The Santa Ynez Valley, just north of Santa Barbara, is a wonderful weekend destination from Southern California. It is an area filled with farms and vineyards, a couple of beaches, a rugged coast, the occasional rocket launch, some windmills, old Spanish missions, aebleskiver, ostriches, and lots and lots of wine.
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For many, it was the Academy Award-winning 2004 movie Sideways that put the Santa Ynez Valley of California on their map as a wine-growing region and tourism destination, but this area has been attracting tourists for many years. I have been coming to the Santa Ynez Valley since the 1960s because of its signature destination Solvang the self-styled “Danish Capital of America”. With a name like Christensen, it might not surprise you to find that I had numerous relatives in town.
There are 5 different towns in the Santa Ynez Valley area which are quite different from one another and provide a good framework to talk about some of the region’s attractions. The towns are from west to east: Lompoc, Buellton, Solvang, Los Olivos, and Santa Ynez.
What can you say about Solvang, California? It is a town that is made to look like a little bit of Europe inserted into the Santa Ynez Valley. It has a few different windmills, but none of them are real. It has half-timbered houses, restaurants, and colorful shops. It is touristy. To some, it will seem quaint and it others it will seem kitschy. I have a soft spot for the town because I have had the chance to see behind the facade and meet some of the residents over the years. There really are a lot of Andersens, Mortensens, and Christensens in this town. It may be touristy but its Danish roots are real.
While so many Danes and other Scandinavians settled in the Midwest because it reminded them so much of home, at least one group of Danes remembered that one of the reasons that they left home in the first place was the tough winters. In 1911 a group of Danes moved west and bought nearly 9,000 acres of the Rancho San Carlos de Jonata, one of the original Spanish land grants, to create the town.
You can still see some of that Danish history if you visit Bethania Evangelical Lutheran Church which was built in 1928. It has hand-carved woodwork on the altar and pulpit and has a sailing ship hanging from the ceiling which was a Danish tradition. My home church was also originally a Danish Lutheran church and also has a ship hanging from the ceiling.
There is more to shop for in Solvang than “I love Solvang” or “Proud to be Danish” t-shirts. You can find Antique stores, Christmas shops like Jule Hus (Christmas house), at least one charming bookstore (Book Loft), candy shops, art galleries, and lots of gift and specialty shops. There are also way more wine-tasting rooms in Solvang than there were when I visited as a kid. But many of the stores like Rasmussen’s or Mortenson’s Bakery have been fixtures in Solvang for many years.
A nice change to the town from the Covid pandemic is that Copenhagen Drive has been closed to cars so that more outdoor dining could be set up. The town council is considering making the change permanent. I think they should as it is a great improvement.
Solvang is rich in bakeries where, as they say at Birkholm’s Bakery & Cafe, “Smells are Free”. The baked goods are terrific for everyone I have tried if not always particularly Danish.
One popular treat in Solvang is Danish pancake balls called aebleskiver. You can get them for around $4 for 3 served with syrup and powdered sugar. I don’t get them when I am in Solvang because I have an aebleskiver pan at home. We make them for special occasions.
Solvang Festival Theatre
Solvang has a wonderful 700-seat outdoor theatre, the Solvang Festival Theatre. In the summer (in non-COVID years) the theatre holds plays produced by the Pacific Conservatory Theatre. I spent a lovely cool summer evening watching A Midsummer Night’s Dream with friends and relatives at the theatre many years ago. The theatre also holds musical performances throughout the year.
Old Mission Santa Inés
Solvang has one of the 21 original California Missions, Old Mission Santa Inés which can be found on Mission Ave. Unlike nearby La Purisima Mission State Historic Park in Lompoc, this Mission is still an active Roman Catholic parish.
Solvang has a great number of restaurants because of the number of tourists it gets. On my most recent trip, I ate at the outdoor Copenhagen Sausage Garden, because I can never resist a good Brat.
Solvang has a couple of museums that may interest you. The Hans Christian Andersen Museum at the Book Loft Bookstore remembers the Danish children’s author who wrote The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling, The Princess and the Pea, and The Emperor’s New Clothes.
For something different visit the Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum which has an emphasis on racing motorcycles.
If you access the Santa Ynez Valley from Highway 101 you will drive through Buellton and for many people that will be their entire experience with this town. This area was also part of the original Spanish land grant but was purchased by the Buell brothers in 1865.
Pea Soup Andersens
Pea Soup Andersens restaurant advertises hundreds of miles away on Highway 101 which passes through town. There used to be more of these restaurants in California but now there are just two, including this original one. It has been in existence since 1924 when it was originally named Andersen’s Electric Cafe. Electricity had finally come to the valley in 1924 and Anton Andersen had a new-fangled electric stove. It was Juliette Andersen, Anton’s wife, who contributed her pea soup recipe that the restaurant would become known for. You can purchase her recipe and a bag of split peas in the gift shop if you want to make your own soup at home.
After WWII, their son Robert renamed the restaurant to its current name and introduced the characters of Hap-Pea and Pea-Wee. Ever since then, parents like mine encouraged their kids to finish their soup to see the picture of Hap-Pea and Pea-Wee at the bottom of the bowl.
For a more instagramable stop in Buellton visit the Ostrichland USA where you can feed one of the ostriches or emus. Ostrichland made a cameo appearance in the movie Sideways and the Simpsons. In the summer you may spot an ostrich chick or in late winter and early spring an emu chick. You may also spot an emo chick doing a selfie, but that’s another story.
Admission is $5 for adults and $2 for kids with a bowl of food for the ostriches for an additional $1.
Nojoqui Falls Park
If you are driving north on Highway 101 to reach the Santa Ynez Valley then a great stop just north of the Gaviota Tunnel is Nojoqui Falls Park. The name of this unpronounceable park comes from the native Chumash people and means “honeymoon place”. Despite its spelling, Nojequi is pronounced NAH-ho-wee.
You can take a short easy hiking trail a third of a mile from the parking lot to the 160-foot-tall Nojoqui Falls. In September, when we visited the falls are a mere trickle so the best time to see the falls is late spring. When we were there, the end of the trail to the falls was inconveniently closed but was not marked until you got there.
Just off Highway 101 on the way to Nojoqui Falls Park, you will pass by the lovely Folded Hills Winery Ranch Farmstead which would make a great stop for wine tasting.
Mendenhall’s Museum of Gasoline Pumps & Petroliana
For car lovers, Buellton has the rather eclectic Mendenhall’s Museum of Gasoline Pumps & Petroliana. You may not have known that the world had… or even needed… a museum of gas pumps.
Los Olivos may be my new favorite town in the Santa Ynez Valley. This small town has a main street, Grand Ave, that is all of 3 blocks long but the town is filled with wine-tasting rooms, lovely inns, and wine gardens.
One particular notable inn in Los Olivos is the Fess Parker Inn. Fess Parker was an actor who played Davy Crockett in the 1950s and Daniel Boone in the 1960s. When there were apparently no more characters to play wearing a coon-skin cap, he devoted the later years of his life to the 1,500 acres of the Fess Parker Winery in Los Olivos.
A number of the local wineries have positioned their wine tasting rooms in the town. Some are veteran operations like Fess Parker but others are quite new. My wife and I tried one of the newer wineries but I can’t recommend it. Suffice it to say that if the winery is featuring red wines from only 2 years ago, perhaps you should give it a few more years before sitting down and trying their wine.
Remember that long before it was known for Danish baking or winemaking, this area was a ranch and the ranching culture is still alive and well in the Santa Ynez Valley or at least in the hills around it. Santa Ynez is the town in the valley where you are most likely to see someone, un-ironically, wearing a cowboy hat or driving a pickup with a bale or two of hay in the back. Note the horseshoes in the crosswalk in front of the Outpost Trading Company.
Santa Ynez is, in non-COVID-19 years, the home for the Wine Country Rodeo.
It is this ranching tradition that has given the Santa Ynez Valley the style of BBQ that it is known for which is usually named for the next town north on Highway 101 as Santa Maria-style barbecue. The signature dish is beef tri-tip grilled over wood coals from live oak (or sometimes mesquite).
If you come into the Santa Ynez Valley from Santa Barbara the quickest route is over Highway 154, the Chumash Highway. Santa Ynez will be the first town you will come to with its 2 blocks long main street.
You will get some lovely views of the valley coming in on Highway 154 and will also pass the Chumash Reservoir which has campsites if you are so inclined. For beach camping, consider Jalama Beach County Park outside of Lompoc.
Lompoc is just past the western end of the Santa Ynez Valley, in the Lompoc Valley. If you want to add on a visit to the beach, another Spanish mission (dare I even say a more interesting one), 40+ downtown murals, a rocket launch, or fields of fresh flowers then you should consider adding Lompoc to your visit. See more about Lompoc at Things to do in Lompoc, California.
The Santa Ynez Valley area is small enough that you can really stay in any of these towns and see the area. Solvang and Los Olivos are going to have Inns or Motels with a bit more character but Buellton or Lompoc may get you a less expensive place to stay. As with the rest of California, prices go up on the weekends and in the summer.
With thanks to the folks at the Lompoc Red Roof Inn who sponsored (paid for) my accommodations on my most recent trip to the Santa Ynez Valley area.