California may be a strange spot to stumble upon a European village, but not far from the beaches of Santa Barbara is a place where the Europe of yesterday meets the America of today, under a Californian sun.
Located amid the golden meadows of the wine-growing area of Santa Ynez Valley, Solvang was founded by Danish settlers in the early 1900s and is now known as the unofficial “Danish capital of America”.
Meaning “sunny field” in Danish, Solvang is a glorious homage to Danish culture, complete with kitsch, Viking-themed restaurants and European folk art flourishes.
Strolling through Solvang is surreal. A collective, mish-mash of European travel tropes, the village has no shortage of windmills, pancake houses, Euro-style bakeries and clog-makers.
It’s quite clear that Solvang celebrates the Denmark of yesteryear, not the Denmark of today. The old-world architecture evokes a sense of being in a different time and place, while names like Hans Christian Andersen Park and the Hamlet Inn unashamedly salute the icons of Denmark.
The distinct “clip clop” of Clydesdale hooves heralds the arrival of a horse and carriage, which rolls through an intersection past a convertible.
If it weren’t for modern touches such as traffic lights and parking meters, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped straight into a fairytale.
With the Euro charm laid on rather thick, it would be easy to dismiss Solvang as nothing more than a hopelessly, tacky tourist town, but this is a living, breathing, working community and its people are genuine.
Solvang locals appear simultaneously proud of their heritage and keen to celebrate their Danish roots. This pride is especially obvious when visiting the many bakeries that line the oh-so-cute streets.
Of all the places to eat, the bakeries are a standout; this is not a destination for strict dieters, paleo warriors or calorie counters. Old-school bakery items such as pastries, strudels, eclairs and gingerbread houses sit alongside contemporary American favourites such as red velvet cupcakes and peanut butter cookies.
With names like Mortensen’s, Olsen’s and Birkholm’s, most of the bakeries are family businesses now run by third and fourth generation bakers, using the same recipes their ancestors brought over from Denmark. With a pedigree like this, the bakeries of Solvang are one of the best places to find authenticity (and some diabolically delicious pastries).
These days, most locals don’t speak Danish (and aren’t of Danish heritage) yet everyone in Solvang appears to be “in on the act”, probably because “the act” represents a sizable part of the local economy.
With a population hovering around 5300, the town folk of Solvang are constantly outnumbered by tourists (with more than a million visitors passing through annually).
While Santa Barbara has beaches and boutiques, and Los Angeles possesses some mighty big, bossy city energy, Solvang has its unique brand of “Danishness” to trade on, and it’s proved to be a nice little earner for the town.
Beyond the Scandinavian factor, Solvang also has all the flourishes that make small-town America so inviting. There are antique shops, wine tasting rooms, and farmer’s markets, yet it’s probably the weird-factor that makes Solvang a popular stop for road-trippers driving on Highway 101.
For travellers seeking the roots of America, Solvang is a fine example of classic Americana. For in the land of opportunity, what’s more American than a town founded by hardworking migrants, and kept alive by enterprising locals who celebrate the joy of eating calorific baked goods?
Solvang is California’s slice of Danish; sickly sweet but simply irresistible.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: Solvang is located in California and is a 40-minute drive from Santa Barbara or a 2.5-hour drive from Los Angeles. Qantas (qantas广西桑拿,广西桑拿网,) flies to Los Angeles daily with return airfares from Sydney International Airport starting at $1299.
Enterprise Rent-A-Car (enterprise广西桑拿,) offers car hire from Los Angeles International Airport from $12 per day on the weekends.
STAYING THERE: The regal-themed Hamlet Inn (thehamletinn广西桑拿,) channels modern Scandinavian design and offers complimentary bikes for guests to use during their stay. Rates for a queen room start at $101 per night.
PLAYING THERE: The Solvang Bakery (solvangbakery广西桑拿,) serves up sweet treats seven days a week. For more information head to visitcalifornia广西桑拿,广西桑拿网, and solvangusa广西桑拿,.
*The writer travelled at her own expense