Bergen, known as the "Gateway to the Fjords," is Norway's second-largest city. But with only about 260,000 inhabitants, it projects the warmth and accessibility of a much smaller community. The Gulf Stream softens the weather there, and the winters are mild with little snow.
Shrouded in history, the city's streets are flanked with centuries-old churches and quaint shops and homes connected by a labyrinth of backyard pathways. Two picturesque and inviting landmarks make orientation easy: the wharf area and the museum-surrounded ornamental lake and parklands are within ten minutes from each other by foot. Most of Bergen proper's attractions and activities also lie within a short walk of those points, as does the main cruise pier.
The nearly endless hours of summer sunlight seem to lend an unhurried quality to the pace of Bergen daily life-- but interestingly, this is a port that sees cruise passengers during all four seasons, thanks to the year-round itineraries offered by Hurtigruten. Most residents are patient and helpful to a fault, and tourists are almost always made to feel welcome. With great dining, art, historical and natural assets, and decent shopping, Bergen has something for everyone. Keep in mind, however, that Norway residents are paid high wages, and the cost of living is high as a result, which means visitors might be in for some sticker shock.
Bergen is a clean, friendly, accessible seaside town, rich in history and art, and it's easily navigated on foot or by public transport. But the city is also a jumping-off point for a wide range of longer-term pursuits for those who have more time to explore it while visiting independently.
The cruise port is within walking distance of Bryggen and Bergen Town Centre, encompassing most of the city's points of interest.
Bergen's cruise docks have few amenities, but not to fret. It's only five hundred yards to Bryggen and every souvenir and snack under the sun (midnight or otherwise).
It rains quite a bit in Bergen, and it can be especially chilly by the water, so be sure to pack layers.
By Bus: For visitors who plan to explore on their own, Bergen's best bargain is the "Bergen Card," which can be purchased at the railway station, the express boat terminal, the tourist information center at Vagsallmennigen and some hotels. A 24-hour adult card sells for NOK 200 and gives the holder free transportation on all city buses and free admission or deep discounts to most of the major attractions; 48-hour cards are also available. A child's (3 to 15 years) card costs NOK 75.
On Foot: As mentioned earlier, most of Bergen's attractions can be easily reached on foot. From the wharf area, it's a mere 500-yard walk in an easterly direction to Bergen's other major landmark: Lille Lungegadsvann, a small lake embedded in lush gardens and statuary, surrounded by most of Bergen's major museums. And there are many. One could happily spend more than a day wandering through one museum after another. (As mentioned above, all museums offer free admission with the purchase of a Bergen Card.)
By Taxi: Taxis are readily available in Bergen. Bergen Taxi is a popular local operator, and rates are set per vehicle. In other words, the more people in your group, the better per-person rate you'll get.
Though there are numerous currency exchanges around Bergen, ATMs are plentiful and offer a far better rate of exchange. The biggest concentration of banks and ATMs is around the streets just south and east of the harbor, especially along the major thoroughfare, Olav Kyrres Gate.
Norway is not currently part of the E.U., so they still maintain their currency, the Norwegian Krone (NOK). Check www.xe.com for the most up-to-date exchange rate.
Norwegian is the official language, but English is understood and spoken almost everywhere.
Bergen, like most places in Norway, is heavy on seafood, given its proximity to the sea and access to fresh fish, shrimp and even whale. Reindeer is also a staple. True to its personality as a city with a welcome mat out to all nationalities, it also offers a dizzying range of international cuisine choices:
Bolgen & Moi: Set in an old bank, this establishment offers an upscale ambience that's equal parts trendy and classic. You can sit directly in front of the building's original vault as you dine on delicious fish selections and scrumptious desserts. (Open for lunch Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.; Vagsalmenningen 16, 5014 Bergen; +47 55 59 77 00)
Pygmalion: This little cafe has a personality all its own, complete with checkered tablecloths and art hung on exposed brick walls. Set on a cobblestone side street, just a five-minute walk from the port area, it offers an organic menu of salads and sandwiches that are ideal for lunchtime. Plus it offers outdoor seating for use on nice days. (Open daily, 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Nedre Korsskirke allmenning 4)
Sostrene Hagelin: If you're craving something quick, this is Norwegian fast food, but it's delicious (and much healthier than what you'll find in the historic building across the street, which now houses an inconspicuous McDonald's). Choose from items like wraps, burgers, balls, soups and cakes -- all containing some type of fish. (Open Monday to Thursday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 a.m., and Sunday, noon to 6 p.m.; Kong Oscars Gate 2, 5013 Bergen; +47 55 90 20 13)
Peppes Pizza: Norwegian pizza? You bet! This homegrown chain has a handful of outlets around Bergen Town Centre. And it's a real bargain. A mere handful of kroner will get you a small pizza and drink. Open all day.
Bryggeloftet & Stuene: If you want to try traditional Norwegian cuisine in a lovely wharfside location, this classic in Bryggen is where it's at. Multicourse lunches of fresh local seafood and game are featured there. The food is well worth the price, but don't be shocked if you see items on the menu that would have Greenpeace tearing its hair out. (Open for lunch at 11 a.m. daily, 1 p.m. Sunday; Bryggen 11, 5003 Bergen; +47 55 30 20 70)
Wool sweaters and troll dolls are the most obvious choices, but Norway is also famous for fine contemporary tableware, silver and ceramics. These can easily be found in Bryggen (historic wharf area) and in the cross streets running southwest perpendicular to Olav Kyrres Gate.