"Take an umbrella" was what most people who knew anything about Norway told me when I mentioned I was going to Bergen. "It's boring" was another response—granted, that was mostly from Oslo natives, who tend to look on their country's second city as little more than a provincial North Sea backwater. Such a forecast was unnerving, but I was still intrigued. Bergen was home to two of Norway's greatest sons: composer Edvard Grieg and playwright Henrik Ibsen. A great fan of the latter since my college days (I wrote my senior thesis on Ibsen and played Lövberg in a student production of Hedda Gabler), I had always wanted to visit the city where the master dramatist began his theatrical career.
Ultimately, my friend Wolf Viegard, a Norwegian filmmaker and DJ, convinced me to pay his hometown a visit. "It's one of the most underrated cities in Europe," he said. "It has a great culture, especially music." He cited not only Bergen's famous symphony orchestra and frequent festivals but its upbeat pop scene, typified by groups like Röyksopp and the up-and-coming Sondre Lerche, a local singer-songwriter who'sbig on the international charts.
"Living there is brilliant," Wolf said. "Maybe because we've got the ocean, the mountains, the fjords—they inspire people. Bergen is also a welcoming city, much friendlier than Oslo. It just rains a lot."
Once again, we're back to the weather. But when I arrive in Bergen in July, having hopped over from London in a mere two hours, I am met by sunshine—and it's 9 p.m. Boring?Hardly, if the Saturday-night summer scene around downtown Bergen's U-shaped waterfront is anything to go by. The place is packed. There are bars and cafés everywhere—Euro-trashy watering holes like the steel-and-glass bar at Aroma, funky hangouts such as the garden of Dr. Livingstone. There are Irish pubs, jazz clubs, discos. There's even a carnival that has taken up residence in an otherwise elegant city park. Indeed, the whole town seems to be one big street party; suspended in a twilight that never dissolves into night, the revelry continues well into the wee hours.
After an hour of happy wandering, I wind up at a dive called Madam Felle, on the ground þoor of one of the skinny, brightly painted saltboxes that were originally the warehouses and offices of the Hanseatic League, the council that controlled Bergen's port from the 14th to the 18th century. Here I listen to a local folksinger and indulge in an $8 beer. (Alcohol is heavily taxed in Norway—supposedly to discourage the Scandinavian penchant for heavy drinking—but with all the toasts and additional rounds, it seems that the scheme isn't working in Bergen.)
I cap off the evening with a stroll out to the dramatically lit Rosenkrantz Tower and Håkon's Hall, a hulking stone fortress and massive reception hall that have guarded the port since the 13th century, when King Håkon and his son Magnus ruled. I finally get to sleep in my waterfront room at the Clarion Hotel Admiral around two—only to be awakened an hour or so later by the rising sun. All this talk about rain, I think, as I draw the blackout curtains...why didn't anyone warn me about the sun?
A few hours later, I am awakened again, but this time by the sound of boats. Pulling back the curtains, I witness, right outside the window, a þotilla of ferries of every shape and size—from fat little tubs to sleek high-speed catamarans—all setting out for the spectacular mountain-backed waterways that lie just beyond Bergen. Indeed, the reason most travelers come here at all is to partake in that most Scandinavian of travel rituals: the fjord cruise.
Every morning at breakfast, I find a new batch of fjord-ers, most of them in town just long enough for a quick city tour before taking to the sea. There are Germans, French, Japanese—but the majority seem to be Norwegian-Americans (mostly from the Midwest, judging by their accents) returning to their Viking roots. With all that Lake Wobegon "after-you-no-after-you" politesse, it is often slow going at the coffee station and the herring stops along the buffet trail. Indeed, some mornings I feel like an extra in a surreal sequel to Fargo.
Unlike most of those queued up for breakfast, I have chosen to spend my week in Bergen on land. That way I can avoid tour buses and explore the city at my own pace on foot. Even though Bergen has a population of 230,000, it is delightfully compact—a walker's dream. And now that I'm seeing it in the full light of the morning sun, I can also appreciate its beauty. Forget Fargo! With its big bay, seven mountains, and steep streets of peaked-roof clapboard houses, Bergen instead seems like a Scandinavian San Francisco.
After breakfast, I retrace many of my steps from the night before. I now find that a fish market has taken over the central waterfront square. Here tented stalls offer perhaps the city's best (and least expensive) fast food: cocktails of fat shrimp, exquisite little smoked salmon sandwiches. Over behind the Hanseatic warehouses, in an area known as Bryggen, I discover a warren of wooden walkways, tunnels, and back alleys that harbor a secret inner city of shops, galleries, and restaurants. It's a bit pre-fab—many of these "old" wooden buildings are 20th-century remakes of the fire-prone originals—but still well worth seeing.
Nearby is the Hanseatic Museum, housed in the restored 18th-century office and home of a Hansa importer-exporter. Minuscule rooms resemble the cabins of a ship, complete with compact, space-saving desks and beds. A few blocks down the waterfront, the Bryggens Museum provides another look at early Bergen. The museum is built atop an archaeological excavation that took place between 1955 and 1969 and unearthed Bergen-circa-1150. An installation-like jumble of rotted beams and ancient stone slabs, this ruin has a strange beauty—especially with the twin towers of the magnificent Romanesque-Gothic St. Mary's Church looming through the museum's movie-screen-sized rear windows.