Bergen

a photograph of the Norwegian coast
The coast between Alesund & Norway is dotted with tiny islands

We returned to Ålesund just long enough to board the Hurtigruten bound for Bergen. This was the one part of the trip when I felt that Fjord Tours sort of dropped the ball–at no point during booking do you realize that you can’t get on this boat until after midnight! That left us hanging out at the port in Ålesund, which, for the record, has no waiting room of any kind. Since we had children in tow, hanging out in a bar wasn’t an option either, so we ended up in the Radisson Blu. I suspect it wasn’t the first time that people bound for Bergen crashed in their lobby, and they do have an assortment of snacks and drinks, as well as comfy couches, to make the late hour a bit more comfortable.

The accommodations on the Hurtigruten are typical of larger cruise ships–single bunk beds and a bathroom that is clean and functional, but barely large enough to turn around in. We were not able to figure out any sort of family room, so we booked two doubles and split up–one adult with each child (another reason I’m glad we opted for only one night on the boat!).

The view the next morning really made up for any discomfort. We scouted out some nice tables by the window, sat down to breakfast, and took turns walking above deck to take photos of the islands as we chugged by. The sun peeked out, and although it was windy, it really was a gorgeous trip. By mid-afternoon, we were in Bergen. Norway’s second-largest city is on the coast and surrounded by seven mountains and seven fjords. Once the bustling center of the Hanseatic League, Bergen is a great stop if you’re interested in the colorful history of Northern Europe.

photo of Bryggen in Bergen
The red ochre buildings of the Bryggen

It’s most prominent feature is the Bryggen–a row of old wooden houses where members of the Hanseatic League traded, and you can feel the history of the place from the lively fish market at one end to the Rosenkrantz Tower on the other. The Tower, and much of the Bryggen, was damaged when a German munitions ship blew up in the harbor during World War II–just one of the many historical tales you’ll learn as you visit Bergen’s museums.

Since we were gone nearly two weeks, we needed a chance to do laundry and suspected we’d be sick of eating out for every meal. So we were happy to find the Bergen Guesthouse. Interestingly, we didn’t stay in either of the units listed on the site, but instead in another place just up the hill, which actually belongs to one of the proprietor’s parents and is only rented out when they’re at their summer cottage during the holidays. Regardless, it was a lovely location within an easy walk of town, and we really appreciated having a bit of space and a kitchen after the close quarters on the Hurtigruten.

photo of steep streets in Bergen
The hilly terrain of Bergen makes for some stunning views!

The proprietors of the guest house also gave us the best restaurant recommendation we received on the trip: Jacobs Bar & Kjokken (Kon Oscarsgate 44). Open for both lunch and dinner, order the special and let the staff pair it with wine or order the amazing fish and chips and choose from their immense selection of beer. Either way, go there–it is worth it to avoid the touristy strip and its steep prices along the Bryggen! Also note that Jacobs has an apartment and hotel, which seems worth exploring if you’d rather avoid the more touristy locations right on the water.

Shortly after our arrival, we headed to the Tourist Information center to pick up our Bergen Cards. We suspected that the weather (it rains about 275 days per year in Bergen due to its position on the coast and the surrounding mountains, which hold the clouds in place right over town!) would keep us inside and make taking the bus desirable.

The funny thing is that we never took the bus and most of the museums are closed on Mondays (the first day we were there). I think we might have broken even on the purchase, whereas looking back, I think we could have used the card in Oslo and opted not to buy it. Ah well, live and learn!

The throngs of people we encountered every time we ventured near the Bryggen made us want to head uphill and away, so that’s what we did. We set our sites on the University Museums (two of the ones that I mentioned were closed!) hoping to see the Cultural History Collection and the Natural History Collection. Since they were closed, we enjoyed wandering the public gardens between the museums instead.

photo of gardens in Bergen
The gardens behind one of the University Museums

We were able to visit the maritime museum, however, and its small scale and interesting models of ships through the ages made it accessible for young children.

Had we stayed longer, I might have ventured further afield to the historic home of composer Edvard Grieg–Troldhaugen–or to Lysoen, the home of famous violinist Ole Bull. As it was, our children were getting tired of museums and site-seeing in general, so we spent more time relaxing in Bergen than we might otherwise have done.

But Bergen is a great place to just wander. Every building looks like it was standing as the vibrant history of the area played out hundreds of years previous, and even the undeniably crappy weather wasn’t enough to dampen our spirits on this leg of the journey. Umbrella and rain jacket were required equipment, but the rain is more drizzle than soaking downpour, so it’s not hard to brave the damp.

photo of the national theater in bergen
The National Theater, Bergen

So we wandered up and down the winding streets. I particularly enjoyed the haunting National Theater, which is surrounded by cafes where the young and trendy (or old and travel-worn) congregate. The gourmet food and wine shops interspersed among the cafes and bakeries in this area also guaranteed that we ate well in Bergen.

Each churchyard we passed seemed to have a small playground for the children, and even when there was no play structure in sight, they enjoyed running in the green spaces and playing in the fountains.

Trying to find a break in the weather to go up the Floibanen funicular that affords spectacular views on clear days is a bit of fool’s prospect. It was so socked in by fog by the time we got to the top that we ended up getting a coffee and then letting the children play at the amazing play park at the top of the hill.

That said, the walk back down to the town was one of my favorite parts of our visit to Bergen. You can imagine that trolls really do inhabit the hills around Bergen, and each cranny at the base of the countless trees provides shelter from the rain for the wee magical creatures of the forest.

forest in Bergen
It's easy to imagine trolls and other fey folk in these woods...

Similar in flora and fauna to Finland, most wooded rambles in the summer in Norway involve a few berries here and there to replenish children who might otherwise start whining. Stories about how each stick on the side of the path was left there by a troll who would be returning any minute to look for it didn’t hurt either 😉

We packed a lot in to a few days in Bergen, but couldn’t help feeling like there was more to see had we stayed longer. And yet, it was time to start the last leg of our trip, so we boarded the train for Voss.

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