For a relatively small city Bergen has a surprising variety of attractions for visitors, most of them within a short walk of the Torget, the broad avenue that fixes the north end of the harbor.
That harbor, the Vågen, has been the center of Bergen’s economic life for a millennium. By the 13th century, when Bergen was the capital of the kingdom of Norway, a bureau of the Hanseatic League controlled all the trade of northern Norway and their enclave here (the Bryggen) was a major trading center and exporter of stockfish. In spite of periodic ups and downs, Bergen continued to be a major commercial center. Today it is Norway’s second largest city with a population of a quarter million people, but the intimate feeling of a city a quarter of that size.
Start walking in the 13th century
Begin at the Bergenhus Fortress, on the north side of the harbor at the far end of the Bryggen. Its walls were first erected in about 1240, when King Håkon Håkonsson established Bergen as the capitol of Norway. The Rosenkrantz Tower, through which you enter the fortress grounds, was built in about 1270 and contained apartments for King Magnus the Lawmaker on the upper floors. In the mid-16th century it was expanded and heightened by the fort governor, Erik Rosenkrantz, giving it his name. Some say that its gun ports facing the Bryggen were as much to keep the German merchants in line as to protect the city. Further into the Fortress is the largest secular medieval building in Norway, Håkon’s Hall, built in 1260. It was an extension of the royal living quarters and a center of court life. The explosion of a Nazi munitions ship in 1944 caused major damage, but the hall was repaired and is still used for major royal events.
Then venture into a medieval Hansa colony
Back outside the fortress on the Slottsgaten, walk east along the north side of the harbor into the section known as the Bryggen. Just beyond the conveniently located Clarion Havnekontoret Hotel is the Bryggens Museet, the place to learn about the Hansa merchant presence in the city. Further along the Bryggen stand a number of wooden buildings, all with steep gabled roofs. Fire has been a vital enemy of Bergen for a millennium, periodically wiping out large segments of the city. As a result, the westernmost few of these wooden buildings are modern replacements, but the last several are actual survivors from the 17th and 18th centuries. The Hanseatic Museum on the corner of Finnegardsgaten and its other building, the Schøtstene on Øvre Garten street behind the Bryggen, are important stops, telling the story of this self-contained German merchant enclave in the center of Bergen.
Cross Finnegardsgaten, past the medieval-looking building that was actually built in the 19th century as a slaughterhouse, now home to a number of restaurants. The next street is Vetrlidsallmenningen, where you should turn left. Fires in this section took out older buildings and on this street you will find some fine examples of Nordic Art Nouveau architecture, called Jugenstil here, mixed in with traditional-style wooden buildings. The low white building at the head of the street houses the Fløiebanen, the funicular to the top of the Fløyen hill.
Ride up the hill for fjord views
The Fløyen is a large hilltop park with walking and hiking trails, a restaurant, children’s playground and a breathtaking view overlooking the city, its seven hills and the fjords and islands beyond. While it is possible to walk all the way back down, I’s easier to get off the funicular at the Proms Gate stop and walk down from there. Ahead is the very noticeable white Skansen Fire Tower, and any of the winding streets downhill to the left takes you through a charming neighborhood of small wooden houses on narrow, winding streets. This will bring you back down to Øvregaten and along the back of the Bryggen. The Schøtstene Museum is on the left just as you get to the double-towered Mariakirken.
Find a nineteenth century village
Continue on Øvregaten as it winds its way up the hill behind the Bergenhus Fortress. Just past the fortress look for a very narrow street, more of an alley, called Skuteviksveien and follow it to the left, downhill. This is another settlement of tiny old wooden houses, descending in layers down the steep hillside. Take the time to wander the winding alleys to the right, a side trip straight into the 18th and 19th centuries.
At the foot of the hill is a major street called Sjøgaten. Cross the street (carefully, as traffic can be heavy) for the beautiful sight of old red and yellow warehouses lined up along the shore. To the right, farther along this road, is the Norwegian Fisheries Museum. Return to the Bryggen by following the coast left past the fort or cutting through the Bergenhus Park.