How Solvang, the Danish Capital of America Compares to Denmark
The influence of Denmark can be seen throughout the town, from its architecture and food to the shops and statues.
I explored the dozens of adorable shops that make Solvang feel like one big Christmas market and ate my weight in plates of authentic Danish pastries, potatoes, and pancakes.
But I wondered, how did one of the best knockoff European towns in the world spring up in the middle of California wine country, of all places, and how did it compare to the original?
I walked all over Solvang to find out and discovered that the town is filled with special touches that pay homage to Denmark.
Solvang was founded in 1911 by three Danish immigrants.
Reverend Benedict Nordentoft, Reverend J.M. Gregersen, and Professor P.P. Hornsyld purchased 9,000 acres of land in the Santa Ynez Valley — 30 miles north of Santa Barbara — and christened it Solvang, the Danish word for “sunny field.”
According to California.com, the three educators specifically chose the location because they wanted to create a Danish community “far from the Midwestern winters.”
I spotted statues of the three men that now proudly stand in front of The Copenhagen House in Solvang, where you’ll also find a number of high-end shops, as well as a small museum modeled after the famous Copenhagen Amber Museum.
The Bethania Lutheran Church, built in 1928, was the first building in Solvang that was modeled after traditional Danish architecture.
The beautiful church, seen above, remains open for services and tours today.
I learned that the church’s structure was actually inspired by the famous Grundtvig’s Church in Copenhagen.
Grundtvig’s Church was designed shortly after World War I by Peder Vilhelm Jensen-Klint in honor of the famous Danish bishop and poet Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig, according to Ignant.com.
The expressionist design was inspired by the small medieval churches of rural Denmark, as well as Gothic architecture.
Wanting to preserve their native culture, the founders also built a Danish school, which is now the Bit O’Denmark restaurant.
A helpful placard I read at the front of the restaurant revealed that it was built in 1911 and was one of the first buildings to go up in Solvang.
It served as a college for three years before being turned into a restaurant in 1929. The building was then remodeled in 1963 and has been known as Bit O’Denmark ever since.
A 1947 newspaper article turned Solvang into a Danish destination.
That year, an article by Dean Jennings with the headline “Little Denmark” ran in the Saturday Evening Post and changed everything for the small California town, according to the Santa Ynez Valley News.
Jennings called Solvang a “spotless Danish village that blooms like a rose in California’s charming Santa Ynez Valley,” writing that it was a “very special place where old-country charm and customs have been successfully fused with the American way of life.”
The new popularity prompted a total remodel of the town.
Before Jennings’ story on Solvang, the “Danish culture of the town had been expressed inwardly, but it hadn’t been expressed outwardly,” Esther Jacobsen Bates — executive director of Solvang’s Elverhoj Museum — told the Santa Ynez Valley News in 2017. “People were looking to see the Danish culture on display.”
As tourists began to trickle in, the town’s leaders decided that Solvang should look as Danish as its origins. Now, everything from the restaurants and shops to the public restrooms and bus stops have Denmark’s distinct bindingsvaerk architecture, while the charming inns and small boutique hotels are named after the likes of Hamlet and King Frederick, or Danish towns like Atterdag and Copenhagen. You likely won’t see a chain restaurant, unless you manage to spot the Subway and Domino’s with very subtle signage.
It all makes you feel like you’re in a different era — or at least well outside of the United States. My parents, who came along on the trip, said it reminded them of Disneyland without the rides.
Windmills also began popping up around the town, where they still stand today.
Denmark has long been a leading force in wind power and renewable energy, and at one point there were thousands of windmills scattered across the country.
Solvang’s first Danish-style windmill went up in the 1940s. You’ll now find four within four blocks of each other, and they make for popular photo opportunities for tourists.
There are gift shops under some, while another makes a picturesque backdrop for the town’s brewery.
There are also replicas of popular Denmark landmarks scattered around Solvang, including the Little Mermaid statue.
The original Little Mermaid statue — which sits at Langelinie Pier in Copenhagen — was gifted by Carl Jacobsen in 1913. The Danish brewer became captivated by the Hans Christian Andersen fairy-tale after seeing the ballet version at the Royal Danish Theatre, according to Visit Copenhagen.
A much-smaller version can be found in Solvang today, with the original statue’s seaside location mimicked with a fountain instead.
You’ll also find a copy of the Rundetaarn, one of Copenhagen’s most iconic buildings.
The Rundetaarn was built in Denmark in the early 17th century to continue the research of Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe after his death. It remains open to visitors today and is the oldest functioning observatory in Europe, according to Visit Copenhagen.
The Round Tower of Solvang is one-third the size of the Rundetaarn, and it doesn’t have an observatory. But you can grab a pizza from it if you’re feeling hungry.
There’s even a building inspired by The Old Stock Exchange, an important part of Copenhagen’s skyline.
The Old Stock Exchange was built on the order of King Christian IV in 1625 and remains one of the oldest buildings in Denmark’s capital. Legend has it that the spire — designed as four dragon tails entwined together — has protected the building from attacks and fires, according to Visit Copenhagen.
You’ll see a replica of the spire on Solvang’s King Christian Tower. A plaque in front of the building reveals that it was the last work designed and hand-crafted by Ferdinand Sorenson — known as the father of Solvang’s Danish architecture — before he died in 1987.
Perched on a number of Solvang’s buildings are life-sized replicas of the European White Stork, which are symbols of good luck in Denmark.
It was once a common sight to see European White Storks on the tops of Danish homes, with locals even building nests in hopes of attracting the birds.
“When you see the stork, you know that summer has arrived,” Bent Olsen, of Olsen’s Bakery, told Inside The Santa Ynez Valley Magazine. “People come from everywhere to see them.”
The European White Stork was declared extinct in Denmark in 2008, but their legacy lives on in Solvang thanks to Sorensen — the same man who designed King Christian Tower. Sorensen added a stork to the top of the town’s first Danish-style commercial building in 1948 and started a trend, according to the magazine.
In Solvang’s main park, you’ll find a replica of Copenhagen’s Hans Christian Andersen statue.
There are tributes to one of Denmark’s most famous authors throughout the California town. You’ll find a small museum dedicated to Andersen next to The Book Loft, which is an adorable book store in Solvang with one of the largest collections of Scandinavian literature in the country. Here, you can even see rare first editions of his work.
I continued to immerse myself in Danish culture at the Elverhøj Museum of History and Art.
The Elverhøj Museum of History and Art is dedicated to “documenting the history of Solvang, celebrating Danish culture, and the Danish-American immigrant experience, and promoting fine art and artists,” according to its website.
The entire museum is located in a home that was hand-built by an artistic couple in 1950.
Viggo Brandt-Erichsen and Martha Mott’s design was inspired by the 18th-century farmhouses seen in northern Denmark, according to the museum’s website.
Elverhøj, which means “elves’ hill,” opened in 1988 and was named after the first Danish national play. Its meaning is represented by a carving of the mythical creature on the front door, done by Brandt-Erichsen. Adding to the distinct fairy-tale aspect of Solvang, it’s my favorite feature of the museum.
But my favorite part of Solvang was getting to try so many authentic Danish dishes. Prior to my trip, I’d never heard of many of them.
From thin pancakes as big as my face to heaping plates filled with mashed potatoes and red cabbage, I learned so much about Danish cuisine during my weekend in Solvang. One of my favorites was flaeskesteg, a roast pork dish that you’ll likely find on every lunch and dinner menu in Denmark.
I tried the dish at Bit O’Denmark and loved the juicy pork paired with applesauce. The restaurant also served delicious meatballs and wienerschnitzel, and is a must-visit while in town.
And every pastry I tried was incredible.
There are five authentic Danish bakeries within five blocks of each other in Solvang, making it easy to try many incredible pastries.
I had an authentic Danish at Olsen’s Danish Village Bakery, along with a Kringle slice and a stroopwafel known as The Princess Mocha.
I was also a fan of aebleskiver, a small and fluffy Danish dessert topped with raspberry jam and powdered sugar that you can find at Solvang Restaurant.
Solvang is definitely worth a visit, especially if you’re missing Europe.
While it’s been featured on everything from episodes of “New Girl” to “Keeping up With the Kardashians,” Solvang still feels like a hidden gem in California.
The small town has so much to offer, from its beautiful tributes to Denmark’s history to its mouthwatering Danish cuisine. I learned so much during my trip, and feel as if I spent the weekend in Europe, without ever boarding a flight.
I’ll definitely be going back again.