California’s Santa Ynez Valley is an up-and-coming hidden gem of a destination. It might sound familiar, as it was the setting of the well-known, Oscar-winning 2004 movie Sideways — but there’s so much more to it than meets the eye in a single film.
The Santa Ynez Valley is located in Santa Barbara County, California, between the Santa Ynez Mountains to the south and the San Rafael Mountains to the north. It’s known as an internationally prominent wine region (in fact, there are more than 50 varietals that thrive in this area’s diverse micro-climates) and it’s also the agricultural hub of the Central Coast.
There is a wide range of activities for various ages and interests to enjoy in the region, from its outdoor activities such as hiking, biking, horseback riding — to its world-class culinary scene and boutique hotel offerings across the valley.
From Solvang to Buellton, into Los Olivos and beyond — here’s some firsthand insight into how to spend a quick 72 hours in the Santa Ynez Valley.
Lunch at Nella Kitchen & Bar
Nella Kitchen & Bar is one of the newest restaurant and bar concepts from the hospitality team behind Santa Ynez Valley eatery, S.Y. Kitchen. The new Santa Barbara County wine country venture, headed by executive chef and owner/partner Luca Crestanelli, offers seasonal rotating options for all-day dining menus.
Nella offers guests menu items in line with the modern Italian restaurant group’s menu concepts, as well as a playful wine list featuring both local and world wines. Try a craft, a classic, or even zero-proof cocktails for a delightful mix of flavors. Nella’s guests can also enjoy comfortable seating in one of the restaurant’s outdoor spaces: the new front patio, the wrap-around porch, or the spacious interior courtyard.
Wine Tasting at Liquid Farm in Los Olivos
Liquid Farm’s first vintage was born of four barrels of 2009 Chardonnay. The wine label has since created a cult following for their Burgundian-style Chardonnays and Bandol-inspired rosés, with the addition of a Pinot Noir line-up as of the 2014 vintage.
Liquid Farm’s Los Olivos tasting room, opened in May 2019, follows the 2018 opening of the brand’s Lompoc, California tasting room, adjacent to the Liquid Farm winery facility where winemaker James Sparks (also owner/winemaker of Kings Carey Wines) produces Liquid Farm’s nine different bottlings.
Liquid Farm’s wine philosophy incorporates old-world inspiration meshed with the label’s support of local viticulture. Liquid Farm’s wines are earth and mineral-driven, with little or no use of new oak, shining a spotlight on the representation of the soil in which the vines producing their wines, have grown.
The tasting room is modern and warm, with plenty of natural light filtering in and lots of plants providing a revitalizing sense of life, within. It’s right off the main drag in Los Olivos which is perfect because it feels tucked away from the bustle of the main street while still being a lively place to enjoy a glass of wine (or two or three).
Wine Tasting at Dovecote Estate Winery
Located in the heart of the Alisos Canyon AVA, family-owned and operated Dovecote Estate Winery is dedicated to growing and crafting limited-production wines that allow the beauty and character of the land to shine through.
Home to the celebrated Thompson Vineyard since 1990, the 250-acre estate benefits from cooling marine influences, complex soils, and diverse microclimates, resulting in compelling cool-climate Rhône wines that balance purity of fruit with an authentic sense of place.
This winery’s tasting area overlooks the pond, offering the ultimate tranquil place to relax and enjoy the sunshine of the Central Coast in an intimate setting. The pinot noirs are fantastic, but then again every wine Dovecote produces is fantastic.
OstrichLand USA in Buellton
OstrichLand USA is not only considered a Central Coast landmark, but it’s also a popular destination for a unique experience for people of all ages from across the world. Here, visitors will find 100-plus amazing ostriches and emus to feed and observe as they play. There might even be babies on-site depending on what time of year you go!
You’ll have to plan for time to browse the gift shop which sells a wide variety of ostrich and emu-related products from 9 a.m. to dusk, daily. Here, you can buy fun novelty items like ostrich feather dusters and egg stands — or you can literally buy a fresh ostrich egg (which costs $70 but is equal to 18-24 standard chicken eggs) which can feed a lot more people than your standard dozen. They’re said to taste similar in flavor while offering a unique sense of buttery-ness. Just like regular eggs, you can prepare ostrich eggs fried, sunny side up, hard-boiled, or scrambled.
The egg will even come with instructions on how to crack, and save shells for decorative purposes! If you’re into the idea of buying an ostrich egg but you’re not into the idea of cooking and eating it, you can also buy a hollowed-out egg for half the price.
Dinner at The Tavern at Zaca Creek
The Tavern at Zaca Creek supports local farmers, ranchers, and fishers with a generous restaurant menu that features an ever-rotating selection of premium cuisine, such as hand-cut steaks, locally caught seafood, and farm-fresh organic produce.
Be sure to order a cocktail, because the team on-site has worked to preserve the allure of the original Tavern bar that sat on this site for years — while also aiming to enhance its existing spectacular old-style feel. The bar also program uses premium spirits, so your tastebuds won’t be disappointed while enjoying the food and drink.
Overnight at Zaca Creek
Zaca Creek combines charming old-world character with new-world elegance. It was originally built by the founding Buell family of Buellton, but has since been re-imagined as a six-suite boutique inn nestled in the center of Santa Barbara County’s Wine Country.
The aesthetic of the stone buildings is entirely old world, and each room hosts its unique own charm and design. From the massive stone and heavy timber exterior of the buildings, to the rustic shake roof, to the hand-carved alder doors, to the dynamic stonework and hand-troweled brick walls, it’s a charmingly rustic countryside retreat to spend a lovely, relaxing evening in the Santa Ynez Valley.
But it’s also refreshingly modern. Each individual suite is outfitted with deluxe features such as comfortable King or Double Queen beds, large screen 4k televisions, DirecTV, Nespresso Vertuo Coffee machines, and either Rainfall showers, soaker tubs — or sometimes both.
Brunch at peasants FEAST
peasants FEAST first opened on April 1, 2020 in the height of early-pandemic times — but has survived and pushed on to become somewhere that’s known as a place for both locals and visitors alike to enjoy tasty food in a family-friendly environment. Dishes are made with seasonal ingredients sourced via direct relationships with local farmers and purveyors of artisanal foods and beverages.
The peasants FEAST menus aims to honor each and every part of the plants and animals that fall upon the restaurant’s tables, highlighting the bounty of this local agricultural community. peasants FEAST currently offers signature items like seasonally-shifting grilled cheese creations, as well as their Instagram-famous sandwiches like the Solvang Hot Chicken, Pastrami Smoked Salmon, or the Atterdag Smash Burger (with add-ons like the chef’s locally-famous bacon, and the option to “make it a double”), as well as straight-from-the-weekly-farmers-market salads and soups that utilize local and seasonal crops.
The signature, must-try desserts at peasants FEAST include house-made ice cream – crafted by the Cherneys’ daughter, Reina – plus freshly-baked cookies and a family-favorite frozen lime pie.
Museum Self-Guided Tour at Elverhøj Museum of History & Art
To learn a bit about the culture and history of this beautiful Danish town you’re spending some time in, visit the donation-based Elverhøj Museum — which is the former residence of one of Solvang’s most artistic families. Nowadays, it’s a community museum devoted to honoring the history of Solvang, the Danish-American pioneer spirit, the colorful heritage of Denmark, and the arts.
The historic hand-crafted structure in which the museum sits was the dream home of Viggo Brandt-Erichsen and his wife, Martha Mott. Brandt-Erichsen was an internationally recognized painter and sculptor and his wife was an accomplished painter and art teacher.
The home is built in the style derived from the large farmhouses of 18th century Jutland in northern Denmark, incorporating many elements of Scandinavian architecture like ornamental wrought ironwork, a carved redwood main entry door, and hand-painted panels.
After an extensive renovation in 1987, the Elverhøj Museum opened to the public in May of 1988 — and today, Elverhøj is one of the few museums outside of Denmark devoted to the Danish culture and the Danish-American experience.
Happy Hour at High Roller Tiki Lounge
Looking for somewhere to feel like you’re on a tropical island while in the heart of Solvang? Visit the High Roller Tiki Lounge, downtown! Owner Michael Cobb and his tiki-phile crew craft tiki cocktails with a wine base (this is the Santa Ynez Valley, after all…), in a colorful space populated with custom-built tiki décor.
Dinner at Sear Steakhouse
Sear Steakhouse is an elevated, genuine “farm to table” model steakhouse meant to entertain visitors and the local community. Demetrios “Jimmy” Loizides and his wife, Karen, were captivated by the Santa Ynez Valley and the similarities of Demetrios’ parents’ childhood village in Paphos, Cypress, so they purchased a farm and planted 100-plus varieties of fruits, vegetables, and herbs locally.
When the Loizides family met a well-traveled chef-turned-mixologist, Alberto Battaglini, it sparked the partnership formed that would bring this steakhouse dream to fruition. With the right people, talent, and timing came together with the perfect combination of offering quality, own-farmed produce combined with offerings from the family farm to establish what is known as Sear Steakhouse.
The wine menu is superb, as is any steak on the menu that you’re craving.
Overnight at The Landsby, Solvang
The Landsby is one of the newer and more innovative hotels in Solvang. This 50-room boutique hotel offers warm hospitality and refined, stylish accommodations. The rooms emit a clean, contemporary Scandinavian aesthetic-design influence with recently remodeled, bright and open guestrooms that are finished with blonde woods, brushed brass accents, and elegant but comfortable hand-crafted furnishings and stunning artwork commissioned from regional artists.
Explore Solvang and Enjoy Pastries (And/or FUDGE)
Be sure to grab pastries or other assorted baked goods from any of Solvang’s five standout Danish bakeries, each known for their own delicacy:
- Birkholm’s Bakery & Café
- Danish Mill Bakery
- Olsen’s Danish Village Bakery
- Mortensen’s Danish Bakery
- Solvang Bakery
and after you’ve got an ample number of pastries in hand, stroll Solvang to check out the various Solvang “icons” while you explore.
Ebelskivers, known as “Danish pancakes” are a must-try. Instead of lying flat, these pastries are round like Dunkin Donuts munchkins. They’re fluffy and light-as-air — and their dough can be filled with everything from fruit preserves to Nutella to cheese.
I like mine topped with powdered sugar and jelly because I have a sweet tooth 😉
After fueling up, explore some of the fun shops in town like The Book Loft, ONEderChild in the blue windmill at Hamlet Square; The Copenhagen House (which also features an Amber Museum and a Viking exhibit) and for a coffee fix, visit Good Seed Coffee Roasters.
There’s also an immersive spice shopping at Solvang Spice Merchant — and those who adore cheese (like me!) can explore a phenomenal cheese selection at Cailloux Cheese Shop.
Explore Santa Ynez
After exploring Solvang, make a short drive over to the town of Santa Ynez to check out its Western-Victorian hybrid flavor and cute shops.
There are some fabulous (new) home decor destinations like Santa Ynez General, or Forage Florals, which is a carefully curated shop and apothecary that proudly sources local blooms and foliages from farms within a 5-mile radius. Forage also sells handmade pottery, jewelry, gifts, books and a brand new household Apothecary of environmentally friendly cleaning supplies and body products.
Next, check out Favour, which is a clothing boutique that chooses each piece individually for the shop, to embody the feeling that they believe great style should always deliver. It’s a business built on the ideals of femininity, attention to detail, and refinement.
Finally, to get some caffeine in your system to recharge after a weekend of adventure before heading home, visit Pony Espresso for a locally brewed cup of coffee or tea in a friendly and inviting shop downtown!
Have a suggestion for a rooftop bar I didn’t include or want to visit a new one together?! Reach out, below:
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