Pros: Cute, distinctly foreign look, some unique shops and sights
Cons: Cute, distinctly fake look, some expensive shops and sights
"Founded in 1911 as a Danish-American colony, Solvang has developed into one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country. And contrary to Disneyland and Sea World, Solvang is not an amusement park. Though it's aimed at tourists, there's a genuine Danish heritage here more than two-thirds of the town's residents are of Danish descent."
Um, yeah. I suppose it's possible, that two-thirds thing, but you're not terribly likely to run into any of them; you, and the other visible third of the town, are gawking tourists looking at the quaint fake windmills and other quaint cuteness.
I suppose something has to distract you from the prices you're paying in the shops, though...
Solvang isn't really a destination place, but more a stop along the way to somewhere else. That said, I keep stopping in it, even though there's absolutely nothing to eat. (A lie: there are plenty of restaurants, serving one of two things: meat or pastries. Vegetarians should pack a lunch; it is uniquely bad for variety. The only marginally non-themed restaurant is a little Mexican place.)
Shopping, even with the abominable prices in some of the stores, is a mainstay of the Solvang experience. Be particularly afraid of the two used bookstores; they can smell your horror at the bland happy-happy-land that is Solvang, and will be all too happy to sell you a little cultural tide-over at an insane price. They do not, as you might hope for/expect, dicker over price. The desperation in your eyes is obvious, and they know it.
If you can overlook the clusters of stores selling very confused tourist items (wooden clogs painted in an Oriental/Blue Willow pattern, emblazoned 'Solvang, CA,' with stickers saying 'Made in Taiwan') there are a few gems; my favourite -- as in speed up, we have to make it to Solvang before it closes, eat later, drop me off while you park -- store is a small boutique called 'Bellagio.' Women's clothing, with a small lingerie department in the back; nothing outrageous, but the owners do a wonderful job; it has a lot of pretty, unique stuff at reasonable prices -- just the sort of thing you desperately want to find in a small town, but don't normally. There are a few of these little 'finds' in Solvang.
There are also a few toy stores that should appeal to young and old. They might be the only place where authentic Danish heritage is evident (restaurants aside, I suppose), since the toys are largely quality European ones rather than Kids-R-Us tat.
Most amusing, albeit not quite exclusive to Solvang: the "As Seen on TV" store. Rotatoes! Thighmasters! Everything you've ever seen on the television when you should have been in bed is in this place, for better or for worse.
Suited to the town's sweet image is that most Los Angeles residents who're familiar with it view it as a place to eat dessert. (See above-mentioned pastry shops.) I don't know how it got that reputation, but I suppose there isn't a great deal else to do: Solvang is one of those places that, by seven p.m., has entirely shut its doors and gone home.
At this point you can go back to your hotel, or get back on the highway. If Solvang is your actual destination for the weekend, the nearby towns -- places like 'Buellton' and the like -- are probably a better deal. Solvang's hotel-motel industry is no different from any other Southern California town's; it just throws up a small windmill and adds $40 to the room price. The Best-Westerns-with-Windmills are oddly heavily booked; that and the price should send you to a neighbouring area or perhaps a B&B.
Solvang is probably much nicer than I've made it out to be. It certainly beats other towns of its size by a wide mile, and less jaded visitors would probably find use for an entire roll of film in this most unusual-looking place. Note also that virtually everything I've mentioned can be found just by wandering around; Solvang is an excellent place to break in a pair of shoes -- the town centre is compact and neatly laid out; there isn't any getting lost, missing an area, or waiting for a subway -- quite a relief.
Based solely on the parts of California that I've been too (San Diego and Temecula), California gets a five star rating from me. Some of the friendliest people I've ever met were in the Temecula area, and to be honest, I never expected that from California.
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