How to spend a weekend in Bergen, the gateway to Norway's fjords

Bounded by mountains and sea, Norway’s second city is arguably its most picturesque and welcoming. Its timbered facades and medieval harbour ooze old-world charm, its cuisine is creative, while the surrounding wilderness is ripe for exploring.

This article was adapted from National Geographic Traveller (UK).

Life in Bergen has always been defined by the sea. Lying on the southern part of Norway’s fjord-speckled western coast, the city descends from the seven mountains that frame it to meet a dramatic, fractured coastline of inlets and islands.

It’s impossible to detach Bergen’s existence from its seafaring past and present. Today, visitors flock to see the medieval harbourfront, Bryggen, which sprung up in response to a flourishing codfish industry — one that saw Bergen become Scandinavia’s largest city in the 1600s. 

The iconic fjords are another major draw. The city pours out to the edge of every peninsula, looking out to sea, and tourist boats regularly dart in and out, taking curious passengers to see the cragged waterways that Norway is so well-known for. 

Bergen knows its strengths and plays to them. With the ebb and flow of maritime trade over the years, the city amassed a rich, diverse heritage and a talent for welcoming outsiders. The city entertains visitors through both its art and history and at its dining tables (it’s a UNESCO City of Gastronomy). And for those looking to escape into nature, there’s nowhere better: Bergen is the perfect launchpad from which to explore the wilderness that unfolds beyond the city’s edge. 

Constantly developing while also carefully preserving, Bergen is a city that has stood the test of time.

Day one: dining & docks

Make a beeline for Bryggen, the city’s historic harbour district and UNESCO World Heritage Site, for a glimpse of how Bergen operated in the Middle Ages. The harbourfront — lined with gabled houses painted shades of red, amber and ochre — is an image that’s synonymous with the city. Bryggen’s warren of shops, restaurants and artist studios is housed in 62 historic buildings that once served as a base for mercantile superpower the Hanseatic League. In recent years, the area, along with the nearby village of Balestrand, has served as the inspiration for the magical kingdom of Arendelle in Disney’s Frozen movies. If a pastry pit stop is required, try Baker Brun on the harbourfront for kanelbullar (cinnamon rolls) as big as your face.

Bergen’s creative culinary scene is testament to the global influences that arrived via its harbours. Stop by the fresco-clad former stock exchange, Matborsen, which now houses a selection of interesting restaurants, including Bare Vestland; it specialises in small plates, but if you only order one thing for lunch, make it the plukkfisk — haddock, potatoes and onions cooked in a bechamel sauce (comfort food at its finest and most filling). You’ll need the sustenance, as the afternoon should be dedicated to discovering Fløyen, one of the city’s most popular peaks. The Fløibanen funicular sweeps you up to the top in a matter of minutes; forested paths snake back down to the city — ideal for those looking to hike. 

Dive back into Bryggen for a dose of history at Bergen’s oldest restaurant, Bryggen Tracteursted, a place where Norwegian and Hanseatic traditions collide. It’s been in operation since 1708 and, accordingly, has plenty of stories — its stone floor, for example, meant it was the only room in the wooden medieval quarter allowed have a fire. On the menu, you’ll find traditional delicacies such as cod tongue, fermented trout and reindeer tartare served with a twist as bite-size Norwegian tapas. More conventional offerings are also on offer, such as spiced herring and stews. Afterwards, stop by Dyvekes wine bar for a nightcap in its 12th-century cellar to round off your historical escapade. 

Day two: museums, markets & cider

Start the day with a dose of culture at the city’s most impressive cultural institution. The Kode is a collection of four galleries and three composers’ homes spread across Bergen. With over 50,000 items arranged across the sites, it’s easy to find your niche. The four Kode galleries — located in front of the Lille Lungegårdsvannet lake in the city’s centre — conveniently divide up the city’s various artistic ages. Spend plenty of time browsing them all, although you may want to linger a little longer in Kode 3, which houses the largest collection of Edvard Munch paintings outside of Oslo, as well as an impressive sketch of his iconic The Scream. 

Fuel up with lunch at the city’s 300-year-old fish market. Whether you pick up a crab baguette at the outdoor stalls lining the harbour (open May to June) or take a seat in the indoor area (where fresh seafood is prepared at sleek counters), you’ll be sure to get a taste of the rich culture of seafood ingrained here. Next, board a boat (14 weekly 3h50m sailings from Bergen) and head off to explore the coastline and the city’s popular archipelago. Your destination is Balestrand, located in Sognefjord, Norway’s longest and deepest fjord, which extends more than 120 miles inland to meet the foothills of the Jotunheimen Mountains. 

Arriving by boat into Balestrand feels like an adventure plucked straight from the pages of a Norwegian fairytale. Pitch up at Kviknes Hotel, a grand Victorian timber building, then sink into a plush armchair and stare out at the fjord beyond. For dinner, head to The Cider House (open June to August), home to the world’s northernmost cidery and a restaurant. Orchard tours and tastings are offered, alongside traditional food and a warm welcome from owners, the Eitungjerde Høyvik family. One of them, Åge, hosts occasional Gregorian chant concerts in the deepest, most echoey cider cellar.

Sounds of Bergen

Norway has a long tradition of music-making, nowhere more so than Bergen. It’s home to one of the world’s oldest orchestras — the Bergen Philharmonic, in business since 1765. Bergen has also been a prominent player in the country’s modern music scene, particularly in the 1990s, when ‘the Bergen Wave’ saw a generation of musicians from the city dominate the airwaves. This influence has continued into the present day, as evidenced by the myriad music venues across the city that maintain the movement’s momentum.

Three to visit: composers’ residences  

Ole Bull – Lysøen Island
Bergen-born violinist and composer Ole Bull travelled the world performing in the 1800s but spent summers in his later years at a villa on this island just south of Bergen. Explore the villa with its onion domes and exotic furnishings on a guided tour. Afterwards stretch your legs on the eight miles of pathways that snake around the island. 

Edvard Grieg – Troldhaugen 
The Norwegian composer lived in this manor house on the outskirts of the city for 22 years during his stellar career. It was in his garden cabin during the late 19th century that he composed some of his best-known works. Swing by to explore the house and gardens or catch a show at the onsite concert hall.

Harald Sæverud – Siljustøl 
Often cited as one of the most notable private homes in Norway, this mountain farmhouse was a creative haven for 20th-century composer Harald Sæverud. Today, hiking trails, summer concerts and the museum lure in those looking to explore this distinctive home, eight miles south of Bergen in the borough of Ytrebygda. 

Festival fever: four of the best

Nattjazz, 22-30 May
The soft sounds of the jazz festival spill out across Bergen at the end of
May. Hosted in Verftet, a converted sardine factory, the festival offers up big names but also prides itself on introducing up-and-coming artists too.  

Bergenfest, 10-13 June
Set this year in the historic Bergenhus Fortress, this long-standing festival attracts big names from the worlds of pop, rock, hip-hop and electronic music.  

Beyond the Gates, 19-22 August
This year’s performers at the heavy metal event — held at the Grieghallen concert hall — include Mercyful Fate, Idle Hands and Tribulation.

Vil Vil Vest, 24-26 September
This festival/music industry conference showcases international artists and homegrown talent. Over 90 acts are set to perform this year. 

Bergen’s best island trips

For hikes: Askøy
Get a glimpse of yet another side of Bergen from Askøy. Less than half an hour’s boat ride from the city’s harbour, the island is ripe for exploration. Hiking trails take visitors up to the island’s highest point, where views of the Byfjord and the surrounding islands of Sotra and Øygarden complement the views of the city opposite.  

For food: Holmen
Head to the island of Holmen on a culinary pilgrimage to check out Cornelius Sjømatrestaurant, something of an institution in Bergen. A 25-minute boat ride whisks you from the city to the island for a meal accompanied by views of the fjords and mountains beyond. The Meteorological Menu is inspired by the elements and what the local fishermen pull up in their nets.  

For a big day out: Solund
From Bergen, you can take a day trip out to the westernmost islands of Norway on the city’s postal boat. Six bridges and a three-mile road connect the islands of Solund, Bulandet and Værlandet and their rocky islets. Journeying on the boat is a great way to get to know the locals.

Top 5 mountain adventures

Test your head for heights on Norway’s fastest zip-line. Starting outside the sole restaurant on the highest of Bergen’s mountains, Mount Ulriken, this zip-line whisks thrill-seekers nearly 1,000ft through a vertiginous landscape, providing epic views high above the urban centre. 

During the summer, rent a bike and enjoy the cycle tracks atop Mount Fløyen — it’s a chance to see the city in a whole new light. Rugged hillside paths weave past lakes and through forests. This is prime mountain biking terrain — there are steep climbs and challenging turns.

Various companies take travellers out on the waterways. The seas and rivers are inviting, but make sure to check out the free — yes, free — canoeing every day during summer on Lake Skomakerdiket, situated on Mount Fløyen

You’ll soon notice that Mount Fløyen and Mount Ulriken are mentioned a lot in Bergen. They’re the two most prominent of the seven surrounding mountains, and the basis for many adventurous pursuits beyond the city limits. Take in both on the popular five-hour Vidden Trail.

There’s no reason why a hotel has to provide your accommodation on a summer visit. Camping is allowed for up to two days at a time in the city’s mountains — pitch up and find your peace. And for those wanting to get even closer to nature, remember that wild swimming is allowed in any body of water that’s not a source of drinking water. 

More info:

How to do it 
Wizz Air and Norwegian fly to Bergen from Luton and Gatwick, respectively. Double rooms at Radisson Blu Royal Hotel, Bergen from 996 krone (£113), room only.     

Published in the March 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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