I recently went to Solvang, a small California town known as the "Danish Capital of America."
With traditional architecture and replicas of monuments in Denmark, I felt transported to Europe.
Right now, Solvang is full of holiday spirit and feels like one big European Christmas market.
I recently spent a weekend in Solvang, a small California town nicknamed "Little Denmark."
Founded in 1911 by three Danish immigrants, Solvang was christened with the Danish word for "sunny field" (very appropriate for the Golden State) and attracted Danish settlers from both the US and abroad, according to Elverhøj, the town's history museum.
Now known as the "Danish Capital of America," Solvang's cuisine and architecture have turned it into a popular tourist destination.
Since I haven't been able to visit Europe amid the pandemic, and am desperate to cross the Atlantic, Solvang seemed like a good stand-in for a close-to-home trip that feels worlds away.
Solvang is located in California's Santa Ynez Valley, about 30 miles north of Santa Barbara.
Solvang's location makes it an easy day trip or weekend getaway for Southern Californians. It even has been featured on both "Keeping up With the Kardashians" and "Vanderpump Rules."
You could also combine it with a trip to Santa Barbara's beaches or nearby Montecito, where Meghan Markle and Prince Harry live.
Solvang is also considered one of the best Christmas towns in the US.
The fact that the temperature in December rarely dips below 70 degrees hasn't stopped Solvang from earning spots on lists like "The Most Magical Christmas Towns and Villages Across the World," "The 10 Best Christmas Towns in America," and "Best Christmas Towns To Put On Your Holiday Bucket List."
With the holidays just around the corner, I planned a weekend in Solvang to see if it was the perfect combination of Denmark and a Hallmark Channel Christmas classic.
One of the first things I spotted as I began walking around Solvang was one of its famous windmills.
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 pays tribute to that history with its own windmills. You'll find four within four blocks of each other, and they make for popular photo opportunities for tourists.
There are gift shops under some of them, while another makes a picturesque backdrop for the town's brewery.
But I loved the windmills most when the sun went down and their lights began to sparkle.
Solvang is all about embracing "hygge," which is not so much a Danish word as it is a national mood. Hygge is all about embracing coziness and warmth, like a cup of hot chocolate with your family, or cuddling on the couch while watching "The Holiday."
Walking around Solvang at night and seeing its windmills light up the little town, I couldn't help but think of that word and feel its spirit — even in my sundress and flip flops.
But there's more than windmills. Danish architecture is embraced by the entire town.
The charming inns and small boutique hotels are named after the likes of Hamlet and King Frederick, or Danish towns like Atterdag and Copenhagen.
And everything from the restaurants and shops to the public restrooms and bus stops have Denmark's distinct bindingsvaerk architecture, making you feel like you're in a different era. Or at least, well outside of the United States.
You likely won't see a chain restaurant, though I did spot a Subway and Domino's with very subtle signage.
My parents, who came along on my trip after Thanksgiving, said the town reminded them of Disneyland — but without the rides.
I also saw replicas of popular landmarks in Denmark sprinkled across Solvang.
We made it our mission to find all the imitations of famous landmarks in Denmark that were recreated in Solvang. This included the "Little Mermaid" statue that pays tribute to Danish author Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale of the same name, as well as the Rundetaarn, a re-creation of the 17th-century tower that still stands in Copenhagen.
A horse-drawn trolley, done in the style of a 1915 Danish streetcar, also gave tours of the town. And a number of buildings featured wooden storks — a symbol of happiness — on their rooftops, just like in Denmark.
One of the best parts about Solvang was the chance to sample traditional Danish cuisine.
I have yet to visit Denmark, so I loved spending the weekend trying many Danish things, especially the food.
After reading a number of travel blogs, I decided to have lunch at Solvang Restaurant, where my family tried the ham and Tilsit cheese sandwich, Danish-style meatballs, and a sausage platter.
For dinner, we went to Bit O'Denmark, which also came highly reviewed, and ate the Flaeskesteg (roast pork stuffed with prunes) and Frikadeller (pan-fried Danish pork meatballs) — two words I'd never heard of before this trip — along with the Wienerschnitzel.
Our plates often came packed with red cabbage and potatoes and were always loaded with gravy. The food at Bit O'Denmark was especially delicious, with each dish packed with tons of flavor. The mashed potatoes were stellar, and the gravy was so good I want it at every Thanksgiving dinner.
The pastries were the best things I tasted in Solvang.
There are five authentic Danish bakeries within five blocks of each other, making it extremely easy (and tempting) to indulge in the many incredible pastries on offer.
My family and I tried Olsen's Danish Village Bakery, one of the most famous bakeries in town, and were wowed by every pastry we ordered.
The Kringle Slice was so perfectly flaky, it instantly melted on my tongue. The Apple Danish was lush and fresh, while the Princess Mocha had a crunchy and sweet stroopwafel base, with a deliciously light mocha cream stuffed inside.
Other Danish specialties in Solvang include aebleskivers, ring cake, butter cookies, and loaves of cardamom bread.
Aebleskivers are small and fluffy Danish desserts often topped with raspberry jam and powdered sugar. They're a lot like doughnut holes, but better.
Solvang Restaurant is well-known for its version of aebleskivers, and there's almost always a line of people waiting to grab some from its to-go window. Believe me, the wait is worth it.
There's even a bakery with gingerbread houses so famous, the Kardashians are customers.
According to the bakery's website, members of the Kardashian clan are regulars, and Kylie, Kim, Khloe, Kourteney, and Kris have all posted their gingerbread houses on social media.
Solvang Bakery sells customized gingerbread houses, along with those you can decorate yourself.
You can also buy individual gingerbread men (I tried one and it was delicious), or classic bakery items like bread, traditional Danishes in a variety of flavors, and ring cake.
What surprised me most about Solvang were all the shops. The entire town feels like one big European Christmas market.
The only thing there might be more of in Solvang than pastries are the hundreds of stockings, ornaments, and Nutcrackers you can find for sale throughout the year.
It seemed like every other window I walked by had a display of smiling Santas, delicately hand-carved Nativity scenes, and plenty of Christmas trees.
And, without fail, every shop was blasting either the "Frozen" soundtrack or Christmas carols.
But the crown jewel is Jule Hus, where you can buy Christmas decorations any day of the year.
Walking into Jule Hus — which has been open for 54 years and celebrates Christmas every day — felt magical with its 15 Christmas trees (yes, I counted), sparkling lights, and tinsel galore. And the store was full of people happily debating which ornaments to buy for themselves or their loved ones.
"We're always in the spirit here," I heard one of the store's employees tell a customer.
Solvang loves Christmas so much, it hosts an entire month of Danish-themed holiday events.
Santa's Village is held in the town's main park every Saturday in December, and there are holiday food tours every weekend.
There were already Christmas trees sprinkled throughout Solvang when I walked around, and every night the town sparkled with fairy lights strung through the trees and across storefronts.
All through December, the town hides an adorable little nisse (the Danish word for gnome) and encourages tourists and locals to try and find him.
The "Nisse Adventure" is part of Julefest and is another feature of Solvang that gives the town some of that European Christmas magic (and lets you win special prizes).
Even at 30 years old, I couldn't help but yelp with excitement when I spotted the nisse relaxing on this tree in the backyard of the Elverhøj museum.
I wouldn't be surprised if there's a bit of holiday magic all year, because Solvang fully embraces its fairy-tale spirit.
I loved how much Solvang felt inspired by Hans Christian Andersen. Just look at this entrance to the park bearing his name.
There are also references to his fairy-tales throughout town, from the "Little Mermaid" statue to beautiful murals of "The Princess and the Pea" and "Thumbelina" painted on the walls of Solvang Restaurant.
After a long day of sightseeing, it was time to relax at my hotel — which was just as charming as the town.
I spent a night at Mirabelle Inn, which was mentioned in numerous travel blogs I read about Solvang.
Insider paid $225 for my room on Sunday, but prices can go as high as $300-$400 if you're booking for Friday or Saturday nights.
The boutique hotel — which has only 12 guest rooms — felt like an intimate bed and breakfast.
When I walked into the lobby decorated with a stunning chandelier and antique grandfather clock, the only indication that it was still 2021 was the Mac on the front desk.
Filled with beautiful wallpaper and unique touches, it was easily one of the most charming hotel rooms I've ever booked.
One of my regular complaints about most hotel rooms these days is that they often feel soulless — little decoration, even less personality. But that's not the case at Mirabelle.
According to the website, each room is decorated with a distinctive decor and ambiance. Mine had gorgeous blue-and-white printed wallpaper that made the room feel light despite being on the first floor, as well as an antique dresser and mirror.
Soon it was time to say goodbye to "Little Denmark" — but not before having a very big Danish pancake.
Paula's Pancake House seemed to be the most popular restaurant in Solvang, as there was always a huge group of people waiting to try the restaurant's famous Danish pancakes.
As an enormous pancake was set before me in the old-school diner-style restaurant, I could see that it wasn't all hype. My pancakes — topped with fresh strawberries and even fresher whipped cream — were thin and crispy, yet still somehow fluffy and flaky. Each bite immediately transported me back to a breakfast I'd had more than 10 years ago in Amsterdam.
After a weekend full of delicious food, good shopping, Christmas spirit, and plenty of photo opportunities, my magical time at Solvang came to an end.
The back of my passport may sadly still be blank after these last two years, but I loved getting a little taste of Europe at the "Danish Capital of America."
There was so much about Solvang that reminded me of trips to Europe, and I have no doubt it's one of the most Christmas-loving places you'll find in the US.
The affordable shops and free holiday activities are perfect for families, while the delicious food and 15 different wine tasting rooms could definitely keep you occupied on a weekend away with friends.
Plus, who doesn't love a bit of Christmas magic?
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