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Weekender: Head to Santa Ynez Valley for Wine Fests, Big Views, and a Danish Time Warp

Napa’s funkier cousin doesn’t take itself too seriously.


Sunstone Vineyards.

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The Santa Ynez Inn.

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A suite at the Landsby in Solvang.

Photo: David Tsay

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Ballard Canyon.

Photo: bikesandespressos/Creative Commons

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Now that Karl the Fog has settled into Fogust, it's getting pretty chilly here in the Bay. Sun-desperate San Franciscans can head north to Sonoma county for sunshine, but this time of year the roving bands of bachelorette parties can get overwhelming. If you’re looking for Mediterranean weather and Instagrammable vineyards that are a little less packed, head south to the Santa Ynez Valley, one of the most diverse wine regions in California. Think of Santa Ynez as Napa’s funkier cousin. It’s got small towns and big views that echo NorCal's wine country, plus kitschy spots like the Danish village of Solvang and the town of Los Alamos, whose seven-block main street is reminiscent of a Western movie. The region is about five hours from S.F. (and a stone’s throw from Santa Barbara), and its towns are close enough together to easily explore in one trip. 


In Solvang—known more for Danish pastries than fine dining—the farm-to-table menu at First and Oak is changing that reputation. The restaurant has garnered rave reviews in its year of operation for bringing high-end cuisine to the village (chef Steven Snook is a protégé of Gordon Ramsay’s). If you want something a little less serious but no less delicious, try Industrial Eats in Buellton, which churns out gourmet meals in a casual, cafeteria-style setting. The menu runs the gamut from smoked pheasant to gorgonzola and peach pizza, but don’t be fooled by the highbrow ingredients—this place is anything but pretentious. The menu is divided into, simply, “Pizza,” “Not Pizza,” and “Sandwiches,” a refreshing break from the ’tude that normally accompanies great food. 


Two of the valley’s boutique hotels are back and up and running with recent remodels. The Santa Ynez Inn, from $395, is a good bet for travelers who like to explore on foot. This Victorian-style bed-and-breakfast is within walking distance of restaurants such as the casual American Vineyard House, set in a converted turn-of-the-century home, and the family-owned tasting room Central California Wine Tasting. Thanks to a deft facelift, the inn makes you feel like you’re stepping back in time, but without the clutter and cloying bits. Think orchids on the tables, not doilies, and muted gray wallpaper instead of endless florals. Drop in on the nightly wine and cheese hour or ditch the b-and-b scene to hang out at the less-tame Maverick Saloon, popular with locals and tourists for its music and its barbecue. If modern’s more your speed, try the Landsby in Solvang (rooms from $369). Yeah, Solvang’s a Danish Disneyland, but this hotel’s recent updates are bringing the town into at least the 20th century. Scandinavian touches like sleek chairs and beds and a muted white and gray color scheme are downright contemporary. It’s a refreshing modern respite in a town otherwise distinguished by its love of windmills and cottages. A slightly more budget option: In downtown Solvang, Hotel Corque offers pretty, if uninspired, rooms (from $209) within strolling distance of restaurants and bakeries. There’s also a heated pool and a hot tub on the premises. 


Didn’t bring a bike? Rent one from Wheel Fun Rentals in Solvang or, if you’re staying at the Santa Ynez Inn, they’ll rent you an electric bike (which goes up to 20 miles per hour). Hit the Ballard Canyon Loop for a scenic moderate ride (12.5 miles, some of it uphill) that will take you through some of that bucolic countryside that makes this part of California feel like such a world apart. Among Santa Ynez Valley’s more than 120 wineries, Dragonette Cellars stands apart with across-the-board delicious offerings from chardonnay to pinot noir and grenache. On a steamy day, the winery’s Happy Canyon sauvignon blanc hits the spot with peach and citrus flavors and a touch of herb. Like your wine with a view? Drop in on Sunstone Vineyards, one of the first organic vineyards in the area, where you can sip on rosé in a sweet Provençal-style tasting room with the valley at your feet. 

As fall approaches, harvest time will bring festivals aplenty. If you want to fully embrace Solvang at its most over the top, make your way down for the Danish Days festival in mid-September. The heritage festival includes lots of traditional food, live music, and no shortage of dirndls. If kitsch isn’t your thing, mark your calendar for the Celebration of Harvest festival, a four-day party at the end of September. Expect barrel tastings, farm-to-table meals, and a chance to make your own bubbly.  

Update, August 16
: An earlier version of this story recommended Solvang restaurant Bacon and Brine, which, sadly, closed its doors on Saturday. We regret the error.

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