When visiting Norway, many people stop at the capital Oslo, but the second largest city of Bergen is often overlooked. One reason for this is it is clear across the country, an add-on for which there is seldom enough time.
Not visiting the coastal town of Bergen, when you are in Norway, is a mistake. It has more history than most other parts of the country. Bergen is surrounded by seven hills and lies in a valley with direct access to the ocean. The fiords of this section of the west coast are spectacular, especially if you have a camera in hand or simply appreciate nature's wild beauty.
The city was developed in the mid sixteen hundreds by German merchants who realized that trading with Norway could be very lucrative. These Hanseatic Merchants, as they were known, immediately set up shop and began building stores and warehouses in western European styles of the day.
Today, the old city of Bergen is a haven for tourists. Dozens of shops line the canal and are all housed in original structures, all dating back to the seventeenth century. In order to keep the traditions alive the town council has initiated laws which insist that any renovations are done in the old traditions, using the original materials. It is not uncommon to see a modern door on a shop with an outside face of 400 year old wood.
Among the many stores are an excellent variety of traditional restaurants, featuring boiled potatoes, hearty vegetables and pot roast or sausages. One of my favourite restaurants is Bryggeloftet & Stuene. The concept is a bit different from most places in that you select your table and then head to the bar, where a menu is written on the wall. The lighting is dark and the place is built of solid Oak, giving it an extremely old appearance (probably because it is). You place your order for food and drink, pay the barman and take your seat.
I waited patiently and finally my drinks arrived, followed by the best order of Ribs I have ever tasted. The boiled potatoes melted in my mouth and the local beer washed it down deliciously. The arrangement does not provide for tipping, which is a nice diversion from what we are used to.
If you are not in the mood for a large meal there are many smaller restaurants and bakeries located throughout the old town. Quite often for lunch I enjoyed a few slices of homemade bread with a plate of local cheeses, accompanied by a cup of steaming coffee. Just remember to leave room for dessert. Norwegians have no shortage of pastries and ice cream, a great way to finish any meal.
It is easy to get lost in the narrow, winding streets, but the old part of the city is small enough that you will always find your way back to the harbour. The area is a shopper's paradise with many Christmas ornaments, souvenirs, sweaters, etc. Keep in mind that prices in Norway tend to be higher than the rest of Europe, so shop around and stay away from buying things you can easily get at home.
Bergen has many museums and sights, but before you set out you may want to invest in the Bergen Card. Issued by the city, this card is good for 24 hours at a cost of 200 Krona ($35 Cdn.) and gives you access to the entire transit system, as well as most museums and galleries, which is definitely the best way to travel in Bergen.
The Troldhaugen Museum is dedicated to the life and memory of Norway's greatest composer, Edvard Grieg. If royalty is in your cards you may want to take in the Gamlehaugen Palace, used by the royal family when they visit Bergen. The Palace was built in 1809 and has a storybook look to it. The grounds are amazing and great for leisurely strolls.
No Scandinavian harbour district would be complete without a fish market and Bergen can certainly boast one of Norway's finest. Everything in the market is fresh, but be sure to get there early, as the choice products are quickly purchased and the market closes when most of the goods are sold.
Although Bergen is quite large (population of 258,500) there are two basic districts, which would be of interest to visitors. The old town, which I talked about above and the town square, which is quite modern. I stayed at a Radisson located next to the square and found it to be convenient, as it is surrounded by department stores and restaurants. There are a few parks and, if the weather is nice, walking becomes very pleasurable.
Another interesting site in Bergen is the old Bergenhus Fortress, located high atop one of the seven hills that overlook the city. The views are spectacular and the transformation into historic Bergen is extremely interesting. Among the numerous lookouts is one on the roof where you stand amid the large, slate tiles.
No trip to Bergen is complete without a tour of the fiords. If you travel to this unique spot by cruise ship you will no doubt have already seen some spectacular sights, but, because the city lies on a fiord and is 39 km from the sea, tours by smaller boats and zodiacs are readily available and are a must for any visitor.
When you visit Scandinavia and Norway is part of your itinerary, be sure to make the time to visit Bergen, as you will not be disappointed. If you are on your own, there is a tour offered by the government called 'Norway in a Nutshell' (Focus on Scugog – November, 2011). You depart Oslo by train and transfer to the Flam railway (the steepest in the world), followed by a cruise through the fiords and a 45 minute bus ride into Bergen. The trek is about 8 hours and quite an adventure. Spend two days in Bergen and fly back to Oslo or retrace your steps by train.
Norway and, infact all of Scandinavia is a safe and popular tourist destination with amazing history, scrumptious food and lots to see and do.