One of Northern Europe’s oldest port cities and on the west coast of Norway, Bergen was the last city we visited in Scandinavia. It is the second-largest city in Norway, coming in only behind the capital, Oslo (pop: 702,543), with a population of around 287, 888 (2022). It puts into perspective how sparsely populated Norway is. The top 10 cities in the United States all have a population of over one million.
Known as the “fjord Capital” and “City of Seven Mountains“, as it’s surrounded by mountains, many of the suburbs are actually located on large islands. Bergen is on the peninsula of Bergenshalvøyen, in Byfjorden, which is also known as “the city fjord”. The city was established in 1070, gradually growing before becoming the capital of Norway in the early 13th century (the capital was moved to Oslo in 1299 by King Haakon V). In 1349, the Black Plague arrived via an English ship, and subsequent bouts of the Black Death hit the city in 1618, 1629 and 1637, costing around 3,000 lives each time.
Many refer to Bergen as the “heart of the fjords”, because it “offers small town charm alongside a metropolitan character”. I would say that is an appropriate characterization.
Upon awaking in Bergen, we were greeted by the gloomy and infamous European rain. We still attempted to see Bergen the best way we knew how – on the HoHo – however, in hindsight, that may not have been the best idea. This particular HoHo was open and had no windows, and we got hit with rain the entire time. We pitifully tried to block ourselves with flimsy umbrellas, but eventually gave into our fates. We stuck it out nonetheless, and got a nice little wet trip all around the city.
A few of the main HoHo stops include Bryggen, the Hanseatic Museum, Akvariet i Bergen (the Bergen Aquarium), Festplassen (city park), Old Bergen Museum, the Fish Market, St. Mary’s Church, and more.
Something that struck me about Bergen was the graffiti. It was everywhere. At the time, I ignorantly thought defacing public buildings was strictly an American, “big-city” kind of thing. Some of it was well done and very colorful, but most of it was average.
We visited three places in Bergen after our wet HoHo tour. These include Bryggen, Bryggens Museum, and Lepramuseet a.k.a. the Leper Museum.
A historic harbor district right on the water in Bergen, Bryggen was super cool. Also known as Tyskebryggen, it’s a series of Hanseatic (a medieval confederation of merchant unions and market towns in central and northern Europe) heritage business buildings which line the eastern side of the Vågen harbor. Most of the current buildings were built in 1702, and the row was added to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) list for World Cultural Heritage sites in 1979.
In 1350, the Hanseatic League (Germans) made Bryggen the home of their “Hanseatic Office”. From there, they were able to gradually gain control and ownership of Bryggen, controlling the stockfish trade of Northern Norway. These Hanseatic merchants controlled the wharf, port, and buildings of Bryggen until 1754. In that year, the “Hanseatic Office” officially closed, and all the ownership of the properties was transferred back to Norwegian citizens.
While 3/4’s of the current buildings have been around for 319 years, the original wharf was built sometime around 1100. Then in 1702, a fire badly damaged many of the original 1100’s buildings. Some were completely burned down. They rebuilt some, demolished others, effectively restoring the row. Sadly, other various fires have occurred over the years, so about a quarter of the present-day buildings were built after 1702. In 1955, yet another fire ravaged Bryggen, destroying parts of it. A silver lining of this particular fire was that a 13-year archaeological excavation followed, which revealed the Bryggen Inscriptions, along with many other medieval Norwegian artifacts. These inscriptions were day-to-day runic inscriptions from the 12th century. The Bryggens Museum was built in 1976 to literally surround and protect their findings. More on that next!
There are a few notable houses in Bryggen. These include Bellgården (a 300-year-old building), Enhjørningsgården (the only single tenement house left at Bryggen), Svensgården, and Engelgården. The oldest and tallest building is St. Mary’s Church, an 841-year-old church that dates to 1180. Today, Bryggen is home to museums, restaurants, pubs, and shops. We entered a few of the shops and naturally found ourselves immersed in a sea of trolls.
Located at Dreggsallmenningen 3, 5003 Bergen, Norway, the Bryggens Museum was extremely interesting because that is where remnants of a legitimate Viking ship, along with centuries-old structures from the 1100’s, are located. Next to Bryggen, as mentioned above, the museum was built to totally encompass the findings from the 1955 excavation.
According to the website Visit Bergen, “The museum houses archaeological material from Bergen and Vestlandet in the Middle Ages, where the rich finds from the Bryggen excavations and later archaeological research in the city take centre stage. Bryggens Museum is built over the remains of Bergen’s oldest buildings from the first half of the 1100s”.
Some of the items housed at the museum include the ship, along with other commerce and shipping artifacts, plus handcrafts and other tools that offer insight into the everyday life of Medieval Norway. As mentioned above, the museum also houses the famous Bryggen Inscriptions, which are approximately 670 medieval runic inscriptions carved on wood and bone. They’ve been called the “most important runic find in the 12th century”.
The museum is open Wednesday through Monday (only closed on Tuesday), always opening at 11am. However, closing times widely vary between 2pm and 7pm, depending on the day, so best to check ahead of time. It costs 120 krona per adult ($13.50 USD) and 90 krona per child ($10.13 USD).
Lastly, we headed off to the Leper Museum or Lepramuseet. Leprosery is defined as “a contagious disease that affects the skin, mucous membranes, and nerves, causing discoloration and lumps on the skin and, in severe cases, disfigurement and deformities“. The museum is located in the now-defunct leper hospital called St. Jørgen’s Hospital, which opened way back in the 1400’s. It served as such until the 1800’s, when it became a general hospital, then went back to a leper hospital until the last patient passed away in 1946. 100% honesty… it was a little scary being in there. There is a huge misconception that leprosy is highly contagious (which turns out not to be true!) and I had this faint, and honestly, irrational, fear that I would catch the disease just from being there. I’m glad to report that was not the case.
Located at Kong Oscars gate 59, 5017, the museum is open Monday to Sunday, from 11am to 3pm, and costs 90 krone for adults ($11.16 USD). Students get a discount (45 krone, $5.58 USD) and children under the age of 16 are free. All-in-all, for the price, it’s worth it.
It’s a two-story building, and you can either pay for a guided tour (20 krone, $2.98 USD), or wander about yourself for free (that’s what we did). You’re allowed in and out of various rooms that used to house patients, and you can see photos, illustrations, as well as one medical specimen – the preserved foot of a leper patient (warning: picture below). Per LeproyHistory.org, “The leprosy archives in Bergen are part of UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme”.
Overall, Bergen is a wonderfully historically rich city, which played a very important and vital role in the history of Norway. The city continues to play a vital role in Norway, being the 2nd-largest city and home to many businesses and tourist hotspots (aka commerce). Now truthfully, while Bergen was interesting, educational, historical (and wet), it unfortunately did not have the picturesque charm and fairytale characteristics of its smaller counterparts, Geiranger (Geiranger, Norway: Trolls and Mountains.) and Hellesylt (Hellesylt, Norway: A Whimsical Fairytale.). Nonetheless, as with all the other Norwegian cities/villages we visited, I would gladly and readily revisit in a heartbeat!!