As an American who has lived in the Bergen area for almost seven years with my Norwegian husband, I have the unique perspective of being both a tourist and a native. I love the “visuals” of this beautiful country; watching how the mountains, sea, and fjords affect the weather patterns is something I never get tired of.
But I especially enjoy exploring the living history that physically surrounds me – it is a constant presence, and feels just as real as those seven mountains that physically surround Bergen. Although its “official” founding was in 1070, it was an international trade center for centuries before that. Understanding who Bergen *is* in the 21st century because of who she *was* in centuries past is a fascinating journey, and one I never get tired of experiencing!
When first planning a trip to Bergen, most tourists immediately think of that “familiar row of houses” in that photo above: Bryggen. And that’s where I like to begin sharing the historical experience of my favorite city. Come join me!
But before getting to the more recognizable area of Bryggen with that familiar silhouette, a visit to the Hanseatic Museum makes for the perfect first stop. The Hanseatic Museum is a fascinating glimpse into the early days of Bergen. It’s like walking several centuries back in time through the merchants’ offices and sleeping areas. It has kept its original 1704 interior; sloping ceilings and floors, small beds, the actual equipment and bookkeeping articles used by the German merchants as they traded stockfish and grains: I found it fascinating!
Additional personal photos from inside the Hanseatic Museum can be found here.
After leaving the Hanseatic Museum, it’s just a short walk down to the recognizable views of Bryggen. Shops (some with typical tourist items, others with genuine Norwegian goods) and places to get something to eat or drink invite you to explore the restored (or rebuilt after the fires) interiors – or, if it’s a nice day, sit outside and enjoy the sunshine.
Seeing it from the front is familiar – but explore through the narrow alleys and towards the back for the real story! Walking through Bryggen’s alleys, shadowed by overhanging balconies, is to step back into a time that seems untouched by the centuries. But these buildings are not a “don’t touch” museum – the wooden architecture contains a community of artist studios, workshops, restaurants, shops, and offices. I’ve experienced them thriving and crowded during the summer tourist months, and quiet and introspective during the off season; I find both experiences enticing.
Additional personal photos of Bryggen and her alleys can be found here.
Continuing down the harbor, and barely a step or two from Bryggen’s recognizable front and its alleys, is Bryggens Museum. The museum contains the archeological excavations and extensive medieval discoveries of Bryggen – and is built over the remains of the first settlement at Bryggen, with the various finds left in the ground where they were discovered. I explored it with my youngest daughter during her visit; I was fascinated by the crude (to my modern eyes) tools, plates, and implements of medieval life. (It includes an old toilet seat as part of the display – but no fear, it’s a modern building so does have modern facilities for our 21st century needs!) I think it should be on everyone’s “must see” list to really understand this area!
Additional photos of Bryggens Museum can be found here.
On Øvregaten, behind Bryggen and the Bryggen Museum, are the buildings of Schøtstuene – the Hanseatic Assembly Rooms. These old rooms are the partly reconstructed buildings of the gathering point of the Hanseatic merchants and give a glimpse of the social life – since the merchants lived in tiny rooms, a bigger area was needed for their gatherings, meals, beer drinking … and meeting their mistresses. While it’s a part of Bryggen, the modern day entrance is on the street behind it (in the photo below, the back of the Bryggens Museum is to the right). It is still a vital aspect of Bergen life; I attended a chamber music concert on period instruments a couple years ago and, if not for the modern clothes we were wearing, I would have felt as if I’d truly been taken back in time.
Additional photos of Schøtstuene can be found here.
Continuing past Bryggen, you’ll see Bergenhus Fortress located in the entrance to the harbor; it is one of the oldest and best preserved castles in Norway. Buildings include Rosenkrantz Tower (parts are from the 1270′s) and Haakon’s Hall (built almost 750 years ago as a royal residence and banqueting hall). In our modern times, the huge hall is still used for concerts, and for royal dinners and other official occasions.
Additional personal photos of Bergenhus Fortress can be found here.
Although not strictly history-related, if you time your visit correctly you can catch an outdoor concert at Koengen, a former army depot located next to the Bergenhus Fortress. Former concerts range from David Bowie to Kiss, Kanye West to Coldplay, Rihanna to the Boss, The Eagles to Bob Dylan, Muse to Neil Young, and so many more! (Photos of Koengen can be found here.)
That’s an overview of various aspects of Bergen’s history that are close enough together to explore in a day. But if you have time and want to dive into history a bit more, traveling to other areas of Bergen will round out your experience. Highlighting a couple:
Gamle Bergen (Old Bergen Museum) is an open air area with almost 50 wooden houses representing the Bergen architecture in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. They represent private homes and shops, and are a literal walk through the last three centuries of Bergen’s history. I visited Gamle Bergen for the first time soon after moving here; even though most of the shops were closed as it was the “off” season, it gave me an understanding of what a walk through Bergen would have felt like a century or two earlier, and was a great introduction to the everyday life of a Bergen citizen.
Have you heard about Stave Churches (Stavkirke)? They are medieval wooden Christian church buildings; the name comes from the building’s construction of timber framing. They were once fairly common all over northwestern Europe, but most of the remaining ones are now in Norway. The one near Bergen, the Fantoft Stave Church, was originally built in another area of Norway in 1150 AD, but when threatened with demolition it was moved by pieces to Fantoft near (and now in) Bergen in 1883. Destroyed by arson in 1992, reconstruction was finished in 1997. We visited in 2007, and I found it a peaceful and reflective place.
Additional personal photos of the Fantoft Stave Church can be found here.
Gamlehaugen is the royal residence in Bergen; parts of the building are open to the public … and on nice days, the grounds overlooking Nordåsvannet are full of people sunning, swimming, and relaxing. For five years we lived “just up the mountain” from Gamlehaugen, and even if the flag was flying (meaning a royal was in residence), I’d still see regular citizens walking their dogs and playing with their children on the grounds – such a perfect example of the relaxed Norwegian society!
Additional personal photos of Gamlehaugen can be found here.
The Hordamuseet (Horda Museum) is a look into the way of life for people in the rural areas surrounding Bergen. Evidence is displayed that shows people have lived here for 10,000 years, and the farm buildings show how summer farming in the mountains was accomplished. And if you are in the area in June, you can be a part of Bjørgvin Marknad (Viking and Medieval Festival), a festival of living Viking history – including a Viking ship!
Additional personal photos of Hordamuseet and the Viking ship during the 2011 Bjørgvin Marknad can be found here.
Can you tell how much I enjoy this beautiful area of our world? Come and visit – I think you’ll agree with me, and with my family and friends who have been here! English is spoken in all the major tourist areas (and by many Norwegians too), and the Tourist Center can help get you started on your own exploration of Bergen’s history.
An American in Norway
(all photos by Cindi Keller)