My hotel was situated right on the water of the harbor in an arm of Byfjorden. From here, I could look across at the city’s iconic Bryggen, a row of historic commercial wood buildings rebuilt after the city fire of 1702 and painted in various shades of red, white, and mustard yellow. They’re a UNESCO World Heritage site, and deservedly so, now home to shops and restaurants. But there are plenty of other even more impressive buildings, although without the coveted designation, that you can enjoy. These are my favorites.
#1 National Theater (Den Nationale Scene)
The largest theater in Bergen is also one of the oldest permanent theaters in Norway, although it has bounced around a bit. Created to develop Norwegian playwrights, the theater opened in 1850 under the name the Norsk Theater, the first national theater with Norwegian stage language, thanks to the initiative of violinist Ole Bull, who wanted the shift away from prevailing Danish. Henrik Ibsen was among its first writers-in-residence, and his first contemporary realist drama premiered here. It took a half century for the theater to find its new home in the current building, which opened in 1909 with a production attended by King Haakon VII and Queen Maud — quite appropriate, given that they had laid the foundation stone in 1906 as their first official act as king and queen. Over the years, the building has seen significant changes, alterations, and extensions, sometimes spurred by unforeseen circumstances: a fire in 1930, for example, and the destruction of its foyer and hall during World War II. In 2001, a major restoration brought it back to its original shape, and today the National Theater houses three stages that present nearly two dozen productions annually. The monumental Art Nouveau building looks a bit like a boxy spaceship from Battlestar Gallactica, especially the small domed top, where you could almost imagine some out-of-this-world creature peering between the louvers and waiting to atomize some unsuspecting Norwegians. The somber gray structure features ornamentation inspired by Nordic fauna. Its most important dates, 1850 and 1909, are acknowledged in the frieze, on either side of the masks of comedy and tragedy. Way up top, look for the stone Viking ship in a shield, and hunt for other masks and animal heads along the walls. If you should choose to attend a performance here and to enjoy the wonderful interior, which was liberally sprinkled with 22.5 carat gold, keep your ears open for the ghost of Octavia Sperati, an actor who died in 1918 but whose portrait survived the Nazi bombing; some believe that that was a miraculous occurrence and that she’s still hanging around performing more miracles to make sure the show still goes on.
#2 Håkons Hall (Håkonshallen)
Håkons Hall shares a bit of history with the National Theater. It, too, suffered damage in the Second World War, and it occasionally holds concerts. That’s where the similarities end. The largest secular medieval building goes way, way back, when construction started in 1247 and didn’t end until 1261. Built as a part of Bergenhus Fortress at the entrance of the harbor, it served as a royal residence before converting to a storehouse, and today it’s a fascinating museum that’s also tapped for formal ceremonies and banquets. As part of one of the oldest and best-preserved fortifications in Norway, Håkon’s Hall was constructed during the reign of King Håkon Håkonsson. The massive structure is a three-level stone Gothic hall similar to English structures of the same time, a rarity in Norway, which leads to the speculation that English architects were responsible for the design. Its function as a royal residence didn’t last very long at all. Bergen lost its status as the main royal residence in 1299; its secondary status in its union with Denmark for centuries after that left the castle in a decaying state. In the late 1800s, as Norwegian independence became imminent, the Norwegian romantic nationalism movement gained some steam and rallied around the independent medieval kingdom that it used to be, and the hall was one of the key symbols. After years of restoration, work was completed in the 1890s, with additions in the 1910s of frescoes and stained-glass windows. The destruction from an explosion during World War II, when a German ammunition ship exploded in the harbor in 1944, necessitated a second restoration that downplayed internal decorations. Opened in 1961 to mark its 700th anniversary, the hall stands as a national cultural monument, referring back to when Bergen was Norway’s largest and most important town. The stone building with a stepped gable end, parapet, and minimal windows faces a cobblestone courtyard. Thick walls keep the interior cool. I shuffled over uneven floors amid the whitewashed rooms until I reached the star of the show: the Great Hall. With Gothic windows, stone walls, and a beautifully rendered wood ceiling, the hall measures a whopping 108’ in length and 42’ in width, and rises 55’ high. It must have been an impressive scene when King Håkon’s son got married and 2,000 guests packed the hall to celebrate.
#3 Bergen Cathedral (Bergen Domkirke)
The Bergen Cathedral, also known as St. Olaf’s Church thanks to its ancient dedication to the 11th-century Norwegian king, traces its origins way back to 1181. But after a string of devastating fires that makes one wonder if there were serial arsonists roaming about the city for centuries, the church was rebuilt multiple times. The current incarnation rose after the fires of 1623 and 1640, but that wasn’t the final version. A steeple was added later; another fire in 1702 led to extensive renovations completed in 1743; and even more renovations in the 1880s did away with the Rococo interiors and restored the medieval appearance. You would think that the watchmen who used the tower from 1624 until 1903 to keep an eye out for fires might have prevented at least one of these conflagrations. With all that building and destruction and rebuilding, with some parts surviving and incorporated into each successive structure, it’s nice to see some permanence: A cannonball fired in the port during a war between the English and the Dutch in 1665 remains embedded in the exterior wall. Look also for the stone carvings in the walls, of crosses, stylized representations of tools like angles and axes, and medieval runes. The recessed arch at the entrance with simple archivolt is mirrored in the taller window directly above it, and above that five windows surround a clock, leading up to the steeple with tiny windows and a ball and cock vane. Inside, the cathedral can seat about 1,000 people. There are some lovely stained-glass windows and stone sculptures, but I think the highlight is the organ up in the choir loft, the fifth one here. Installed in 1997, it’s a fairly spooky-looking instrument, like the garish face of a not-so-lifeless toothy skull on a movie poster for a chilling horror flick.
#4 Meat Bazaar (Kjottsbasaren)
The eye-catching Meat Bazaar stands in the heart of Bergen, right at the head of the Bryggen and just around the bend from the lively Torget Fish Market. Built in 1876 to control the trade of food — both to capture those engaged in cheating and to monitor hygiene — this building, the only one of its kind in Norway, housed 44 sales stalls on both sides of its corridors, separated by iron grilles. Most tenants were wholesalers in the meat industry, but over the decades the building also became the home of the Bergen Pubic Library, the Fisheries Museum, the Church Guard, the Care Service, the Red Cross, and the Political Club. The red-brick building, with a double staircase at the entrance, white frosting trim, and rounded dormer windows, and resting on a ground floor of finely carved granite, sits at the base of the green hill that rises up over the city. As I walked up the inclined cobblestone street beside it, the stitched arched windows above my head at the lower end were soon at eye level, allowing me the opportunity to peer in at the bars and restaurants that prove too tempting to resist when Bergen displays its reputation as one of the rainiest cities in Europe. Following its modernization in 1935, the building ended up on the chopping block in the late 1950s, when a high-rise office building was proposed to replace the bazaar. Led by architects, art historians, professors, composers, and editors, a preservation group successfully saved this treasure before it could be butchered. Another restoration followed in 1996, when the bazaar was rebuilt to accommodate the restaurants and bars visitors enjoy today.
#5 Old Bergen Stock Exchange
As soon as I arrived in Bergen, I headed from one of the city’s most beautiful buildings, the train station, directly to another, the Old Bergen Stock Exchange. At the time, it housed the city’s visitors center, and it was here that I picked up valuable information about the city, the upcoming Independence Day celebrations, and a tip that led me to crashing the nighttime parade on May 17. The Renaissance Revival building opened in 1862 as the city’s own stock exchange and underwent some alterations in the early 1890s, although none so drastic as those of the 2010s, when it was reimagined and opened as the Bergen Børs Hotel in 2017. If you’re not staying here, in a room that, for example, was the office of the bank’s director and still has the doors to his private safe, or that has coffered ceilings or an original stained-glass window, you may very well not see the point of stepping inside, but you’d be missing out on of the city’s treasures — Fresco Hall. In what had been the exchange’s lobby, polished Corinthian columns support the arches, with painted soffits, of the groin vault ceiling. Each panel features one stenciled illustration, of a church perhaps, or a couple of fishermen or a farmhouse. Nearly a dozen magnificent frescoes adorn the walls. Created from 1921 to 1923 by Norwegian artist Axel Revold, the murals are divided into three themes: The North Country has three panels depicting the fishing industry, from the catch in north Norway, to the preparation and drying process, to the southbound trek to Bergen, where the finished products are sold. The four panels in the second category emphasize the importance of Bergen as a shipping and trading port. The third section comprises three panels on a more global scale, showing man’s activity in the age of machinery, the cultivation and processing of nature’s products, and the very abundance of those product under exotic skies. You can still admire these works while you’re enjoying a meal in the hotel’s Asian restaurant.
- Bratten Building (1904)
- Rosenkrantz Tower (Rosenkrantztårnet, 1240s)
- West Norway Museum of Decorative Art (Vestlandske kunstindustrimuseum, 1896)
- Bergen Station (Bergen stasjon, 1913)
- St. John’s Church (Johanneskirken, 1894)
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