Guide to Bergen: Norway’s historic mountain city and heart of the fjords
It’s a stepping-stone to Norway’s spectacular fjord country, brimming with rich historical heritage from the Middle Ages and home to the world’s biggest gingerbread town.
Honestly, what’s not to love about Bergen, Norway’s second largest city?
Well, okay, maybe its reputation as one of the rainiest cities in Europe. But if you have a raincoat and aren’t scared of a few muddy puddles, you’ll fall in love with Bergen’s bustling wharf, cobble-stoned streets and quaint mountainous charm that mixes so perfectly with its vibrant, festival-loving vibe.
In fact, you’d be forgiven for wanting to rip up your plane ticket home and lose yourself amongst the hiking trails, glaciers, waterfalls and islands that surround the charming Norwegian city.
And lose yourself you could, with such majestic scenery.
Where is Bergen?
It’s on the southwestern coast of Norway, nestled amongst glorious mountain terrain and sheltered from the North Sea by a group of islands. You can reach it by plane from Oslo in less than an hour or enjoy a scenic drive across the country from the capital, which takes about six to eight hours.
The city is perched on a harbour, with Bryggen (the old wharf with its row of colourful buildings, which also happens to be Bergen’s biggest tourist attraction) overlooking the water.
A city immersed in nature: Mountains, fjords, harbour-side living
So much about Bergen is influenced by its geography and landscape.
The name ‘Bergen’ actually comes from the Old Norse word ‘Bjørgvin’, which translates to “the meadow among the mountains”, a beautiful testament to the natural wonders surrounding the city.
There are seven mountains in particular that are well-known: Ulriken (643 metres or 2,109 feet), Fløyen (400 metres or 1,312 feet), Løvstakken (477 metres or 1,565 feet), Damsgårdsfjellet (350 metres or 1,148 feet), Sandviksfjellet (417 metres or 1,368 feet), Lyderhorn (396 metres or 1,299 feet), and Rundemanen (560 metres or 1,837 feet).
These mountains offer spectacular views and great hiking, and interestingly they’re also part of the reason behind its reputation for rain — apparently mountains force moist air to rise and form into clouds and Bergen’s got at least seven!
But don’t be discouraged by the weather. Bergen actually boasts one of the more temperate climates in Norway, making it a much warmer destination than Oslo in winter.
Some of the most breathtaking Norwegian fjords can be found within day-tripping distance from the city, hence its nickname as ‘Gateway to the Fjords’ and why it serves as the perfect base for travellers wanting to explore Norway’s wondrous waterways.
There are various tour companies operating out of Bergen that can take you on adventures through fjord-country, or you can do it yourself with a map and some local tips — either way, you truly need to see the fjords up close to understand what all the fuss is about.
Then there’s the harbour. The beating heart of the city.
It’s the historic centre of trade, a haven for boats seeking protection from the ocean and a busy port for cruise ships, bustling with visitors. Its wharf is the face that greets you from postcards and holiday snaps — all those pretty colourful wooden buildings overlooking the water and beckoning you in.
Bergen is a special place no doubt. But not just to the people who live there, but to all of Norway, thanks to its important historical legacy.
A history of Bergen: The capital of Norway and office of the Hanseatic League
It might be full of small-town charm but there’s no forgetting Bergen in the history books, and with good reason. It has played a key role in Norway’s monarchy, politics and trade since the early middle ages, standing strong through good times and bad.
It went on to become a place of significance to the Norwegian throne and church, with Magnus Erlingsson first crowned in Bergen in 1163. A handful of succeeding kings were crowned there after him, and it even served as the capital of Norway until it was replaced by Oslo in 1299.
One of its greatest legacies from history is the seaport, which became a hub of activity for traders and merchants, and an important place for the Hanseatic League.
In fact, it was one of the four Hanseatic quarters, holding a position as a sort of foreign office for the group from approximately 1360 until 1754. The Hansa influence on the city was monumental, so much so that there is a Hanseatic Museum dedicated to this time period in Bergen.
The city has burned down multiple times in the last 500 years (it’s no wonder with all those wooden buildings), with one particular fire in 1702 reducing the city to ashes. But there is something about the people and culture of this city that endures. Each time they’ve rebuilt and even managed to maintain the integrity and style of many of the original buildings, including those at Bryggen.
Bergen experienced further heartache during the Second World War, when the city was occupied on the first day of the Nazi invasion in 1940.
Though it fared better than other Norwegian cities, this was still a dark time for Bergen with much death and destruction. But, as always, the people of Bergen endured, and a strong resistance movement rose up. You can learn more about this at the Bergenhus Fortress Museum.
Experiencing Bergen’s rich historical legacy for yourself
The great thing about Bergen is that there are loads of museums and old parts of the city, so just a simple stroll around town and you’re in the thick of history.
Bryggen is on the UNESCO’s World Heritage List and is one of the city’s main attractions. Despite the fact that much of it was destroyed during the great fire of 1702, it was rebuilt according to the original foundations, so much of it is still as it was.
Another must-do is the famous Bergen Fish Market, which is open every day and sells seafood as well as local fruit and vegetables. It’s been going since the 1200s (yes, really) and is an iconic legacy from a city that has thrived for hundreds of years on its seafaring and seafood trading industries.
Other places of interest include the Hanseatic Museum, the Bergenhus Fortress Museum, the Bryggen’s Museum, the Leprosy Museum, the Maritime Museum and Haakon’s Hall. And if you’re looking for the oldest building in Bergen, it’s the St Mary’s Church, which is from the twelfth century.
The city of Bergen today: Where festival season goes all year long
There are now over 280,000 people in the city and thanks to the University of Bergen, students make up roughly 10% of the population. So, there’s definitely a modern buzz and youthful energy to the city, which perfect complements the historical nature and small-town charm.
There’s a thriving arts and music scene in Bergen. They boast one of the world’s oldest symphony orchestras and also Norway’s first national theatre. Many successful artists have called Bergen home, including the famous composer Edvard Grieg, and more recently, musicians such as Kygo, Kings of Convenience and Sissel Kyrkjebø.
The city and its people love their festivals so much that they host roughly 60 different concerts and festivals every year. While you can catch a variety of food and beer festivals, music festivals seem to be the most popular, filling up the calendar all year long.
Jazz, metal, contemporary, rock — you name it, there seems to be a music festival for every genre. One of the most popular is Bergenfest, a music festival which goes over four days every year and is held at the iconic Bergenhus Fortress.
A closer look at the famous fjords surrounding Bergen
The fjords of Norway are famous all around the world.
Snaking in and out of the countryside and surrounded by magnificent cliffs, they were formed over millions of years by retreating glaciers. These valleys filled with seawater and thus some of Norway’s most compelling landscape was born.
There are over one-thousand fjords scattered throughout Norway and the Bergen region is the perfect place to visit them. In fact, Bergen sits about halfway between two of the most magnificent fjords in Western Norway:
Known fondly as the ‘King of the Fjords’, it’s north of Bergen and is actually the longest (over 200 kilometres) and deepest (at its deepest it goes more than 1,300 metres) fjord in Norway.
The end of the Sognefjord is covered by Jostedalsbreen, the biggest glacier in continental Europe. One of its arms, the Nærøyfjord, is on the UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Both of these are worth a visit.
This beauty lies roughly south-east of Bergen and is renowned for the orchards in the region — if you visit in spring you may be lucky enough to see them in full blossom. It covers two national parks, and includes sights of glaciers and waterfalls.
Venturing through Hardangerfjord offers stunning views of the Vøringsfossen (Norway’s biggest waterfall) as well as the Hardangervidda Nature Centre in Eidfjord.
How to see and make the most of Bergen’s surrounding fjords
A daytrip from Bergen by boat, bus, train or car, (sometimes a combination of them) will take you through some of the most stunning fjord-landscape, scattered with beautiful islands, waterfalls, glaciers and mountains.
If you’re wanting to really soak up the beauty, you might even decide to do a longer trip with an overnight stay somewhere along the way.
There are lots of activities you can choose from in the area. You can take a relaxing cruise, enjoy mountain and glacier hiking, go skiing, cycle along the fjord arms, fish the coastline or get your adrenaline up with white-water rafting.
Why Bergen is a hiker’s haven
With mountains galore, Bergen is a popular destination for hiking enthusiasts and anyone wanting to feel on top of the world. With over seven different mountains, you could stay for weeks and still have exciting new terrain to cover.
But if you’re short on time or just looking for the most convenient hike, Mount Fløyen is probably the best choice. You can easily do it straight from the Bergen city centre, and the route is fairly straightforward. There are even shops and restaurants at the top, as well as an amazing lookout.
For anyone not feeling up to the walk, the Floibanen Funicular rail can take you to the top.
Bergen at Christmas: The world’s largest gingerbread city
If you’re lucky enough to visit Bergen in late November or December, you’re in for a treat. Quite literally. Because every year the people of Bergen bake and build their very own gingerbread town (pepperkakebyen), which is actually the largest one in the world.
It’s quite remarkable, and extremely detailed — it’s a miniature version of Bergen, all the way down to the little gingerbread houses, cars and ships.
If you’re feeling merry, there’s also the Bergen Christmas Market that’s held in the city centre and definitely worth a visit. It’s full of holiday-themed food and music, and even has a ferris wheel.
When is the best time to visit Bergen?
It’s a popular destination in the summer months, between May and September. Obviously, the temperatures are nicer, and the Norwegian countryside and fjord territory are at their most lush.
Alternatively, if you visit Bergen in December you can experience all the festivity and goodness of a classic Norwegian Christmas in a city that loves to celebrate!
Meanwhile, if you’d rather avoid the rain (as best as you can in the rainiest city in Europe) then consider visiting in May. This is usually the driest time of year in Bergen, although it still gets a lot of rain, just not as much as other months.
Getting to Bergen from Oslo
If you’re driving, catching a train, or taking the bus, the trip from Oslo to Bergen can take between six and a half to eight hours, depending on whether it’s winter or summer. It can be a beautiful trip, taking you along stunning coastline, forest and mountain terrain.
Meanwhile, flying from Oslo to Bergen airport is very easy and convenient.
The flight is just under one-hour and there are usually lots of flights out of Oslo. Getting from the airport to the Bergen city centre is also pretty simple with the option of the Bergen Light Rail (takes about 45 minutes) or the Airport Bus (takes about 30 minutes).
How to come prepared for Bergen’s rainy weather
There’s no hiding the rain when talking about Bergen. It’s a simple fact of life for the locals who just get on with things — reminiscent of their attitude all throughout history.
But as long as you come prepared, there’s no need to let the rain dampen your spirits.
There is a Norwegian saying that you might hear on your travels: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.”
This no-nonsense approach is so beautifully Norwegian and speaks for itself, really. The kind of advice that makes you pause and remember that the Scandinavians have been living and loving life in the Nordic region since the Ice Age. Throughout the harshest of conditions, often without complaint.
So, when packing: waterproof boots and a good rain jacket are a must. Umbrellas are handy. A rain cover for your backpack (especially if you’re hiking) is a good idea.
When the skies open up, find a café to snuggle up in or a museum to wander around, then wait for the sun to come back. When you’re gazing out at the most magical view you’ve ever seen, you won’t regret it.
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