gift shop sales help with the cost, so consider paying the modest fee for a self-guided or docent-led tour.
Bordered with the half-timbered facades of Danish Provincial-style buildings, the sidewalks of this quiet city are the best place from which to appreciate the charming architecture. Solvang is walkable and picturesque, so be sure to visit the city's website for suggested walking tour itineraries, or download the Solvang Heritage Walk Audio Tour App. This self-guided journey starts anywhere in the city, allowing you to navigate the 1.9-mile route at your own pace. See family-owned businesses with long histories, visit the statues honoring Danish writer, Hans Christian Anderson, or snap a selfie with the four windmills in town.
One of the most unexpected attractions in Solvang lies tucked against the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains. Ostrich Land U.S.A. is a wildlife refuge and home to ostriches and emus, the largest species of birds in the world. For a small admission fee, you can observe these impressive creatures in their sprawling enlosure and take some awesome landscape photos. A little more cash will buy you some bird feed and the opportunity to see these feisty birds up-close. Stop by the gift shop on your way out for a quirky souvenir or some fresh ostrich and emu eggs.
Some of the best wines made in Santa Barbara County are at your fingertips in Solvang. With more than 100 vineyards and over 20 tasting rooms offering wine flights and tours, you may want to book a room and sample a few more blends. Take the local, self-guided walking tour year-round, or secure a spot on a shuttle or horseback tour to visit surrounding vineyards. Each tasting room is unique, pairing wines with such foods as bread and Spanish olives. Stop at a local deli for some sandwiches and a bottle of wine and enjoy a picnic lunch among the grapevines.
If wine isn't your thing, there are plenty more flavors to appreciate in this small Danish community. Anyone with a sweet tooth will find themselves making the tough decision of how many bakeries to visit. Many of the downtown bakeries are long-standing Solvang institutions, and they've perfected the art of Danish desserts. Visit Mortensen's, Danish Mill and Olsen's Bakeries for authentic recipes imported from Denmark. Try some warm æbleskivers with powdered sugar and raspberry jam at the Æbleskiver Café, or pick up some handmade Danish chocolates at Ingeborg's.
Solvang is a playground for adults, but the city also boasts two enchanting parks to delight both youngsters and grown-ups alike. Hans Christian Anderson Park is a vast green space where the kids can run wild. The playground's highlights include a skate park, rock-climbing wall, and musical instruments. Sunny Fields Park is a playground like no other. A colorful, castle-like structure dominates the play space with its maze of tunnels, walkways, and slides. You may feel tempted to play along with the kids. The Danish-inspired architecture also makes Sunny Fields the perfect place for a whimsical Instagram photoshoot.
The Oscar award-winning film Sideways is synonymous with Santa Ynez Valley. Filmed almost entirely on location in and around Solvang, some of the movie's most memorable scenes are within walking distance of downtown. Visit the tasting rooms that characters Miles and Jack hit along Highway 246, then enjoy a juicy steak at The Hitching Post 2. The restaurant, which makes several cameos in the film, overlooks Ostrichland U.S.A., where Jack famously has a midnight encounter with the aggressive birds. Before leaving the area, drive North through Los Olivos to view some of Sideways' most stunning, pastoral landscapes.
Located less than 20 minutes from Solvang, the Nojoqui (pronounced na-hoo-ee) Falls Hike is a low-impact trail through a forest of laurel and oak trees. After crossing a wooden bridge and climbing stone steps, the path leads through a shaded canyon before ending at the 80-foot high waterfall. The hike is shorter than one mile round trip. Take a picnic lunch and your four-legged friends for an afternoon, and pack your camera to photograph the striking, fern-lined rock face. The best times to see the falls at their most active are the late winter or early spring after the snow melts.
Time Magazine named Solvang one of the Most Christmassy Towns in America, a fact that the locals do not take lightly. Every year, this quaint community hosts Julefest, a month-long holiday celebration that rings in the new year Danish Style. Join the city-wide hunt for Nisse, or gnomes, hidden throughout downtown, and take the kids to Santa's Village for a free photo session. Meet with locals and tourists for a free guided candlelight tour, or arrive at the start of December to attend the tree lighting ceremony and Julefest Parade. Visit the Julefest website for more information.
No vacation would be complete without a few keepsakes to remember your experience. Whether you prefer to wear, display, eat or drink your souvenirs, Solvang's array of boutique shops are sure to suit your needs. Stop in at Hanson's Clock Shop and browse the selection of cuckoo clocks, or visit the Solvang Shoe Store for a pair of authentic wooden clogs. Take a photo with the giant red clog in front of the store, then head to the cheese shop or deli for some artisanal cheeses and charcuterie. Don't forget to snag a few bottles of wine to celebrate special occasions at home.