Diary of a Guidebook Writer: A trip to Bergen, Norway’s second city

Photo: David Nikel
Central Bergen viewed from the top of the Fløibanen funicular railway.

David Nikel
Trondheim, Norway

Surrounded by mountains and water, Bergen has one of the best city settings in all of Norway.

This month my parents are visiting me from England. As it will be their fourth trip, I’m mixing things up by taking them to Bergen for the weekend. Bergen is one of the destinations asked about most by my readers, so it’s about time I covered it here for The Norwegian American!

Bergen receives a great number of visitors for several reasons. It’s known as the gateway to the fjords, it’s at one end of one of the world’s most famous train journeys, it’s a popular stop with cruise ships, and it’s the start of the Hurtigruten coastal cruise of Norway. Many visitors seem to be content with a quick wander around the compact central area before moving on, but the city has so much more to offer even if you have just one day to spare.

Photo: David Nikel
The colorful buildings of Bryggen brighten up rainy days.

Let’s start with the obvious: the colorful strip of former Hanseatic trading houses known as Bryggen, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Norway’s most famous tourist attractions.

A visit to Bryggen should be about so much more than taking a photograph of the iconic buildings. Even if you have just a few minutes to spare, take a wander up the narrow alleyways between the buildings to soak up the atmosphere of a Bergen long gone.

If you have more time, choose between two interesting museums to provide a little context on the area. The Hanseatic Museum inside a restored trading house sheds some light on the lifestyle of the German traders, while Bryggens Museum tells the fascinating story of the area’s restoration. From this September, the latter museum hosts an exhibition of gold treasures from the Thracian culture in Bulgaria from 2500 B.C. to A.D. 300.

A trip up the Fløibanen funicular railway is a great way to appreciate Bergen’s stunning natural setting, and the station is just a couple minutes’ walk from Bryggen. The viewing platform at the top of the funicular provides a beautiful panorama of the city below and also acts a gateway to miles of hiking trails around Mount Fløyen.

One of the most popular walks is the 15-kilometer trail between Mount Fløyen and Mount Ulriken. The hike starts by taking the bus and cable car to Mount Ulriken and ends with a ride on the funicular railway back down to the city. Allow five hours to enjoy the spectacular scenery and views as far inland as the Folgefonna glacier on a clear day. If you’re keen on exploring the mountains around Bergen, just bear in mind that the city receives a lot of year-round rainfall, so dress appropriately.

KODE Art Museum
Many visitors miss the outstanding galleries of KODE, Bergen’s art museum. The four buildings set around the city lake are packed full of famous art from paintings and sculptures to videos and other visual installations. You could easily spend a full day here.

However long your visit, be sure to catch at least the Rasmus Meyer Collection, which includes many works by Edvard Munch, and the exhibition of Nikolai Astrup, whose bright landscape works have only recently begun to be discovered outside of Norway.

Photo: David Nikel
Despite not being original, Fantoft Stave Church is a great example of the architectural style.

Fantoft Stave Church
Stave churches are one of Norway’s most famous icons, but these wooden gems are often missed by travelers as they are typically located in rural areas. If you’re not planning a trip to the fjords and have some time in Bergen to spare, you’re in luck!

A short trip on the Bergen Light Rail and an uphill walk brings you to this remarkable example of the architectural style—wooden planks pegged together on a stone base with no glue or nails—despite not being an original.

The original 12th-century church was built in Fortun, a small rural village more than 150 miles from Bergen. To save the church from demolition, a Bergen businessman bought it and relocated it piece by piece. In 1992, the church was burned to the ground, the first in a series of arson attacks linked to the Norwegian black metal music scene. This reconstructed church, a faithful reconstruction of the original design, was opened in 1997.

Photo: David Nikel
One of the bedrooms in the atmospheric Leprosy Museum.

Leprosy Museum
In the late 19th and early 20th century, Bergen was an international center of leprosy (Hansen’s disease) with three hospitals dedicated to treating the disease. One of them has now been turned into a museum to remember this dark chapter in Bergen’s past. Within the dimly lit hall of the main building, tiny bedrooms line both sides. Inside a couple of the rooms, the harrowing personal stories of former residents are told. The museum’s opening hours are limited to just four hours per day from mid-May to mid-August, so some planning is required if you want to visit.

However long you have to spend in Norway’s second city, I hope you’ll find the ideas in this article useful.

Guidebook news
We’re now in a phase of rapid progress as the guidebook nears completion. Since my last column, I’ve had the chance to make updates and corrections to a proof layout. It was fantastic to see my words brought to life alongside pictures, maps, and so on. Some mistakes only come to light when seen in context. The only downside was the time it took to fact-check a 380-page PDF file!

David Nikel is a freelance writer based in Norway. He runs the popular www.lifeinnorway.net blog and is the author of the upcoming MOON Norway guidebook.

This article originally appeared in the May 19, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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David Nikel

David Nikel is a freelance writer based in Norway. He runs the popular www.lifeinnorway.net website and podcast and is the author of the Moon Norway guidebook, available now in all good bookstores.