A Bite of Bergen
By Rick Steves
Bergen is permanently salted with robust cobbles and a rich sea-trading heritage. Norway's capital in the 12th and 13th centuries, Bergen's wealth and importance came thanks to its membership in the heavyweight medieval trading club of merchant cities called the Hanseatic League. Bergen still wears her rich maritime heritage proudly.
Bergen gets an average of 80 inches of rain annually (compared to 30 inches in Oslo). A good year has 60 days of sunshine. The natives aren't apologetic about their famously lousy weather. In fact, they seem to wear it as a badge of local pride. "Well, that's Bergen," they'll say matter-of-factly as they wring out their raincoats. When I complained about an all-day downpour, a local cheerfully informed me, "There's no such thing as bad weather — just inappropriate clothing"...a local mantra that rhymes in Norwegian.
With 250,000 people, Bergen has its big-city tension, parking problems, and high prices, but visitors sticking to the old center find it charming. Enjoy Bergen's salty market, then stroll the easy-on-foot old quarter. From downtown Bergen, a funicular zips you up a little mountain for a bird's-eye view of this sailors' town.
Explore Bergen's Hanseatic Quarter, called Bryggen (BREW-gun), the heart of the old town and former trading center. From 1370 to 1754, German merchants controlled Bergen's trade. In 1550, it was a German-run city of 2,000 workaholic merchants — walled and surrounded by 8,000 Norwegians. Bryggen, which has burned down several times, has become touristy and boutiquey, but it's still lots of fun.
Strolling in Bryggen today, you feel swallowed up by history. The most colorful bit is Bryggen's wooden core, with medieval-style "double-tenements" — long rows of planky buildings leaning haphazardly across narrow alleys. The ends of the rows facing the harbor are brightly painted, offering the perfect "Hey, I'm in Norway!" backdrop.You'll find plenty of atmospheric restaurants, planky alleys, slouching wooden warehouses, and shops bursting with pewter trinkets, trolls, and hand-knit sweaters.
For a better understanding of Bergen's 900-year history, join a local guide for a 90-minute walk through this historic section. The tour includes an entry ticket to Bergen's worthwhile Hanseatic Museum. Housed in a medieval merchant's home, it's furnished with dried fish, old ropes, sagging steps, and cupboard beds from the early 1700s (one with a medieval pin-up). Check out the ox tail once used for wringing spilled cod liver oil back into a bucket.
From downtown, hop aboard the Fløibanen, Bergen's popular funicular for a steep ride to the top of "Mount" Fløyen (1,000 feet up). At the summit, visitors enjoy the best view of town, plus a good look at the surrounding islands and fjords. Sunsets are great here, and picnicking is popular. Pose for photos with the goofy giant troll or wander the many hiking paths that crisscross the mountain.
Bergen's colorful harborside fish market offers lots of smelly photo fun. For a closer connection with the sea, ask at the tourist office about boat tours to nearby fjords.
From Bergen, serious sailors can add a dash of the Arctic to their travels. Consider booking a seven-day trip on the Hurtigruten coastal ships that steam north along Norway's scenic coast. This route was started in 1893 as a postal and cargo delivery service. Still flying the Norwegian postal flag, the steamers deliver mail, people, cars, and cargo from Bergen to the small port of Kirkenes on the Russian border. A lifeline for remote areas, the ships call at 34 fishing villages and cities. Passengers soak up the rugged coastal scenery and enjoy optional port excursions. For most travelers, the ride makes a great one-way trip, but a flight back south is a logical last leg (rather than returning to Bergen by boat — a 12-day round-trip).