So you've never heard of Bergen?
Bergen...is it one of the prettiest places you've never heard of? Is it harsh to say that Norway has never really been at the top of my must-see destinations list? Not because it's unappealing, but because for a taste of Scandinavia I think many of us gravitate towards better-known tourist hotspots like Copenhagen and Stockholm. But since visiting Bergen and the surrounding coast, I’ve realised we’re all terribly (terribly, terribly) mistaken. Norway as a tourist destination is completely underrated and should be right up there on everybody’s must-see list.
Bergen in a nutshell
Bergen lies on Norway’s west coast surrounded by mountains and fjords. If you’ve never heard of it, you're not alone, neither had I until I decided to visit after stumbling across cheap flights. I quickly discovered it’s a breathtakingly beautiful coastal town, with a far more vibrant and cultural vibe than you’d find in many cities of similar size (its population is just over 250,000). Because of its size, it's walkable – making it easy to explore – and perfect for a weekend trip away.
Getting your bearings
We caught the half hour bus from the airport (which is a good idea if you’re on a budget) and got off at the fish market. Our Airbnb was only a 10-minute walk away so we quickly dropped our stuff off and headed back out.
The best parts
Bryggen (Bergen’s wharf)
The first thing a guidebook or article about Bergen will mention is Bryggen (Norwegian for wharf). Bergen was originally founded around the boundaries of Bryggen and this UNESCO listed heritage site is still at the heart of the city today.
I have to say, it’s exceptionally Instagrammable so predictably one of the first things I did was take out the camera. It has an array of museums, cool Scandinavian design shops, cute (but expensive) cafes and of course its famous fish market. Despite the cost it’s worth sitting down to a drink or two at one of the cafes to take in the atmosphere (Sitting outside Una with a local craft beer is delightful if the weather permits).
Bergen is known as the city of seven mountains – and Fløyen is one of them. It’s a popular tourist attraction because once you get to the top you have a stunning view of the city. There’s two ways to get to the top: by funicular or walking up the seemingly never-ending zigzag path. We decided to walk and it was definitely worth it for the spectacular views the whole way up. It takes about 20-30 minutes to get to the top and it’s really not that steep.
Bergen’s fish market is one of Norway’s most visited outdoor markets. It was a little smaller than I expected (but that might have been due to the fact we were visiting just outside peak), but if you like seafood, you’ll be happy. Due to its popularity with tourists, it’s really pricey so we wandered around enjoying the sites rather than actually eating anything.
The old town
Bergen's old town surprised me. Full of weatherboard buildings, street art, staircases, bars and coffee shops, it's not your typical European-style old town. Make sure you take the time to explore the less busy areas to really get a feel for the city.
Coffee, coffee, coffee
Since moving to London from Melbourne, I’ve bored my friends and colleagues alike with my constant search for great coffee. So I was excited about visiting one of the world's top coffee consuming countries (only the Finns drink more per year), and I wasn’t disappointed. The coffee was consistently good. For a taste of the city's coffee culture try Kaffemisjonen, Bastant, Det Lille Kaffekompaniet, BarBaristaand Blom, which are all within walking distance of Bryggen.
This little place is in a gorgeous little part of the old town - tucked away from the hustle and bustle of Bryggen. The coffee is delicious (try one with Baileys), the waffles are superb, and about every second song they play is Disney... what more could you want?!
Blom is a little bit out of the way if you're staying closer to the water but it's worth the walk. It's got a very hipster vibe, but it has the best coffee we had in Bergen. If you've got the time, make the effort to go here and sip your coffee with the locals.
Det Lille Kaffekompaniet
This is a tiny little coffee shop just up the road from Bryggen. It's so small there are only a few tables inside. If the weather is good sit outside and enjoy the cobbled streets and quant weatherboard buildings that make Bergen so lovely.
The price (and how to keep it down!)
Scandinavia can’t escape its stereotype as being expensive, because well… it is. Really expensive. But if you’re organised there are ways to keep costs down.
Norway has the second highest alcohol taxes in the world after Iceland. A small glass of wine and a half pint set us back 190kr (equivalent to £16, $31AUD or $23 USD). Pretty steep! So if you plan to drink while in Norway, buy some duty free alcohol before you fly in. We got a 1-litre bottle of Tanqueray at London Gatwick for £13 (even cheaper due to the fact that Norway is outside the EU) and had a gin and tonic filled weekend.
I’m a massive foodie when it comes to travelling (and life in general) but I had to restrain myself in Norway. Eating out constantly just wasn’t an option because of the price. To keep costs down we booked one dinner out and bought the majority of our other food from the supermarket. But be warned: while it’s definitely cheaper than eating out, supermarket shopping isn’t cheap either. But it doesn’t mean you don’t have to miss out on eating typically Norwegian food. If you try these foods you’ll feel instantly like a local:
- Caviar, bacon or basically whatever you want in a tube. One thing we noticed straight away in the supermarkets was the amount of sauces, condiments and tubes of food that were around. Condiments are the best so this can only be a good thing. And I don’t know if it’s shameful to admit but caviar in a tube is tasty… so I say go for it.
- Brunost: this cheese is a quintessentially Norweigen food. It’s kind of like savoury, cheesey fudge. Yum. You can also get it in a tube, because it’s Norway and of course you can.
- Lefse – this is a Norwegian potato flatbread often served rolled up with butter and sugar. It’s delicious.
Norway is best known for its fjords, and when you see them you realise why – they’re stunning. They remind me a lot of the Scottish highlands. Bergen is the perfect starting point to see the fjords, including one of the better-known ones – Hardangerfjord. We took the Hardangerfjord Express out to Rosendal, which is a cute little town sitting on the fjord surrounded by cliffs. It was beautiful and a great starting point to see the fjords. In hindsight I think it's probably worth spending the extra money and doing a day tour and seeing more - that's what I'll be doing next time. But again that's not to say Rosendal isn't also worth a day trip.
Bergen, and Norway in general, surprised me. I expected it to be similar to Denmark or Sweden but it's not at all. To me, Norway has a far more rugged, striking natural beauty to it. It's the first time in a long time I've felt so in awe of the world's natural beauty. I'm lucky enough to have been to all the Scandinavian countries - they're all amazing in their own ways and I don't have a clear favourite. But if you want to feel like you're a part of something bigger than yourself, Norway is a beautiful place to start.
Things to read and watch before you go:
- One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway - okay so I know this might seem like an odd choice but this really gave me an insight into a darker side of Norway.
- Frozen - one of the most popular recent Disney films is a homage to Norway.