Located on the west coast of Norway, Bergen is the second-largest city in Norway (still with only about 280,000). It may not be a stand-alone travel destination to tourists, but it is one of the destinations of the classic fjord tours Norway in a Nutshell, and a hub for the surrounding areas like Stavanger, Flåm, Nordfjord, Geirangerfjord, or Folgefonna glacier.
Bergen was our first stop visiting Norway and we took our time and stopped by a few places in the city.
Bergen’s Hanseatic Past
Bergen is surrounded by fjords and mountains. With a dramatic landscape and shoreline, the city offers breathtaking sceneries basically wherever you go – you can see lots of white houses sprawling up on the nearby hills and slopes.
Bergen has a profound and rich history as it was developed by Olav Kyrre, or Olaf III, king of Norway. It was Norway’s capital through the 12th to 13th century; and a major bureau city of the Hanseatic League through the 14th to 15th century.
The Hanseatic League is a unique phenomenon in European history. Merchants co-operated across borders, forming a town covenant, which comprised nearly 200 cities across the continent. From the 13th to the mid-15th century, the Hanseatic League dominated the trade between the northeast and the northwest of Europe, covering raw material and food supplies of the West from the East, and the East with Western products.
In Bergen, Germans built trading posts (Kontors) that facilitated fish trading. Fish (especially dried cod), fish oil, salt, and hides from Norway were traded for grain, fur, timber, and amber from the eastern Hanseatic cities. 62 of these German-like architectures, called Bryggen, remain today as proof of the city’s German past and were named Unesco World Heritage in 1979.
After the end of the Hanseatic League, Bergen had a thriving commercial success with fisheries, handicrafts, and ship-making, maintaining its status as the largest harbor in Norway.
If you ask a local “Where are you from?” They may tell you they are from Bergen, not Norway, reflecting how proud they are of their hometown.
Walking through the Bryggen Unesco World Heritage Centre
Today, the harbor is Bergen’s focal point with monuments, markets, shops, and landmarks that reflect the city’s glorious past.
The harbor is located in the south of the main train station in Bergen and it’s a short 20-minute walk to go there. It would be nice to stay in this area that offers convenient access to food, shopping, and tourist attractions. If you are staying in the city for a few days, simply take a walk on the cobbled streets and visit all the highlights – from the man-made lake Lille Lungegardsvann net, city parks, art museums, and the University Museum of Bergen.
The city center of Bergen suffered from several fires in the past up until 1955. Luckily, they restored these houses based on the original design.
Strolling through these pointy and colorful houses you could still see the structure that dates back to the end of the 13th century – a solid wood exterior with a rock warehouse in the center courtyard for storage. Some of them are continuously renovated and were lively converted to become shops, workshops, studios, tourist centers, cafes, and restaurants.
Visitors could enjoy fresh oysters, salmon, and other seafood in the nearby fish markets (Vågen Spiseriet); shop for Norwegian Troll figures, Vikings souvenirs, and high-quality wool garments, or just sit back and absorb the relaxing city vibe.
Although the area is not big, the houses are long and you might get lost in the alleys between the houses. If you are interested in learning more about the history and culture of the Hanseatic League and Bryggen, sign up for a Bryggen guided tour, or visit the nearby Bryggen Museum (established after the 1955 fire), or the Hanseatic Museum and Schøtstuene (which features the authentic rooms about the life of being Hanseatic merchants).
Bryggen – the World Heritage
The historic buildings of Bryggen are Bergen’s highlight. The line of wood houses was a German settlement during the Hanseatic League – they were offices and residences built as early as the 13th century.
Why these houses are so special? The houses were built with wood from the roof, and walls, to pillars. Since such inflammable materials were used, and the houses were lined up so tightly, the clusters were burned down and rebuilt multiple times throughout history. It has retained its original look after a great effort of restoration.
What are the words on the houses? You can see some text on the houses on different levels and walls. These are the billboards of the merchants and they are accentuated by symbols of animals and characters; the simplistic design, to me, kinda reflects the Scandinavian aesthetic and they are really something to see!
What is Bryggen today? Apart from being a tourist spot with gift shops and restaurants, the houses in Bryggen also function as workshops and offices. Enter the alleys between the houses you may feel like entering a maze, and then you will be surprised there are some interesting stores in business, and waiting for you to discover them!
If you want to learn more about the history and character of Bryggen, visit the Bryggen Museum, which showcases illustrations and artifacts collected from Bryggen. You can join a guided tour in the summer and have an on-site experience!
Some interesting shops in Bryggen:
- Per Vigeland: an accessories store with an interesting and unique design
- Kvams Flisespikkeri: a gallery with artworks created by artist Kvamas
- Keramik of Skulptur Galleri Shop: a pottery store owned by two young pottery artists with beautiful products and a pottery teaching class.
Taking a Funicular Ride up Fløyen
There are seven hills around Bergen, so the city doesn’t lack a dramatic lookout from the ground. It doesn’t take long for one to reach the peak, because one mustn’t need to hike (but you can), just take a funicular.
The station is located right behind the Bryggen. In merely 5 minutes, the cFloibanen Funicular climbs up to the top of Fløyen. The irregular coastline and multi-colored lighting in the sky create a picturesque image that almost looks unreal! If you have more time and are up for a hike, the hiking trail is on the side of the funicular track and it’s well-designed for all kinds of travelers.
Ulriken is another peak in the city area that offers a farther but higher and wider view of the city and the bay. Compared with Ulriken, Fløyen developed earlier with more shops, recreation facilities, and restaurants that make the visit much more convenient. The cable car station is located close to the city center, and it’s technically free with the Bergen Card. The funicular goes uphill to the 643-meter peak in only 10 minutes.
We visited there right before sunset and since the city is west-facing, we had a great moment with the epic sunset.
Bergen’s fish markets!
There are two fish markets in Bergen with eating places and products that you can take home.
For example, tube-shaped caviar, herring cans, dried cod, or fresh salmon roes are good gifts; how about lunch? Sit down at a table and have a taste of the freshly grilled crabs and lobster. If you have the appetite, simply order a seafood platter that has a little bit of everything.
There are two fish markets and one indoor, one outdoor at the harbor that suit your preference. For me, I recommend the outdoor market Fisketorget and you can use a credit card for payments, even if it’s outdoor.
Explore the many attractions in Bergen
It is very relaxing to just take a stroll in the city’s harbor, enjoy the seafood, and admire the unique architecture of Bryggen. If you wish to see more, other points of interest include:
- Håkonshallen (Håkon’s Hall): a middle-aged Royal residence dating back to the 13th century (but note that the hall could be closed for events during summer).
- Hanseatiske Museum: A museum was built in 1704 and it is a wood building with a more in-depth introduction of the Hanseatic League development and history; especially dried cod, and the “Hanseatic” beer that was produced at that time with an eagle on its label.
- Torgallmenningen: the main shopping street in the city.
- Kode: an art museum with buildings from 1-4, and Kode 3 features a refined art collection including works by Edvard Munch.
- For a quick glance at Bergen, take the City Sightseeing Hop-on-Hop-off bus tour, the Bergens Expressen (sightseeing train), or the Harbour cruise with White Lady.
- University Museum of Bergen
- Akvariet Bergen
- Edvard Grieg Museum (Troldhaugen)