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I need to start off with a full disclosure about my motives for traveling to Bergen: I knew next to nothing about things to do in Bergen when my family proposed a summer jaunt there. I wanted to visit Norway because I had been binge-watching Vikings and thought the fjords looked beautiful and hairstyles looked cool (love those braids!)
What I found in Bergen was a lot different than my Hollywood-inspired travel motivations. There was not much viking influence; instead what I found in Bergen was a historic, wet, and quirky city. A mix of the traditional and the modern and a few things that I just couldn’t wrap my head around. For example, landing at the very modern airport, tourists are greeted by an unexpected sign asking “Bergen?” as if the city itself is questioning its own identity.
Bergen, with a population of around 255,000, is Norway’s second largest city after Oslo. It is known as the gateway to Norway’s fjord country. Many cruises start here on their way into the fjords or farther North. In fact, the city itself is located on various islands in a fjord with high mountains. This location also gives Bergen the title of being the rainiest city in Europe, something my trip did not discredit; it rained every day.
Bryggen and its history
Bergen originated in the Bryggen neighborhood right around the harbor. Parts of the wooden buildings, 62 in fact, still stand, making this an important UNESCO World Heritage site. Although the area was ravaged by numerous fires (wood buildings do have a tendency to burn), the buildings were faithfully rebuilt each time.
Bergen was THE place to be in the 1300s when the Hanseatic League made this city extremely important for trading. Most of the trade was actually in codfish. It may not seem like a valuable commodity for us today, but dried, salted cod provided vital protein in a form that could be stored and transported.
Starting in 1360 the German Hanseatic Trading League set up headquarters in Bryggen. The history of these naval traders’ society and way of life is fascinating. The rules and rituals that members followed were very strict, so much so that young apprentices starting as cabin boys were locked into their enclosed wooden beds at night. Imagine that combined with the history of fires!
You can explore some of Bryggen’s buildings on your own, but for full access and interesting stories take a guided walking tour. Most tours will visit the Bryggens Museum–Bergen City Museum which also includes archaeological excavations from the first settlement.
Bergen’s top attraction is Mount Fløyen, and you’ll want to get up bright and early to be one of the first people in line for the Fløibanen funicular to go up the mountain. Seriously, when you see the line of people waiting later in the day you’ll be glad you went early since cruise ships bring in a lot of day-tripping tourists. A 6-minute panoramic ride will take you to the top of Fløyen. The cars are mostly glass and packed for standing room only. A round trip ticket is 100 KRN (~$15 US) and more during peak season. Although it’s pricey, the view is worth it.
Read this additional post with tips for riding the funicular and seeing Mount Floyen.
If you’re cheap or you really want to earn your breakfast, you can walk up to the top, passing through narrow streets and staircases on an hour-long hike. Once you’ve made it to the top, pose for a picture with the breathtaking backdrop of fjords and islands. After your photo op it’s possible to enjoy the view a little longer by grabbing breakfast and sitting outside the Fløien Folkerestaurant, a cafe and restaurant, but I’d recommend bringing your own picnic to save some money.
Explore the top of the mountain by taking a short walk to the hiking trails, and you’ll feel like you’ve left the city far behind. There are a number of fun surprises here, including lots of tree stump animals and trolls. Kids and (cough) yours truly will also enjoy the huge wooden playground and low ropes course that snake through the woods.
Central Bergen surrounds a hexagon-shaped lake that fronts the Festplassen, a park and green area. In the summer, if you are lucky, there will be live music here, and in the winter you’ll find the site of the twinkling Christmas Market. Edward Grieg, Norway’s most famous composer, is immortalized in not one but two statues in the area.
A few blocks farther down (or rather up, as you’ll be climbing a hill) is the red brick St. John’s church and the start of The University of Bergen. It is worth walking around here to see the buildings and the views.
After your tour, duck into the lively souvenir shops that now inhabit Bryggen’s original buildings. The famous Norwegian wool sweaters are a popular purchase, along with viking helmets and plastic weapons for the kids. To get a truly unique souvenir, however, visit the Norske Bunader store. Norwegians and many tourists with Norwegian descent come here to buy a Bunad, the traditional Norwegian outfits from the 1800s that have seen a resurgence in popularity lately. Even if you aren’t willing to drop $1000 on a traditional Norwegian outfit, it’s a treat to see the beautiful needlework and craftsmanship.
Ask any Minnesotan of Norwegian descent to name a Norwegian dish and they would likely say lefse (thin potato crepes) or lutefisk (dried whitefish soaked in lye–yeah, like the soap). While I was all psyched up to try lutefisk, it turns out no one in Bergen actually eats lutefisk. I was both disappointed and reassured to hear from a local that only a few people over the age of 50 actually eat this slimy but classic Norwegian dish.
The good news is that being in Bergen means there are lots of options for great seafood that does not contain lye. There are many restaurants near the wharf, but the best and cheapest option is to eat right at the outdoor fish market. Here your meal is on display and you can point to what you’d like to have cooked up for you. The paper plates and picnic tables are nothing fancy, but they are just feet from the water, and you can’t have a more authentically Bergen experience.
If you are looking for a fancier option, you can combine a seafood dinner with a half-hour boat cruise to the Cornelius Seafood Restaurant out of town in a tranquil setting. For a really special occasion, rent a private yacht to take you there!
Alternatively, have an early dinner in Bergen and take a three-hour evening fjord cruise. In summer the sun sets very late here, so you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy your cruise on the water and the beauty of Bergen’s natural setting.
One thing you must try are the Norwegian waffles. Waffles are not actually eaten for breakfast in Norway, but as a snack or treat. Waffle House –no relation to the popular US chain–is a small but popular cafe serving up some creative combinations of fruit and candy topped waffles. Did I mention they are heart-shaped? So cute!
Unfortunately, Norway is incredibly expensive and consistently ranked as one of the most expensive countries to travel to. This means lodging doesn’t come cheap either. The good news is that lodging here is generally clean, safe and comfortable, so staying in cheaper places like hostels can still be a good experience. We stayed in an Airbnb in the Stølen neighborhood and it was a great location. It was only about a block from the Bryggen open air museum but gave us a much more authentic experience. If you haven’t used Airbnb before you can use this referral link to get $55 off your first stay and help support this blog at no extra cost!
Bergen’s airport is an easy taxi or bus ride from the city and is served by many international airlines. Many people visit Bergen as part of a cruise to Norway. If coming from Oslo you can also take the popular scenic train that makes a number of stops that are of interest for tourists. The Bergen line goes along fjords and through Norway’s highest train pass.
Once in Bergen, the best way to get around is on foot, since everything is close and easy to walk to. There are public busses and a light rail system for the greater metro area. Buying a Bergen Card for 24, 48 or 72 hours includes entrance to a number of attractions and transportation, so this would be a good option if you don’t want to walk.
However you get there and get around, Bergen is the perfect city for an introduction to the best of Norway!