16 July 2013 by Maddalena Cardone
Bergen is one of Norway's most atmospheric cities. Second in importance only to Norway's capital, Oslo, the vibrant, atmospheric port boasts a spectacular setting, surrounded by seven hills and protected on three sides by a smattering of carelessly strewn islands.
The city itself has a smörgasbord of attractions to discover and a wealth of history to uncover. There's some fine and contrasting architecture, a number of museums and a bustling harbour that harks back to the city's nautical and trading heritage. Then there's Bergen's self-styled claim to be the gateway to the fjords, a stunning stretch of coastline awash with natural wonders.
With a flight time from London of less than two hours and some seriously long daylight hours over the summer, it's a winning combination and you shouldn't need another reason to visit one of the world's great ports.
Clarion Collection Hotel Havnekontoret
The former home of the Port of Bergen Harbour Company has been converted into a luxurious neo-classical hotel. Close to both the Bergenhaus fort and the historic Bryggen district, it's ideally located for easy access to the harbour; climb the watchtower for good views over what's taking place around the waterside.
Rooms are spacious and comfortable whilst other facilities include a gym and sauna; breakfast and a light dinner are included in the room rate which is a huge boon in a city that's expensive to eat out in. The Clarion Collection also includes the newly opened Number 13, a hip, design-led boutique hotel close to the main shopping area, which is full of funky colours and nice touches.
The Grand Terminus Hotel
Adjacent to the main train station, which marks the edge of the city centre, stands this striking railway hotel. Built in the twentieth century, it has an impressively old-fashioned pre-war atmosphere although it has been tastefully refurbished and brought into the current century.
The building remains stout and handsome, with stained glass and plenty of chandeliers but the rooms have updated décor and vibrant splashes of colour.
The Hanseatiske Hotel
This quirky property is immediately adjacent to the Bryggen area. A UNESCO World Heritage Site in its own right, the hotel is in fact a pair of eighteenth-century merchants' houses whose 16 rooms have been dressed smartly and individually, with grand bathrooms and innovative elements. Full of character, it's nonetheless comfortable and packed with modern conveniences too.
Torget fish market
You can't beat grabbing an outdoor table at the fish market next to the harbour or sitting in the shade of the glass structure beneath the Fresco Hall that houses the Bergen tourist information office and ordering a plate of seafood by weight; salmon and shellfish are deliciously fresh, whilst king crab and lobster demonstrate the bounty of the local waters. Fish not your thing? Try reindeer sausage and cloudberry jam instead. Be prepared though that mouth-watering food comes at eye-watering prices.
Head to this charming, low-key eaterie, whose name translates as 'The Penguin' to try unfussy authentic regional cuisine, with the emphasis on local fish, elk and lamb. Try too the skillingsbolle, a type of sweet cinnamon roll. There's also a wide selection of draft beers to sample as you soak up the warm and welcoming atmosphere.
Bryggeloftet & Stuene
Sticking with the fishy theme, take a seat overlooking the harbour in either the low-beamed street-level dining room or airy upper floors and ask for the region's speciality, klippfisk. Atlantic cod is dried for around three months so that it takes on deep, salty flavours before it is cooked in a variety of ways, all of them delcious.
Whiskey Bar, The Grand Terminus Hotel
Head to this handsome railway hotel during the late afternoon and evening to sample the vast array of whiskies on offer; not just the best stocked whiskey bar in Bergen, it's the finest in the whole of Norway and has more than 700 selected whiskies to sample. The large, atmospheric, wood-panelled room off the main hotel lobby dates from 1928 and has battered sofas and seats into which to sink and some smart lamps and design features to admire as you sip a dram or two.
Popular with young Vikings, this café attached to an arts complex in a converted sardine canning factory has a snug interior for when the weather turns nasty and a pleasant outdoor terrace on which to eat and drink when the sun shines. It also regularly hosts live jazz music.
The Floibanen funicular railway
Ride the The Floibanen funicular railway from the lower terminus on Vertlidsallmenningen to the top of Mount Floyen. The railway, which dates from the 1910s, ferries you quickly and smoothly to the 320m high summit in just seven minutes; from here you get a superb panoramic view of Bergen, the finger of land that juts out into Bergen Fjord and the wider areas, assuming of course the weather is clear.
Drink in the view from the café-restaurant at the top then amble back down to the city on wooded footpaths, where you're afforded occasional glimpses of the city laid out below. Another birds-eye view can be had from the top of Mount Ulriken, reached via the Ulriksbanen cable car, whose lower terminus stands about four miles east of the centre of Bergen. See the two sites on a day trek fom one to the other across Vidden, the plateau that connects the two high points.
Once you've got your bearings from your birds-eye view, return to the harbour and head to Bryggen, a pretty UNESCO-listed wharf of warehouses, medieval homes and traders properties that mark where Bergen began. Here, German merchants of the Hanseatic League transformed the city into the heart of trade for all Scandinavia. Go beyond the brightly painted facades and walk through the narrow alleyways to get a sense of what living here might have been like.
The houses are wooden and wonderfully restored; since the risk of burning down was so high, they weren't allowed any heating or cooking facilities, even in winter, so a set of stone buildings behind the trade quarter became the social hub of the area with people coming together to cook and carouse. For a further introduction to the Hanseatic League and Bergen's position within it, take a guided tour or drop in on the brightly painted Hanseatic Museum, a rough timber clapboard structure dating from 1704 on the corner of Bryggen and Torget.
Spend a cultural couple of hours first walking around Lille Lungegârdsvann, the attractive lake at the centre of 'new' Bergen, then drop in on the string of three art galleries that line the south side of the lake. First among the collections here is an extensive number of paintings by Edvard Munch in the permanent Rasmus Meyer Collection; by general agreement Munch is Norway's most impressive and revealing painter and the museum has a large assortment of the tortured artist's work.
Look out too for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century pieces by other Norwegian and international artists including Miro, Picasso, Kandinsky and Klee. A combined ticket provides access to all three art museums.
Parks and gardens
Explore Bergen on foot and spend time in the lush parks and gardens dotted around the centre. For great views of the fjord, head to Nordnesparken, on the tip of the Nordnes peninsula. A tranquil oasis, it provides a relaxing escape from the harbourside and is also home to the city's celebrated aquarium. There's an open-air swimming pool too, for those who daon't fancy a dip in the fjord itself.
Fantoft Stave Church
Around four miles south of the city centre in an area called Paradise stands the distinctive Fantoft Stave Church. The original church was built on the banks of the Sognefjord around 1150 but moved to the outskirts of Bergen in 1883. Subsequently it burnt down due to arson in 1992. A perfect copy has since been reconstructed here though, allowing you to admire the distinctive style employed by early Christians.
Troldhaugen (Hill of the Trolls)
About 5 miles south of Bergen on the shore of a pretty lake stands Troldhaugen, the home of Edvard Greig, Norway's most celebrated composer, who is perhaps best known for the Peer Gynt Suite. Greig lived here for the last 22 years of his life and the place is imbued with a sense of the man. Visit the museum for insights into the modest, much-loved composer's life then stroll to the unassuming house, which dates from 1885, to explore the mishmash of furniture, photos and memorabilia left much as Greig would have used them up until his death in 1907.
Greig composed most of his music in a small hut on the lakeshore. The hut remains but is now dwarfed by the Troldsalen, a concert hall that hosts recitals of Greig's works during the summer months. The man himself is interred in a cliff overlooking the lake with his wife, the singer Nina Hagerup; wander off the path to look for the twin distinctive memorial stones that mark the spot.
Take advantage of Bergen's position as the gateway to the fjords and go see one of these extraordinary geological landscapes. Sognefjord, Norway's longest and deepest fjord, is easily accessible on a day trip.
Take a ferry from Bergen to the fjord and marvel at the steepling cliffs, waterfalls and watery depths. Travel by bus on to Voss, the adventure capital of the region and explore the city before catching a train back to Bergen. Other readily accessible fjords to consider include the Hardangerfjord to the south of the city and the Nordfjord, which lies a little further north of the Sognefjord.