As the second-largest city in Norway, Bergen has tons of great things to do, beautiful architecture, great food, and even a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located amidst the fjords of Norway’s western coast and surrounded by the Seven Mountains, Bergen is naturally beautiful. It also has a defiant small-town intimacy despite its size, and plenty of character and rich history. It’s also a college town, so it has that certain inarticulable energy to it.
Regular readers of this blog might know that Kyoto, Japan and Paris, France are our two favorite cities in the world, perpetually tied for the number 1 slot. Los Angeles, California (yes, a state shares equal footing with the countries of Japan and France) is highly regarded, but not necessarily #3. After that, we’ve avoided making proclamations about the ‘best’ cities, primarily since there’s still so much of the world we’ve yet to see.
As we continue to explore new places and cross destinations off our bucket list (or, rather, put an asterisk next to them because we “must” return), it seems fair to add a new entry to our catalogue of favorites. As is probably no surprise given the title of this post, that city is Bergen, Norway…
Of course, you might also notice that we ended the title with a question mark, which is an ever-clever ‘out’ for long and rambling posts that can be boiled down to one word. (No.) Perhaps that’s partially the case here, but it’s more a matter of uncertainty. For now, Bergen is in our top 10 cities but there’s also a ton we have yet to see. In the long term, it might be in the top 15, top 20, or top 25. Still, that’s pretty impressive given that there are like, what, 4,000 cities* in the world?
My goal with this post is not just to sing the praises of Bergen in the abstract, but also share some of the specific things we did and offer a few planning ideas. We’ll do plenty of praise-singing along the way, but we’ll also offer some thoughts on potential downsides of Bergen, that may not make it a truly “viable” pick as one of the world’s greatest travel cities.
Let’s start with some of the top things to do in Bergen…
The first thing to do in Bergen is Mount Floyen and the Funicular. Literally, the first thing you should do in the morning. Since the funicular is fairly low-capacity, as soon as the hordes of people from cruise ships show up, the line stretches pretty far for this.
Alternatively, if you end up sleeping in, you’re likely better off saving it until late afternoon when the crowds have died down and people are starting to head back to the ships. We went right as the funicular opened, and had a zero minute wait to do it. When we came back down a little over an hour later, there was a huge line stretching out the door. By that point, I’d hazard a guess that the line was 30-45 minutes long; perhaps an hour.
While up at Mount Floyen, be sure to do the short “hiking” loop that takes you out to the small lake. It’s a lovely, goat-filled trail. If we had more time in Bergen, we definitely would’ve allocated more time to hiking throughout its Seven Mountains. One of the most appealing aspects of Bergen is that it’s both urban and natural–a characteristic that it shares with Kyoto.
We spent around an hour up at Mount Floyen, but you could easily experience it in as little as 30 minutes…or as long as 3 hours. Whatever you do, don’t just go up to see the view and immediately leave. We’ll probably cover Mt. Floyen in its own blog post at some point.
The next must-do is the most iconic aspect of Bergen: the Bryggen Hanseatic Wharf. This picturesque series of vibrant, old-world buildings is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and you’ll want to spend time there wandering around, going into shops and taking photos of those colorful, old-world storefronts.
You’ll also want to do the Hanseatic Museum and Schøtstuene, which provides context and history for what you’re seeing in Bryggen. At this museum, you’ll have a variety of ticket options, from a single ticket to this one museum to joint options. We recommend buying the joint ticket for the Hanseatic Museum that also includes the Norwegian Fisheries Museum, and transportation in between.
The Norwegian Fisheries Museum is exceptional, and provides a ton of insight into one of Norway’s largest industries. It’s not a huge museum, but features a diverse group of exhibits making it worthwhile for all ages.
Our next recommendation is visiting Old Bergen, which is officially called the Old Bergen Museum. It’s really more of a village than a museum, and it features 50 wooden houses dating from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. All of these have been relocated or reconstructed to form a small town representative of life in Bergen, part of which is actually inhabited by actors!
Another potential recommendation is Fantoft Stave Church. We only did this because we wouldn’t have the opportunity to see another Stave Church in Norway, so it was this or nothing. Fantoft Stave Church was rebuilt in the 1990s, so it doesn’t have the history of some stave churches in Norway, but it was better than nothing (for us). If you can see a different one, that’s probably the better route.
This is not technically in Bergen, so you have to take the Bergen Light Rail (there’s a station near the Funicular station) out to it. Get off at the Fantoft Station, and it’s about a 10-minute walk from there (signs make it easy to find). Be sure to have cash for admission.
Speaking of the Bergen Light Rail, like most great cities (Los Angeles being perhaps the only exception), Bergen has great public transit. From this efficient light rail to the surplus of clean and reliable buses, you definitely don’t need a car in Bergen. In fact, like other larger Scandinavian cities, it would seem that Bergen is actively discouraging car use.
On the transportation front, we’d recommend skiping the CitySightseeing Tour Bus. Bergen is easily walkable, and part of the experience is strolling past the storefronts and absorbing the old world charm. The hop-on, hop-off might seem convenient, but really, it’s just a waste of money.
One thing you might want to consider is the Bergen Card 24 Hours. This provides free or discounted admission to a number of points of interest (including some above), plus unlimited public transit. It didn’t quite work out for us, but if we had a couple more days in Bergen, we would’ve bought it and focused on using it heavily for a day.
Beyond this, we spent a lot of time wandering Bergen; strolling through the college campus, going around the city’s many pretty and fun art installations, and spending some time perusing the Bergen Fish Market, which sells some of the world’s freshest seafood. This ‘aimless exploration’ is a highlight for us in any city, and the ‘sense of place’ is one of our key criteria for what makes a great city. Bergen shines in this regard…even in less than ideal weather.
In terms of things to do, Bergen has a fairly deep lineup and we just scratched the surface on our first visit. Next time, I’d like to go to the Bergen City Museum, Bergen Maritime Museum, Fjell Fortress (outside of the city), Leprosy Museum, and KODE – the Art Museums of Bergen, among other things.
With all of that said, there are a couple of potential downsides to Bergen as more of a long-term travel destination. First is the weather. It rained almost our entire time in Bergen, and that’s not uncommon. Bergen is known as the ‘rainiest city in Europe‘ with rain over 250 days per year. After a week of uninterrupted showers, I think my opinion of Bergen might sour a bit.
Finally, food. We enjoyed the food in Bergen (pizza at Kafe Special, Norwegian waffles at BarBarista, and desserts at Godt Brød were all great), and especially appreciated that there were cheaper options (likely due to it being a college town). Food is one of the most important aspects of our trips, and one of the reasons Paris and Kyoto do so well is because they’re culinary powerhouses. Likewise, we have a lifetime of great food to try nearby us in Los Angeles, which helps elevate my opinion of it.
If you’re only around for a few days–maybe even a week–Bergen could probably hold its own. As a place to visit and revisit, I wonder whether it could compete with the world’s other great foodie cities. With all of the great, fresh seafood, perhaps I’m underestimating Bergen? In fairness, Bergen is significantly smaller than New York City or Paris, so this is at least partly to be expected. Moreover, a city as a short-term travel destination does not need to be as deep in terms of dining (or other entertainment) options as a place you might live.
Overall, our experience in Bergen was wonderful. Even though conditions were less than ideal, we had a jam-packed visit that entailed visiting plenty of points of interest and spending a lot of time wandering to get a feel for the city, which is how we like to balance our time in any city we visit. While we had already fallen in love with Norway by this point in the trip, Bergen solidified that, and our desire to see more of Norway and Scandinavia. Bergen was so fun and inviting, and its charm really won us over. We likewise really enjoyed our limited time in Copenhagen, and while I’d give Bergen a slight edge over it at this point, we are eager to see more larger Scandinavian cities. Perhaps one of those would be a more ‘defensible’ top 10 pick? Then again, maybe not. There’s a lot to love about Bergen, Norway.
If you’re planning a visit to Norway, please check out my other posts about the beautiful country. (More coming soon!) I also highly recommend Rick Steves Snapshot Norway and Eyewitness Guides Norway to determine everything you should see and do while there.
Have you visited Bergen, Norway? If so, where would you rank it among the world’s great cities? What about other places in Scandinavia? Any other thoughts to add, or tips for others visiting Bergen? Does visiting Norway interest you? Any questions? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!