There’s a must-stop charming town along Highway 101 that’s visually alluring as it is gastronomically delightful. Nestled in California’s rolling hills of the Santa Ynez Valley lies comfortably a provincial Danish village called Solvang (meaning ‘sunny field‘ in Danish). Dubbed as the “Danish capital of America” its rich history and heritage catches the attention of millions of visitors each year.
Upon arrival the thatched and gabled rooftops, half-timbered homes, and windmills set the tone for a cultural emersion experience into the Scandinavian way of life. Back in 1911, when Solvang was founded, the original intent of its pioneers was to provide Danish immigrants a lowkey hometown to call their own. Today Solvang’s Danish spirit is flourishing as one of the most popular small towns frequently explored in the US.
What’s there to do in Solvang?
There is plenty of activities in the small but mighty city (population pushing a little over 5,800). The economy thrives on its businesses and continuously focuses on further their development.
Which is evident by the many restaurants, cafes, and eateries to choose from. Getting a taste of Denmark is an adventure in itself. From their famous aebleskiver (a Danish pancake ball), a frikadeller (Danish meatball) to a plethora of Danish pastries and gelato. It will have you saying, “Tak for mad” (meaning ‘thanks for the food‘ in Danish) in no time.
The cuisine establishments are robust. They make space for local wineries (20 wine rooms) alongside the pubs that serve craft beer. Scattered amongst the region are 120 vineyards (not as many as Napa Valley with 300+, but still a worthy contender).
Devoted to Danish culture are the museums. Most noteworthy is the Elverhoj Museum of History and Art. Housed in a Danish 18-century style home, Danish tradition and history come to life within its walls.
Year round there are festivals and one of the most impressive is the Danish Heritage Festival. Held in September, this 3-day rager brings out Danish folk dances, musical performances, and other feature events like the Viking Encampment and the Aebleskiver Breakfasts.
If you miss Danish Days, there’s the winter festival that will get you into the Christmas spirit. Solvang has been recognized as one of the “Most Christmassy Towns in America.” In the beginning of December, a tree lighting ceremony set in the main park, signifies the start of Julefest a month-long seasonal celebration. The village is adorned with sparkling lights, festive decorations, carolers, and Mr. and Mrs. Claus comes to town (at Santa’s Workshop).
Parade floats and a marching band stroll through town and every restaurant and bakery make their seasonal treats. Marking the end of the celebration is the Big Burn. Many gather in the main park to witness the burn of the village’s Christmas tree.
Having a variety of things to do in town (the walkability score is 10/10). There’s plenty to do on the outskirts as well. Nearby you’ll find a farm to feed ostriches, another to pet miniature horses, an assortment of wineries, cycling, parks, hikes, and beaches.
What is the history of Solvang? The early years.
Meandering around Solvang one begins to wonder about Solvang’s origin story. How did a slice of the Danish way of life find itself in California?
It all starts with a dream, 3 Danish immigrants were looking to escape the brutal Mid-West winters and establish a new town with favorable weather to make their own. In 1910, Benedict Nordentoft, J. M. Gregersen, and P. P. Hornsyld created the Danish-American Colony Corporation in San Francisco. After formalizing their business, this 3 man wolf pack sought out land to set up their colony.
The following year in 1911, the three agreed to settle in the Santa Ynez Valley for its’ good source of water, climate, and fertile farmland. They purchased 9,000 acres to build a town for Danish immigrants.
Their business plan was to sell the plots of land and incorporate their Danish traditions in the town’s future infrastructures (basically – a start-up town). By the end of the first year, 40 settlers had established their new home in Solvang. And by 1911 standards, that is a successful feat (especially without modern technology).
With every new start-up come setbacks. After the first year, the founders struggled to gain more buyers and to pay back the bank. Refusing to sell to non-Danes, they turned to their originating Mid-west towns hoping to recruit newcomers. I imagine their starting off selling point was boasting about the gorgeous California weather.
To entice families and town growth, the founders started a private school named Ungdomsskolen. Interestingly, Nordentoft (not Professor P.P. Hornsyld), was the first principal. He was also ready to grow the school in students and size.
The school was open to both local students and Danish-Americans located in other parts of the country. The price for boarding students was $24 a month, while locals paid $8. The school pride itself on its curriculum. Much like the education back in Denmark, the school focused on lectures, and group discussions on morals and social issues rather than exams, diplomas, or grades.
In most schools drama is always to be found, but in Ungdomsskolen it wasn’t amongst the students, but rather its founders. Nordentoft’s vision to expand inclusively wasn’t shared with his partners. To gain full control, Nordentoft bought out his partners and (to his controlling nature) renamed the school in 1914 to Atterdage College.
Whilst under his reign, Nordentoft didn’t want to adjust his schools guidelines to the changing times. By the end of World War I the Danish immigrant population was drastically reducing, simultaneously the rise of the American lifestyle, and non-Danish immigrants were finding their way into Solvang. With a reduced Danish population and the English language growing more prominent in the town. Nordentoft wasn’t a fan. His dream was formulizing ….. gasp into an American dream. He sold the school to the church and returned to Denmark in 1921.
The school continued on by adjusting to its surrounding and in growth. And so did the church. At the time, much of the original settlers were from a Lutheran congregation and since there was no church. Church services were held in the school. But in 1928, the townsfolk built a new church, naming it Bethania Lutheran Church. This was the 1st establishment to reflect Danish Gothic-styled architecture. Following suite in the 1930’s a few of the residents designed their homes in the Danish medieval style.
The early pioneers opened a bank, post office, car garage, and library. Other businesses that followed were a bakery, and a man cave – if you will. Set in the back of the Solvang Confectionary Store was a pool hall that offered shaves, a bath, and as a local newspaper described the “largest drinks, the best cigars’’ were offered.
Despite the founder’s original intent to keep Solvang a Danish population, by the end of the 1920s Solvang’s immigration population was more ethnically diverse and by 1950 the town’s Dane population dropped to half.
A star is born
Solvang was put in the spotlight when an article written by Dean Jennings on Jan 18, 1947, titled “Little Denmark” was published in the Saturday Evening Post (a widely circulated publication in 1929 -1960 among middle-class Americans).
The article triggered the public’s curiosity with statements such as, “The rullepølse and risengrød were never finer in Copenhagen than they are in Solvang, a spotless Danish village that blooms like a rose in California’s charming Santa Ynez Valley.” He also described Solvang as, “the obscure little town of Solvang is a very special place where old-country charm and customs have been successfully fused with the American way of life.”
With the rise of automobiles sales and Jennings article. This was enough to catch the attention from many to take a Sunday drive to Solvang (show off their vehicle) and be schooled in all things Danish.
The rush of unexpected tourism and the towns new found revenue was the energy that Solvang was ready to respond to.
Build it and they will come
And respond they did. There was no time to waste or revel in this new found fame. Acting like a new celebrity who wants to look their best, Solvang immediately got a facelift. Up for the design architectural challenge were two men, Earl Petersen – a Danish-American. Who happened to be the same architect who helped create the Bavarian Village of Leavenworth in Washington State.
The other was Delbert Jepsen another Danish-American who at the time, was a well-known Hollywood film set carpenter.
Both having traveled to Europe for research and design inspiration. Together, these two created Solvang’s fresh new look.
Is Solvang a Disney touristy knockoff?
Many are quick to remark that Solvang is a Disney theme park without the rides and entrance fee. Sure, the immediate on-the-surface replicas smack you in the face but Solvang’s community, town pride, and energy is very effervescent, healthy, friendly and palpable throughout its streets.
Solvang is a magical and cultural experience, and knowing its origin story makes it even more special. It’s a place that encourages you to devour and enjoy Danish cuisine, and if you feel like it – go dancing in the streets during their many parades and festivals.
My two cents:
Solvang creates people to engage (for long periods of time) with what’s around them, rather than staring at their phones.
And because of this, Solvang is a must-do experience.