Text: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau
Once past the cruise tourists who tend to stick to the UNESCO World Heritage Bryggen and to the funicular that takes them up Fløyen, Bergen is a charming city with many hidden gems waiting to be discovered. This harbour town has retained its cosmopolitan character and the second city of Norway after its capital Oslo, is very welcoming. This student town is vibrant, surrounded by beautiful mountains and spread around the water: an easy access point to the North Sea that has made Bergen what it is today.
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Day 1: Bryggen
Start by exploring the Golden Age of Bergen, when the Hanseatic League ruled on the city, the region and most of Northern Europe: the must-visit Bryggen side with its postcard-perfect colourful wooden houses.
1. A moving trip through time in medieval Bergen [Bryggens Museum]
Actually, there was life in Bryggen before the Germans settled in town with the Hanseatic League. It is thanks to the 1955 massive fire that destroyed a quarter of Bryggen close to the Holmen district that this early medieval life was unravelled. The tarred-covered wooden buildings went up in flames fast. Bergensers are used to it, as no less than 11 major fires had turned their city into ashes since 1170. This time, a team of archaeologists excavated the area to reveal old Bergen, layer of sediment after layer of sediment.
Toys and figurines, gold rings, coins and fishhooks, plates, glasses and wooden spoons, shoes and soles, swords, daggers and arrowheads, love letters, prayers and business correspondence, parchments and runes carved on wooden sticks… all these objects reveal the everyday life of Bryggen’s past inhabitants in a very moving way, with their fears and desires, struggles and believes, occupations and favourite leisure activities. Visiting the Bryggens Museum that truly highlights these early medieval times is the perfect introduction to better apprehend what life was like in the very early days of Bergen.
2. The seat of political power: Håkon’s Hall in Holmen
If you are a medieval fanatic, then you must visit the majestic Håkon’s Hall dating back to 1261. This large and imposing building was the centre of political power in thirteenth century Norway, in the heart of Holmen, the royal residence.
3. Grab lunch at the fish market
Careful, avoid the outdoor market which is a total tourist trap! For tasty, good-quality and fresh seafood, walk inside the covered fish market near the tourist information. Take some time to stroll the stalls to choose which suits your taste best before picking your table. Seafood from all over Norway can be found here, in the fishing stronghold of the country, such as stockfish from the North, large king crabs, lobsters, sea urchins, shrimps, local mussels, salmons, herrings…
4. Grasp the Essence of Bryggen during a walking tour
The safe harbour of Bergen, only one hour away from the North Sea developed as early as the ninth century as a small village with a bit of fishing and trading during the Viking Age.
In 1070, the King of Norway Olaf the Peaceful founded Bergen. Unlike many of his Viking predecessors, he did not die on the battlefield as instead, he developed trade in the region. In 1257, the first German merchants land in Bergen. In the meantime, in Germany, trade confederations had been formed. Made up of individual merchant guilds to provide each other mutual protection as much on hazardous trading routes as in terms of economic interests, the most important of these leagues was the Hanseatic League founded in Lübeck in the 1360s. German trade developed fast around the Baltic Sea, and at its peak in the 1400s, the Hanseatic League was the most powerful trading group in the world, present in 200 cities including Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp… Bergen itself became a Hanseatic counter in 1360 allowing Germans to get a monopoly on northern Norway. The city became one of the most vibrant centres of trade in Europe and the largest city in Scandinavia in medieval times thanks to the fish products from the North, such as dried fish and cod liver oil, that were traded against cereals from Germany.
Upon settling in Bergen, the Hanseatic League secured a prime location, protected from the northern wind: today’s World Heritage Site of Bryggen. It was the heart of the city, a trading centre teeming with people – as many as 8,000 in the early fourteenth century coming from Germany, England, Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, France, Greenland, the Faroes Islands, etc. – from early morning to late at night. The buildings were arranged in tenements, long rows of wooden houses and store-rooms on both sides of a common passage, built precariously close to each other. At the back, some stone buildings dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries were used as fire breakers and to store the important ledgers of the Hanseatic League, as well as alcohol! Time and time again, the buildings went up in flames, but the harbour has always risen from its ashes, extending even further than before.
The opening of transcontinental maritime routes and the competition from the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and other trade organizations slowly put an end to the Hanseatic League from the 1660’s, even though the Bergen counter remained active until 1761 becoming the Hanseatic League’s last outpost.
From the wharf, follow the walking tour and elevate yourself through the cute and narrow labyrinth streets emanating from Øvregatan, the oldest street in Norway where brothels, blacksmiths, shoe makers… broke the German order along the water of Vågen.
5. The Schøtstuene & Hanseatic Museum
The Hanseatic Museum itself is undergoing serious structural renovations. In the meantime, the best place to picture what life was like in the Hanseatic district during Bergen’s Golden Age is to check out the Schøtstuene.
The German residents used to live in rows of houses, and at the end of them, a schøtstuene would be built as a common room. This is where meals were taken, where judgements were casted, where religious ceremonies took place, where young boys learnt how to become house managers or traders, where parties were held and games played. As they were not mixing with the Bergensers, the schøtstuene was an important part of daily life in this all-male society of merchants, craftsmen, workers and servants, apprentices, noblemen, priests and monks. Some women also lived around as landladies, innkeepers, serving girls, nuns and prostitutes.
The Hanseatic League imposed its own set of rules within its 1,000-to-2,000-strong community that was to not leave its compound. For instance, the worst offense was to make a Norwegian girl pregnant. This ensured that all the money invested in trade by the merchants would be spent in Lübeck and Germany and not split because of inheritance in Norway.
Observe the original items, such as sticks to point out wrong-doers, dried bull’s penis whips for punishments, the gathering rooms, and the very few allowed fireplaces to prevent devastating fires.
6. Saint Mary’s Church
Across the street from the Schøtstuene, the oldest building in Bergen stands: Saint Mary’s Church. Built around 1150, it was one of the parish churches of the Hanseatic League. Wealthy traders donated precious art to be forgiven for their sins and to get closer to God. The inside of the church is simply magnificent! The fifteenth century altar piece, the life-sized apostles and the pulpit are the highlights.
7. Plenty of options for dinner, including the Michelin-starred BARE
Bergen has one Michelin-starred restaurant located in the Hotel Bergen Børs: BARE. It is definitely worth trying out! If you are in the mood for something less sophisticated, plenty of options are available in the student town.
Day 2: Nordnes & art
1. Take some altitude
Bergen is surrounded by seven mountains, so get up at least one for great views on the city and a nice workout! The easiest to reach is Fløyen, but the funicular is too easy: hike it, run it or bike it for an off-the-beaten path experience rewarded by splendid vistas. If you really must take the funicular, do so in the early morning to try and avoid the crowds.
Our favourite way is to bike up Fløyen, and further up to arrive in a wild world of forests, lakes and streams that make it hard to believe that you are on the verge of Norway’s second largest city. The way down is exhilarating (and not technical even if a mountain bike is preferred because of the gravel parts)!
2. Visit Norway through the eyes of its best painters [KODE 3]
The KODE 3 Museum is a travel through Norwegian art.
The journey starts in the 1760 decor of the Dutch consul Henrik Jansen Fasmer, one of Bergen’s wealthiest and most influential men, known for his lavish parties. Painted by Mathias Blumenthal (1719-1763), the story of Bergen is told in classic allegories on the ceiling and walls.
The rest of the journey is accompanied by Johan Christian Dahl (1788-1857) who grew up in Bergen. The first Norwegian formerly educated in arts, he is considered the father of Norwegian painting and his landscapes have shaped the national identity. Walk amongst glaciers, stormy seas, majestic mountains in the clouds, waterfalls, peaceful fjords, struggling farmers, romantic bridal processions by Dahl, Tideman (1814-1876), Gude (1825-1903) and other Norwegian classic painters.
Upstairs, the journey continues with the collection of the Bergen industrialist Rasmus Meyer (1858-1916) who gathered one of the most significant collection of Edvard Munch’s (1873-1944) works, following his trajectory and the evolution of his art. Get drawn into the drama that Munch perfectly conveys in his paintings which often depicts personal and relevant topics to which many can relate.
3. The charm of Nordnes walking tour
If Bryggen is full of history, it is difficult to take the pulse of Bergen in this very touristy district. To really feel the vibes of the city, the Nordnes Peninsula is the place to stroll. Its geographical location makes it a dead-end, hence only some of its 20,000 inhabitants or the curious travellers who really want to visit it hang out in Nordnes. Walking it feels like being in a cute village with its cobblestone streets surrounded by the city.
Historically, when Bryggen was the side of the German compound, Nordnes was where internationals and Norwegians lived and traded. We walk the wide Strandgaten Street which has become the main shopping street of Bergen. The wooden buildings showcase different architectural styles, and with the dense Bryggen on the opposite side of Vågen often burning up in flames, inhabitants of Nordnes were cautious. Fire breakers were introduced in the form of wider streets and fireproofing was implemented by covering the wooden houses with a layer of bricks. From Strandgaten, narrow cobblestone streets go up along the slope of the peninsula. Every street corner is a surprise: cute houses, Norwegian pennons flying in the wind, berries on bushes, improvised communal gardens, charming streets, friendly passers-by… The homey feeling translates in not offering too many options to go out, but for the Kippers USF Bar & Kafé with its local vibes and great seafood and the Løvetann coffeeshop, maybe one of the only places where you can enjoy a Nordnes Cola along with a Bergen donut (this treat has made it through history as during the Middle Ages, Northern Norwegians used to fill up the timber coffins they exported from Bergen with these donuts they loved before traveling back to the North!).
Exploring Nordnes is a way to encounter today’s Bergensers, to feel the international vibe and openness and their pride for their village within the city. Highly instagrammable!
4. Sauna & swim in the fjord [Nordnes Sjøbad]
Ready for a healthy cold-water therapy? Then, Nordnes Sjøbad is a must! Even better, after spending 20 minutes or so in the sauna overlooking Bergen, diving into the cold water of the fjord is a lot easier. If you do not feel up for it, there is also a heated swimming pool.
Day 3: a bit away from town on the fjord and in the mountains
1. Inspired by the trolls [Grieg in Troldhaugen]
Seated in an intimate concert hall with its grass-covered roof, a modest red wooden cabin obstructs the view on the fjord through the large window. A greenery of pine trees completes the picture. In the foreground, a black Steinway & Sons piano contrats with the white interior of the modern auditorium. Under the fast and agile fingers of the talented pianist Oda Voltersvik, the March of the Troll fills the room and hearts of the audience. It is here in this very little red cabin in the woods of Troldsalen (the valley of the trolls) which I am overlooking, that the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) composed his most famous music. Slightly above it stands his villa where he spent the summertime between 1885 and 1907 with his wife Nina. Many of his belongings remain on display and give us an insight in the life of this son of Bergen who has become Norway’s most acclaimed composer. Still, it is undisturbed, in the quietness of the little red cabin that seems lost in nature that Grieg would find inspiration, often helped by the many trolls of Troldhaugen. Most of his melodies were inspired by nature and Nordic folklore: a butterfly flapping its wings, a running brook, sun rays piercing through the tree tops, and cheeky trolls playing hide and seek with the composer.
Even if Grieg was formerly schooled in Leibnitz in Germany, and was a contemporary of Richard Wagner, Peter Tchaikovsky and Giacomo Puccini, he decided to write Norwegian music, following the example of his compatriot, the violinist and folk hero Ole Bull (1810-1880). This bold choice at a moment when Norway was gaining its independence and was in search for a national identity has led Grieg to become Norway’s top composer.
Insider’s tip: To try understand the essence of Grieg’s music, visit the Troldhaugen Museum and let his melodies fill your heart at the daily summer lunchtime concerts. Walking the paths amongst rocks and trees, you may encounter some of the trolls that inspired him!
2. Norway Fisheries Museum & Storeblå Aquaculture Centre
Located in an eighteenth-century warehouse where stockfish used to be handled, the Norway Fisheries Museum is definitely a must-visit as it presents what has made the wealth of Bergen since its Hanseatic times: the Norwegian fishing industry. Today, the maritime industry is still an important part of the economy of Bergen, and fishing and aquaculture are on the forefront.
Norway has 102,937 kilometres of coastline (the equivalent of twice around the Earth!) wetted by four seas that are particularly rich in fish. This industry has sustained thousands of families for centuries, and its industrialisation has led to challenges, balancing the economic activity and with sustainability. The Norway Fisheries Museum presents the historical aspects while the excellent Storeblå Visitor Centre deals with Norway’s second fastest growing industry after oil and gas: aquaculture. Not the perfect solution, farming fish has presented itself as a way to ease life of fishermen, provide more affordable fish to the masses and support the Norwegian economy. An excellent tour to a close-by salmon farm reached by Rigid-Inflatable Boat (RIB) allows to try and form your own opinion on this controversial and complex subject.
3. Evening concert
To get carried away a little more by the captivating tunes of the beloved composer Edvard Grieg, book your seat for one of the evening concerts in the Church of the Cross (Korskirken) during the Grieg in Bergen Summer Festival. Organised by Musica Nord for more than 30 years, the festival hosts domestic and international artists of great talent to perform a variety of classical music.
If you have more time and…
- … are not going to go on a cruise from Bergen, you may want to hop on the Rødne boat for a 3-hour excursion to the tiny village of Mo lost all the way at the tip of the Romarheims Fjord, surrounded by rugged mountains and waterfalls.
- … are interested in WWII, visit the Theta Museum.
- … love hiking: you have plenty of options in Bergen that is surrounded by seven mountains, from the busy Fløyen to the popular Ulriken. A great hike combines all of the mountains. Just be ready to face several seasons in a day!
Where to stay?
Half seated on my bed, I am overlooking the Vågsallmenningen square through semi opaque curtains, with the mountain slope of Fløyen in the background. To its left, the harbour of Bergen lined by its Hanseatic houses of Bryggen. Bergensers and tourists alike navigate the square hidden below their umbrellas. After all, with an average of 266 days of rain a year, this seems like a reasonable accessory to carry when going out. In the corner of my eye, the fish market and the street leading to charming Nordnes district. With Bryggen and Nordnes at its feet, the majestic and classy Hotel Bergen Børs is the perfect base to explore the city.
However, today’s exploration will have to wait a little. I leave room 201, the former stock exchange commissioner’s office in the 1862 stock exchange building, to enjoy another of these feasts to start the day! Set in the former chamber of commerce that boasts the original wooden panels on the walls and ceiling (and that serves as the bar area in the evening), the breakfast is unbeatable: Karolina and her team prepare a fantastic high-quality buffet with everything one could dream of from salmon, cold cuts, fresh fruits, pastries, breads, warm dishes, favouring local producers, homemade jams and organic products as much as possible. After all, Bare, Bergen’s unique Michelin-starred restaurant operates from the same kitchen, so clearly, breakfast at the Hotel Bergen Børs cannot be skipped!
As Bogdan Ududec, manager and passionate guide for Norwegian Guided Service put it himself while walking us through his beloved Nordnes, Bergensers are different. This city of immigrants, even though they may have immigrated 10 generations back, has maintained an international vibe that is kept alive by its maritime economy, an openness that may come from an unobstructed view on the horizon with no land borders and a local pride. Bergen is the capital of Western Norway, that even has its different dialect compared to Oslo’s Eastern Norway.
Taking a few days to discover the city is a way to take in the vibe of this attaching city where one only wishes to stay longer.
- Hotel Bergen Børs is part of De Bergenske hotel chain, a local chain owned by a local family with five central locations across town.
- To help plan your trip, Visit Bergen is an excellent source of information too.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)!