Norway’s second city was the home of kings in the Middle Ages and a trading post for the Hanseatic League. A remnant from that era is Bryggen, a photogenic quayside district of painted wooden houses with triangular gables.
Bergen’s city centre is watched by an arc of seven mountains capped with snow for much of the year. And two, Fløyen and Mount Ulriken have a funicular or cable car waiting to lift you to the summit. From there you can scramble over rocky trails with constant view of Bergen and its fjords.
And on that subject, the Hardangerfjord is a landscape that hardly looks real until you’re in it. A comfortable day trip destination from Bergen, the fjord is hemmed by formidable walls of rock that descend to bucolic little villages and orchards.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Bergen:
The row of slender wooden houses painted in yellow, ochre and red on the eastern quayside in the Vågen bay is one of Bergen’s enduring images.
Bryggen is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and these edifices would once have been warehouses, holding cereal from Europe and stockfish caught further north.
The passages between the storefronts hint at of how Bergen might have looked in Medieval times.
The city was born around this waterside community almost a millennium ago, and in the mid-14th-century Bryggen became a “Kontor”, a foreign trading post for the Hanseatic League, which had a presence across the whole of northern Europe at this time.
The architecture here now is from after a fire in 1702, but when these houses were rebuilt the same centuries old foundations were used.
2. Hanseatic Museum and Schøtstuene
Raised in the wake of the fire at the start of the 18th century, the beautiful timber building hosting the Hanseatic Museum is one of the oldest wooden structures in Bergen.
Since 1872 there has been a museum here, documenting the 400-year history of the German merchants’ guild’s association with Bergen from around 1350 to 1750. It is the only building at Bryggen to have retained its original interiors.
Its occupants were prohibited from lighting fires for light, heat or food because of the fire risk.
By day they would work downstairs in the warehouse and offices and spend nights in dormitories above.
On the same ticket you can go inside Schøtstuene a brief walk to the rear of Bryggen, assembly halls for the Hanseatic League, with meeting rooms, banquet halls and courtrooms.
3. St Mary’s Church
The oldest building in Bergen is by the Schøtstuene behind Bryggen and is an unusual example of Romanesque architecture in Norway.
In fact, no other church in Norway has a western facade like this, with square, unadorned towers and semicircular windows typical of the Romanesque style.
St Mary’s Church would have been erected in the middle of the 12th century.
In the choir the pointed windows are Gothic and suggest that this part of the church was rebuilt after a fire in 1248. At the southern portal you can see Romanesque bestial and foliate motifs on the capitals in the jambs.
The church’s greatest treasure though is its altarpiece, carved in the Hanseatic capital, Lübeck in the 15th century.
The triptych shows the Madonna with Child at the centre, flanked by St Olav and St Antony on the right and St Catharine and St Dorothy on the left.
4. Fløyen and the Fløibanen Funicular
Just 150 metres from Bryggen you can catch a funicular launching you to near the top of the 425-metre Fløyen mountain in no time at all.
The Fløibanen first started running in 1918 and is Bergen’s most popular single visitor attraction.
The track is 850 metres long and the train carries you more than 300 metres up the slope in just six minutes.
When you arrive you can stand at the Fløytrappene and revel in the views over Bergen, looking over the fjords and water traffic making its way to and from the North Sea.
This can be the first step on a hike along this balcony over the city, while there’s also a restaurant and children’s playground up a broad flight of stairs.
5. Troldhaugen, Home of Edvard Grieg
Edvard Grieg, Norway’s preeminent composer, lived the final 20 years of his life at this scenic hilltop villa above Lake Nordås.
Named Troldhauden (Troll Hill), the house was designed by Grieg’s cousin Schak Bull, and was completed in 1885. Grieg spent the summers here with his wife when he was home in Norway, and would compose pieces in a little hut overlooking the lake.
In 1985 the discreet, 200-seater Troldsalen auditorium was built at the site, while a decade later a museum building was added with an exhibition about Grieg’s life and music.
Meanwhile the house is an intimate living museum, filled with the Griegs’ personal effects and complete with the Steinway grand piano Edvard received as an anniversary present in 1892.
6. KODE Art Museums
In 2013 a group of four art institutions and cultural sites around Bergen were brought under a one umbrella named “KODE”, with a single ticket providing entry to all four attractions.
KODE 1 is for craft and design, and has a permanent exhibition of gold and silver objects produced in Bergen, as well as paintings by Old Masters, and European and Asian antiques.
KODE 2 is a contemporary art museum which at the time of writing had an exhibition for Japanese installation artist Chiharu Shiota.
KODE 3 has works from the Golden Age of Norwegian art, including paintings by Edvard Munch and Romantic artist Johan Christian Dahl.
And finally KODE 4 is an art museum, also endowed with works by Dahl, as well as Paul Klee, Picasso and Asger Jorn.
Children are welcome at KODE 4, which has the Kunstlab, in which children can discover art through play.
7. Mount Ulriken
The highest of Bergen’s seven mountains crests at 643 metres, and like Fløyen there’s an easy way to reach the top.
In Ulriken’s case it’s the Ulriksbanen aerial tramway, which has been ferrying people to the peak and back since 1961. At the summit there’s another exhilarating vantage point set up with telescopes, as well as a restaurant and a TV tower visible across Bergen.
If you prefer a challenge you can hike up via a system of trails, and the route most travelled begins at Montana, which can be reached on the no.
12 bus and takes about 90 minutes in good weather.
After hitting the top, hardy walkers can continue their adventure on the Vidden Trail to Fløyen.
In Bergen you’re close enough to Norway’s second longest fjord that a trip should be a no-brainer.
You’ll need at least a day to feel like you’ve scratched the surface, and fortunately the infrastructure is strong, with buses, ferries and tour companies vying to give you the best experience of a landscape of ethereal beauty.
Hardangerfjord is also Norway’s fruit orchard, as beside the water, at the base of towering walls of rock are lush apple orchards and strawberry farms.
In season you can buy apples using the honour system and visit villages with folk culture intact (embroidery, traditional fiddles). You may also want to see nature at its rawest, setting a course for almost inconceivable landforms like the iconic Trolltunga overhang (Troll’s Tongue), or the Folgefunna glacier.
9. Bergenhus Fortress
In one form or another, this fortress has guarded the opening to Vågen bay since the middle of the 13th century.
The outline of this sizeable complex is from the 19th century, and it holds buildings dating to any time between the 1200s and the 1900s (German WWII bunkers). One of the oldest is the beautiful Haakon’s Hall, a ceremonial hall that went up in the mid-13th century in the reign of King Haakon IV of Norway and was used for the wedding of his son Magnus VI of Norway to Ingeborg of Denmark.
On the walls are both Romanesque and Gothic window openings, while a crow-stepped gable crowns the facade.
Amateur historians should take a self-guided tour around the fortress enclosure, discovering that German bunker, quarters for guards and the commandant, stables, batteries and the Koengen, a former depot used today for high-profile outdoor concerts in summer.
10. Rosenkrantz Tower
On Vågen bay to the south of the Bergenhus fortress is another structure of real historical value.
The Rosenkrantz Tower is named for the nobleman and governor Erik Rosenkrantz who oversaw the remodelling of the tower into one of Norway’s prime Renaissance residences in the 16th century.
The tower has been here since the late 13th century when it was a home for King Eric II of Norway, the last king to hold court in Bergen.
Rosenkrantz Tower had a real upstairs-downstairs setup, as the king and later the governor’s residence was on the top floor, while the basement was a dungeon, a role it filled all the way to the 1800s.
In the 1740s the tower’s upper levels became a gunpowder magazine, and would remain so until the 1930s.
Visitors now come to scale the dark, narrow staircase to gaze over Vågen bay from the roof.
11. Fantoft Stave Church
You can catch the Bergen Light Rail down to this reconstructed timber stave church a few kilometres south of the city centre.
The Fantoft Stave Church is originally from the village of Fortun in the Sogn district, and was erected around 1150. It was moved here in pieces in 1883 to save it from demolition.
Unfortunately in 1992 the church was burnt down in an arson attack, but was carefully rebuilt over the next five years.
The rebuilt church is a memorable sight, even of little of the original monument could be salvaged, except for the gold cross on the altar, a relic on one wall and a historic stone cross brought here from the Sola municipality.
12. Damsgård Manor
Across the Damsgårdssundet (Damsgård Sound) is what may be the finest wooden Rococo mansion in the world.
Damsgård Manor was raised in the 1770s for the minister of war Joachim Christian Geelmuyden Gyldenkrantz at a time when aristocratic country retreats were cropping up on the outskirts of the city.
In summer the grounds are open to the public and include a Lord’s Garden and Lady’s Garden, both formal and enriched with statues, topiaries and geometric flowerbeds.
There’s also a looser English garden with undulating lawns and a pond.
As for the house, the decor has been returned to its 18th-century finery and can be seen on tours at 12:00 and 14:00, as well as 13:00 on Sundays.
13. VilVite Science Centre
If you’re in Bergen with little ones and the weather isn’t cooperating, the VilVite Science Centre means fun and education in equal measure.
The centre has 75 stations, inviting children to learn by getting involved with games and interactive experiments.
Kids can become a TV presenter to give a weather forecast, steer a container ship, drill for oil and go upside down on the “G-Force”, a bicycle on a track that does a complete loop.
Nearly all of the stations are centred on the topics of energy, the ocean and the weather.
On weekends and school holidays there are also 3D movie screenings and specially organised science shows.
14. Bryggens Museum
This museum in Bryggen owes its existence to a calamity.
In 1955 the district was struck by fire, but this gave the city a chance to conduct archaeological excavations.
The discoveries made during these digs opened a window on Medieval life and commerce in Bryggen.
They are at the core of the museum, which has been built around the 900-year-old foundations that were uncovered.
In display cases are Medieval weights, pieces of jewellery and a wealth of runic inscriptions etched into wood.
15. Fish Market
At the innermost quay on Vågen bay is the spot where fishermen have been trading their catch since the 13th century.
And while today’s fish market is more geared towards tourists, it remains something you have to see when you visit Bergen.
There are outdoor stalls next to a swish new indoor hall, which is more of a culinary destination than a traditional market.
Within you could down some freshly shucked oysters with a glass of Riesling, warming fish soup, a mango-salmon roll or fried calamari, or splash out on a supreme if pricey meal.
The outdoor market’s opening hours contract in the winter, when it is only open on weekends, but in summer you have to pop by any day to be amazed by the full bounty loaded ashore from the North Sea.