There’s so much to see beyond the colourful facade at Bergen’s iconic World Heritage site.
Travellers make a beeline for it as soon as they set foot off the cruise ships or train ride for Oslo. Bryggen is Bergen’s UNESCO World Heritage listed site at the heart of the city. The set of wooden Hanseatic-era warehouses and office buildings are famous around the world for their colourful frontage, but there are so many stories to discover once you’ve taken your photos.
A brief history
In the Middle Ages, Bergen was the main port of export for dried fish and fish oil from northern Norway. German merchants began to join the trade, offering grains in return. In the mid-14th-Century, the German Hanseatic League established an office in Bergen and acquired the rights to purchase goods from Nordland and Troms. In return for the dried fish and fish oil, they supplied Norway with grain, flour, malt, ale, clothing and fabrics.
The merchants gradually bought all the houses in the area, which soon became a society effectively sealed off from the rest of the city. It is believed there were up to 2,000 Germans living in this part of Bergen at the height of their activity. The office continued until 1754.
In 1955 parts of Bryggen burnt down. Over the next 13 years, the archeaeological excavations uncovered hundreds of thousands of objects that helped paint a picture of Bergen life in the Middle Ages. Many of the city’s residents had wanted the remaining buildings demolished, but these finds helped sway public opinion and led to the protected status Bryggen enjoys today.
Behind the facade
While Bryggen is known the world over for its colourful wooden facade, stepping inside the alleyways opens up a whole new experience. Not only will you get a better feel for how the buildings were built, you’ll be able to imagine the life of a German trader in this small enclave. Many small shops, galleries and cafes are now hidden away down the alleys so it’s well worth spending some time to explore.
Bryggen is an ongoing reconstruction and renovation project. Building 1-2a and 2a known as Bredsgården is the most visible as the frontage is currently covered up. Rebuilt as three-storey warehouses after the fire of 1702, both buildings originally contained an office and living quarters for the merchant and his workers. The foundations are heavily damaged by rot and are currently under renovation. The project began in January 2016 and is due to finish in 2019 at a cost of NOK 42 million.
The Hanseatic Museum tells the story of the Hanseatic League, the business that went on at Bryggen, and what life was like living and working in these conditions. The main museum is set inside an atmospheric trading office. No light or heating was allowed due to the risk of fire, so the workers spent their leisure time in the nearby Assembly Rooms, which also form part of the museum. Tip! If you just want to see the main museum, entrance is cheaper after 3pm (time can vary).
Part of the Bymuseet (City Museum) network, Bryggens Museum documents the finds following the 1955 fire and the subsequent renovations. The museum is built over the remains of Bergen’s oldest building from the early 1100s, and also hosts a range of temporary art and other exhibitions about Bergen.
To top everything off, Bryggen is one of the top shopping destinations in the city. Despite one or two tacky souvenir shops, the majority of shops are of high quality with many of the boutiques home to small groups of designers. The fairytale-themed illustrations by the three women of Myte Illustrations are a great example of the kind of unique items you can find in amongst the wooden alleyways.
Another popular stop is the year-round Christmas shop, stocked full of wooden decorations and ornaments to add a touch of Scandinavia to your Christmas celebrations. It’s also worth taking some time to wander up to the Arven Concept Store on Sandbrogaten, where you’ll find locally made gold and silver items.
Where to stay and where to eat
Dining options on Bryggen itself tend to veer towards the pricier side of things. If you’re happy to splash the cash, fish restaurant Enhjørningen (The Unicorn) is highly regarded, as is the nearby Scandinavian specialist Bryggeloftet & Stuene. For a lighter bite, the Baker Brun cafe serves up freshly baked buns throughout the day, while Los Tacos on nearby Vetrlidsallmenningen is a cheap choice for a Tex-Mex takeout.