Colorful wooden buildings dot the wharf area of Bergen, scrunched up one against the other like brightly colored Monopoly pieces. Some of the gabled buildings are slightly tilted, but it only adds to the charm of this UNESCO World Heritage city. Centuries ago, this wharf area, called Bryggen – meaning “the wharf” — was a world hub for cod trading. Back then, the wooden buildings had sleeping rooms and cookhouses, assembly rooms and stables. Now, an old world charm remains but the spaces within are filled with galleries, cafes and souvenir shops. The area is emblematic of a town that is both old and new, one that beautifully looks back to preserve its history, while stepping forward to entice visitors to explore all that is new about it.
I roam the cobblestone streets of Bergen, Norway’s second largest city situated on its western coast, ducking in and out of the narrow alleyways between the wooden buildings. There are overhanging balconies, small bridges connecting some of the buildings and skewed architecture that makes me bend my head to see straight. I half expect to see a young lad in knickers scamper by or a woman in a white cap and long dress, like in times of old, shout down that supper is on the table. Bergen has a powerful sense of history with that old-world warmth and feel.
A Norwegian king founded the city in 1070, and since then Bergen has burned down many times. The early 1700’s saw the last of the major rebuilding from fires, and it was during that time that the current Bryggen buildings were built. When any one of them now needs repair, workers are only permitted to use tools from that period so as to remain true to the city’s architectural origins.
Gateway to the Fjords
The colorful wharf area is just one touring point of interest in Bergen. The city, surrounded by seven mountains, is known as the “gateway to the fjords.” There are numerous excursions of varying length departing from Bergen to explore the breathtaking scenery of the fjords, some narrow and deep with cascading waterfalls and towering snow-capped cliffs. Some tours include mountain biking through scenic valleys and fishing or kayaking on the fjords. But I don’t even need to leave Bergen to see some majesty of the mountains.
Right in the middle of town I find the funicular that runs every half hour and in less than 10 minutes I’m whisked to the top of Mount Fløyen where I take in the spectacular vistas of the city, the fjords and the sea. There’s a restaurant and shop there and surrounding are walking and hiking trails, including one for ambitious hikers that goes all the way back down to town. The funicular also makes intermittent stops, allowing for disembarking at various levels of the mountain.
Tales of Bygone Eras
Back in town, I tour some of the historic sights of which there are plenty. Particularly interesting is the Bryggens Museum on the site of the extensive archaeological excavations that uncovered the city of a thousand years before from the dust and ashes. There are ruins displayed from the 12th century buildings and objects having to do with commerce, culture and daily life in days gone by. There are intriguing items like combs made from reindeer horns, an ancient-looking ice skate (who knew anyone ice skated in medieval times), jewelry, pottery and more. The museum also happens to be next door to the Radisson Blu Royal Hotel, one of the nicest and most centrally located hotels in the city. The Clarion Collection Hotel Havnekontoret is steps away as well, situated in a landmark stone building.
A short walk away is Rosenkrantz Tower, an important Renaissance monument that was the residence of the last king to hold court in Bergen, King Eirik Magnusson, until he died in 1299. The tower has a dark side, too; it was a notorious dungeon used from about the late 1400’s well into the 19th century. There are guided tours of the tower and on a nice day the surrounding grounds, which are lovely for strolling, offer beautiful views of the sea. Amusingly, my walking tour guide tells me that if I stroll a couple of blocks north, I’ll end up on Øvre Gaten (gaten means street). There, explains my guide, “The oldest street in Bergen was the place for the oldest profession.” That’s not the case in the Bergen of today.
There are two other interesting sights on this north side of Bergen’s harbor. One is the tiny Theta Museum, located down an alley on the second floor of a wooden building. During World War II, when the Germans occupied Norway, resistance members created a secret radio room in the building and relayed information about naval traffic to the Norwegian government in exile. To get in, I’m told, soldiers somehow used rusty nails and a coat hanger to short-circuit the locks. A German soldier discovered the room when his foot fell through a floorboard though resistance workers were not in there at the time. While later on some ended up in concentration camps, there were survivors who returned to the room a few decades ago and helped begin its reconstruction into the one-room museum of today.
A few blocks away heading into the heart of town is the Hanseatic Museum, yet another crooked house in a city filled with them. (Some are crooked because of settling; others from an enormous explosion of dynamite during the war). The Hanseatic Museum has preserved its 18th and 19th century interiors and is furnished as in the days of Hanseatic merchants who lived and stored goods in the building. It’s worth a visit because it captures the true feel of Bergen’s origins as a trading hub.
The Tastes of Bergen
All the walking and touring whets my appetite. So I head to the large fish market on the south side of the harbor to peruse the local offerings; I always enjoy visiting these markets since they shed light on local culture and customs. At this lively one there are all kinds of interesting delicacies and exotic fish, along with scrumptious cheeses, fruits, flowers and more.
I then head to a restaurant I’m told is particularly special for its farm to table offerings. It’s called Hanne Pa Hoyden, or in English, Hanne on the Hill, and the vivacious owner, Hanne, serves up amazingly tasty dishes using organic and local ingredients. Hanne tells me that it’s not uncommon for her to walk through the forest asking herself, “What can I eat?” That might mean that free-range meats like western fjord cattle, wild reindeer or mountain trout end up seasoned with pine and birch or accented with wild garlic or cloudberries that must be picked, says Hanne, “when it’s not cloudy” (go figure). Delving into the restaurant’s crème brulée with hints of spruce, I’m not sure I’ve ever tasted anything so interesting while at the same time delicious. (The restaurant also caters to special diets such as gluten-free. Call ahead to make arrangements.)
After a couple of days and a few more restaurant excursions in Bergen, I begin to think that Norwegian food is highly underrated and the flavors of the coast can make for a wonderful culinary journey. I nearly swoon over oysters with apple-chili vinaigrette at Bølgen & Moi, a brasserie by the main square and near to that is Matbørsen, a type of food court, Bergen style, amid a setting of stunning, frescoed walls; it’s worth visiting just to see the frescoes.
Most of all in Bergen, however, I simply enjoy walking the pedestrian friendly streets. It’s almost impossible to get lost. But if I do take a wrong turn it isn’t such a bad thing because there are charming surprises around almost every corner in this captivating city of wooden houses.
The country code for Norway is 47
Where to Stay:
Clarion Collection Hotel Havnekontoret – Landmark building and a waterfront location near the Rosenkrantz tower with top amenities and helpful staff. Slottsgaten 1, 5003 Bergen; 55 60 11 00; www.clarionhotel.com/hotel-bergen-norway-NO097
Radisson Blu Hotel Norge – Modern, luxury accommodations in an unbeatable location across from major museums. Nedre Ole Bulls plass 4, 5807 Bergen; 55 57 30 00; www.radissonblu.no/hotellnorge-bergen
Best Western Hotel Hordaheimen – Cozy, modernized hotel originally opened in 1918. C. Sundts gate 18, 5004 Bergen; 55 33 50 00; www.hordaheimen.no
*Breakfast is always included in Norwegian hotels
Where to Eat:
Enhjørningen – The oldest fish restaurant in Bergen with an extensive menu featuring world class food and wines. Don’t miss their special Fish Soup. Bryggen 29, Bergen; 55 30 69 50; www.enhjorningen.no
Bryggen Tracteursted – Oldest restaurant in Bergen offering a unique environment in an historic building featuring Norwegian and Hanseatic-inspired specialties. Bryggestredet 2, Bergen; 55 31 59 55; www.bellevue-restauranter.no/bryggen-tracteursted
Jacobs Bar & Kitchen – Focusing on local ingredients, a team of celebrity chefs create food that is worthy of Top Chef. Hope that the whale tataki in on the daily menu when you go. Kong Oscarsgate 44, Bergen; 55 54 41 60; www.jacobsbergen.no
Sumo – You’ll know where to go when the urge for sushi strikes. Seating alfresco and a cool vibe. Neumannsgate 25, Bergen; 55 90 19 60; www.sumorestaurant.no
Bolgen & Moi – Good brasserie and bar with seasonal international cuisine. Vågsallmenningen 16, 5014 Bergen; 55 59 77 00; www.bolgenogmoi.no
Hanne på Høyden – Best of Norwegian farm to table cuisine using intriguing and delicious organic products. Call ahead and the restaurant will accommodate special dietary restrictions. Fosswinckelsgate 18, Bergen; 55 32 34 32; www.hannepaahoeyden.wordpress.com
Where to Drink:
Kaféen – Just about the coolest spot in Bergen to hang with the underground scenesters while listening to some cellar sounds. Skostredet 12, Bergen; 90 74 68 07; www.facebook.com/pages/Kaf%C3%A9en/408396862519304
Bar Barista – Out of a Fellini movie, well practically. If you’re feeling like staying out late, this is the place. Øvre Gaten 12, Bergen; 46 94 07 34; www.barbarista.no
Dyvekes Vinkjeller – Intimate wine bar named after a beautiful mistress who became queen. Hollendergaten 7, 5017 Bergen; 55 32 30 60; www.dyvekes.no
What to See & Do:
Bryggen – A stroll around the old Hanseatic harborside, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a must on a visit to Bergen.
KODE 4 – Four art and design museums, three adjacent to each other on the same street, and the fourth across the street. Each has a very impressive permanent collection. Rasmus Meyers allé 3,7,9 and Nordahl Bruns gate; www.bergenartmuseum.no
Fløibanen Funicular – Take this 8 minute ride to the top of Mount Fløyen for spectacular vistas overlooking the city and fjords. Vetrlidsallmenningen 21, N-5014 Bergen; 55 33 68 00; www.floibanen.com
Hanseatic Museum – A captivating wooden house museum depicting the life of merchants in bygone eras. Finnegården 1A, 5003 Bergen; 55 54 46 90; www.museumvest.no
Bryggens Museum – Experience life in medieval times at this city museum based on archaeological excavations. Dreggsallmenningen 3, 5835 Bergen; 55 30 80 30; www.bymuseet.no/index.php?vis=77
Bergen Aquarium – A great excursion for kids. Nordnesbakken 4, 5005 Bergen; 40 10 24 20; www.akvariet.no
*Editor’s Note: Get the skivvy on Bergen’s past and present in advance by hiring an authorized Bergen City Guide. Jim Paton, with years of experience, is one of the best. office-55 31 15 05; cell-90 14 82 37; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.bergencityguides.no