Solvang was founded in 1911 on almost 9,000 acres (3,600 hactar) of the Rancho San Carlos de Jonata Mexican land grant, by a group of Danes who traveled west to establish a Danish community far from the midwestern winters. The city is home to a number of bakeries, restaurants, and merchants offering a taste of Denmark in California. The architecture of many of the façades and buildings reflects traditional Danish style. There is a copy of the famous Little Mermaid statue from Copenhagen, as well as one featuring the bust of famed Danish fable writer Hans Christian Andersen. A replica of Copenhagen’s Round Tower or Rundetårn in the scale 1:3 was finished in 1991 and can be seen in the town center.
Between 1850 and 1930, a considerable number of Danes left Denmark, which was suffering from poor economic prospects. According to some estimates, as many as one in ten Danes immigrated during this period, mostly to the United States. The most popular destinations for Danish settlers were Utah, Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota. In many of the new communities, churches and schools were set up in accordance with the ideas of Grundtvig, an influential Danish philosopher, hymn-writer and Lutheran pastor. In particular, the so-called folk schools introduced a new approach to education based on a spirit of freedom, poetry and disciplined creativity.
The Santa Ynez Valley, in which Solvang lies, was originally inhabited by the Chumash, identified by Father Pedro Font, chaplain of the 1776 Anza Expedition, as an ingenious and industrious people.
After the Mexican War of Independence, the Mexican Assembly passed the Secularization Laws which confiscated Mission lands, along with other property, and transferred them to the control of local ranchers, with Solvang being later founded on what became known as the Rancho San Carlos de Jonata. With secularization, Mission Santa Inés began to decline and the Chumash Indian population in the area along with it. For a time, the mission was a seminary but soon began to deteriorate. However, it was repaired by the Donahue family in 1884 and renovated by Fr. Alexander Buckler in 1904.
Solvang sights include the Danish windmills, the statues of Hans Christian Andersen and The Little Mermaid replica, the half-timbered houses, the Danish rural church, the Round Tower as well as Danish music and folk dancing. Several restaurants and pastry shops serve Danish specialties. A replica of a 19th century Danish streetcar, the horse-drawn Hønen, takes visitors on sightseeing tours around downtown Solvang. Partly as a result of the 2004 film Sideways, which was set in the surrounding Santa Ynez Valley, the number of wine related businesses in Solvang has increased, attracting oenophiles to the downtown area.
Since 1936, Solvang has celebrated Danish folk traditions at its annual “Danish Days” event, usually held during the third weekend in September. Led by a “Danish Maid,” the program consists of æbleskiver eating competitions, music, dancing, and processions through the downtown area with floats, marching groups, marching bands, folk dancers and singers. A Danish Days breakfast on Sunday morning features medisterpølser, a spiced pork sausage recipe of Danish origins, and æbleskiver.
One of Solvang’s attractions is the 700 seat open air Festival Theater, which was built in 1974 following the success of a makeshift performance of Hamlet in 1971 in the town park. Strong support from the local business community, Donovan Marley, and Earl Petersen, allowed the structure to be completed in record time. Recent productions have included West Side Story and Les Misérables. The style of the exterior is reminiscent of both Danish and Elizabethan architecture.
There is so much to see in Solvang, but the biggest attraction in my view would have to be the pastries. A visitor to Solvang cannot skip the amazing assortment of pastries.