Somewhere I’m not too familiar with is Scandinavia. I’ve been to Stockholm and Copenhagen for long weekends – and very nice too – but that’s about it: I’ve not seen Oslo, Gothenberg, Tromsø, Malmo or Aarhus for example, let alone Helsinki or Reykjavik, often considered part of this northern region. So when Max, a student friend of mine, announced that he was spending his semester abroad in the north of Norway, I decided it was time I devoted more blog space to this interesting part of the world.
Bergen has a great deal going for it. Norway’s second city is strikingly set on a convergence of fjords, backed by steeped, forested slopes. Fascinating and picturesque quarters wait to be explored – not only Bryggen, the famous old timber wharf with Unesco World Heritage Site status, but also residential neighbourhoods with photogenic, white-painted wooden houses lining quiet cobbled streets.
If it’s raining – and given that Bergen is statistically one of the wettest cities in Europe there’s a strong chance it will be – there are plenty of good museums and art galleries deserving of your time.
1. Its historic wharf
Most cruise ships moor up at the mouth of the Vågen, the central harbour, a short walk to Bryggen. (If you’re travelling with Hurtigruten, its ships dock at a separate terminal, about 15 minutes away on foot).
Translating as The Wharf, Bryggen dates from the 12th century, though over the centuries it has been ravaged by fire. The 60 ochre- and tawny-coloured wooden buildings you see today are mostly around 300 years old, reconstructed after a particularly devastating fire in 1702.
Bryggen’s charm lies behind its waterfront facades, in its dimly-lit, timber-floored alleys and enclosed upper-floor corridors. Look out for still-used winches hanging from gables, and statues – an angel, a farmer, a deer – representing the different passageways. Shops sell enticing but expensive Norwegian specialities, such as hand-knitted sweaters, reindeer skins and moose leather jackets.
German merchants of the Hanseatic League lived and held sway in Bryggen from the mid-14th century for the best part of 400 years, trading in dried fish and grain. Learn more in Bryggen’s Hanseatic Museum (NOK 160/£15; schøtstuene.no), a beautifully restored house that includes the palatial offices and living areas of the merchant and the far more basic quarters for apprentices, visiting farmers and fishermen. The ticket also covers admission to the nearby Schøtstuene, a set of elegant assembly rooms where the merchants met, ate and drank in orderly Germanic fashion.
2. Scenic mountain views
It’s a five-minute walk from Bryggen to the base of the Fløibanen funicular. Ideally you will have bought your one-way ticket online in advance (NOK 45/£4; floyen.no), to avoid what can be a long queue for tickets purchased at the funicular. The eight-minute ride deposits you near the top of Fløyen, one of the seven mountains surrounding Bergen. Weather permitting, the panoramic views over the city, harbour and fjords are sensational.
3. Picturesque walks
Time permitting, you may want to venture off on hiking trails through the pine woods: the nearest beauty spot, Skomakerdiket lake, is about 10 minutes’ stroll from the top of the funicular. Back at the funicular, take the Tippetue path. It zigzags back down the mountain, after about 30 minutes ending up in a gorgeous part of the city – of steep, cobbled streets lined with immaculate old clapboard and terracotta-roofed houses, proudly sporting Norwegian flags and with pretty handkerchief-sized gardens.
4. Moreish cinnamon buns
Eating out in Bergen is eye-wateringly expensive. To keep costs down, have a giant reindeer hot dog (NOK 60/£5.50) from Trekroneren kiosk at Kong Oscars gate 1, back near the waterfront. Then grab a skillingsboller, a moreish cinnamon bun for which Bergen is famous, from one of the ubiquitous 7-Eleven shops.
Alternatively, head over to Pingvinen (The Penguin) at Vaskerelven 14 (pingvinen.no), a cosy and casual backstreet café/bar serving no-nonsense, traditional local dishes that are keenly priced by Norwegian standards. A satisfying plateful of plukkfisk – mash, white fish and bacon – costs NOK 169/£15.50.
5. Edvard Munch’s provocative artwork
A wide-ranging and beautifully presented collection of art is displayed in the KODE galleries (kodebergen.no), in buildings along one side of the octagonal Lille Lungegårdsvann lake. In KODE 3, make a beeline for the several rooms dedicated to Norway’s most celebrated artist, Edvard Munch, where you can take in moody and thought-provoking works from his Frieze of Life project. In KODE 4, don’t miss the fun and playful takes on Norwegian landscapes by Nikolai Astrup. KODE 1, focusing chiefly on craft and design, has just reopened after renovations. One ticket covering admission to all the galleries costs NOK 100/£9.
6. Norway’s greatest composer
Lovers of classical music should allow time to head out to Troldhaugen (griegmuseum.no; NOK 100/£9). The former home of Edvard Grieg, Norway’s greatest composer, occupies pretty grounds by a lake just south of Bergen. You can tour the late 19th-century wooden villa, furnished much as it was in when Grieg lived there until his death in 1907, and peer in to the lakeside hut where he did his composing.
To reach Troldhaugen under your own steam, take the Bergen Light Rail to Hop station (22 minutes from central Bergen), then walk (20 minutes). Or sign up for a bus tour departing from the tourist office at 11am, returning at 2.30pm: including admission and a piano recital in the turf-roofed concert hall, NOK 250/£23.
7. Bergen’s spectacular fish market
Before returning to your ship, you should definitely visit Bergen’s fish market, by the central harbour. It’s primarily pitched at tourists these days, but the displays of shellfish, smoked fish and even whale meat are impressive spectacles, and the stalls offer snacks and meals, with tables to eat at. Expect to pay around NOK 100/£9 for fish soup, and from NOK 130/£12 for a portion of fish and chips. The most appealing counters can be found in the covered hall, and stay open late.
If planning on doing a lot of sightseeing, you may save by investing in the Bergen Card (en.visitbergen.com/bergen-card), which gives free or reduced-price admission to most attractions, and can be bought from the tourist office by the Fish Market. The 24-hour card costs NOK 240/£22, children 3-15 NOK 90/£8.