Fifty miles up the 101 freeway from coastal Santa Barbara you’ll find yourself surrounded by ranches, vineyards and equestrian facilities, rolling hills dotted with majestic oak trees. The Santa Ynez Valley has a rich history that spans from the Chumash Indians and early ranchers to the burgeoning wine and tourism industries. Five small towns with distinct personalities make up the Valley and the area continues to grow and change as more people discover its charms. I lived in the Santa Ynez Valley for nearly twenty years, and it still feels weird going back to visit because in many ways, it will always be home.

Today, let’s take a quick peek at the most touristy town in the Valley: Solvang.

Established in 1911, Solvang is known as the Danish Capital of America. While a lot of tourist buses bring people in for an afternoon visit, there’s more than enough in this little town to keep you busy for longer. Here’s a sampling:

Wine and beer tasting

Santa Barbara County has been a wine country destination for decades. As the area becomes more well known, the number of wineries increases, too. There are more than 15 tasting rooms right in downtown Solvang. The SolvangUSA website has a list of places in the village. Check the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association for a guide map to all the member wineries in Santa Barbara County.

If craft beer is more your thing, there are five places to visit where you can sample beers from near and far: Solvang Beer Company, The Good Life, The Back Room, Wandering Dog and Sante Wine Bar and Lounge. (Also nearby: Figueroa Mountain Brewing in Los Olivos and Firestone Walker Brewing in Buellton.)

Bakeries and Chocolate

Wine and beer aren’t the only things to taste. Long before the vintners showed up, Solvang was known for its Danish-style bakeries. Many are run by families with deep roots in the community and a commitment to using recipes that have been handed down over generations. Of the five main bakeries in town, my personal favorite is Solvang Bakery. Their incredible customized gingerbread houses have been discovered by Oprah and Kelly Ripa, but locals come here, too. My kids still miss going to the gingerbread workshops in December where they got to decorate their own edible masterpiece. The rest of the year, it’s a go-to place for bread, cookies, gift items, or sipping coffee on the sidewalk and watching people explore the village.

Ingebørg’s Chocolate is another personal favorite. Started in 1961 by two sisters from Copenhagen, they’ve rightfully earned their reputation for handmade deliciousness. They’ve got marzipan, ice cream, organic chocolates and more. I dare you to go in and not leave with something yummy!

Arts and Entertainment

If you want to learn more about the history of the Valley, the Elverhøj Museum is a must. They also feature local artists in their gallery and offer creative classes throughout the year. Mission Santa Inés also has a lot of historical information on the Valley.

Solvang’s Festival Theater is the place to go for summer plays and concerts. The outdoor amphitheater seats about 700 people and and can sell out quickly when big name acts like Clint Black or Melissa Etheridge come to town. Despite Solvang’s warm daytime temperatures, it can get chilly in there at night so be sure to bring a blanket.

Indie book store The Book Loft

My absolute favorite place in Solvang is The Book Loft. This proudly independent book store has been around since 1970. They have a fantastic selection, especially considering their limited space, and the friendly people behind the counter know their customers almost as well as they know the literary market. If the book you want isn’t in stock, they can have it for you in a few days, and they have a good selection of local authors as well. Upstairs you’ll find antiquarian books and the Hans Christian Andersen Museum, and next door is the Solvang Coffee Company, the perfect place to settle in and read your new book 🙂

There’s so much more to explore in Solvang: art galleries, European food and gifts, a weekly farmer’s market, horseback riding, fishing and archery out at the Alisal. Biking is huge. The Amgen time trials used to take place here and Dr. J’s bike shop is a great place to buy or rent a bike (or get your flat fixed if your wheelchair gets a leak!). Solvang is a great place to bring the family. There are three great parks, two with big playgrounds, and one with a skate park. There’s also frozen yogurt, ice cream shops, candy galore and toy shops that will appeal to the kids. The SolvangUSA website has plenty of information on more things to do, places to stay and discount offers from different businesses.

Solvang gets a 5 out of 5 for accessibility. The streets all have curb cuts, most buildings are single story or have an elevator, and the main part of the village is flat. If you’re used to spending time in big cities, you’ll be happy to hear that parking is free and plentiful in Solvang, though it does get crowded on weekends and during special events like Danish Days or Taste of Solvang.

Fun fact: If Solvang reminds you a bit of Leavenworth, Washington, there’s a good reason for that: Leavenworth got a Bavarian facelift in the 1960s, inspired after a visit to Solvang 🙂

Pinterest link for things to do in Solvang, CA

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