Witches, trolls, hiking, and a city of red roofs…why, I must be talking about Scandinavia! A seamless blend of urban life and nature, enchanting Bergen, Norway offers all of Scandinavia’s trademark classics to those who visit.. Coming from a whirlwind tour of Paris and London, Bergen felt like a radically different planet. I might have known all about Norway’s fjords, cliffs, and glaciers, but Norway’s delightful cities with earthy attractions surprised me. I hadn’t had any expectations for Bergen; after all, most travel to the region to tour the world-famous Sognefjord. Who knew its cities had so much nature to offer as well?
Classic Norwegian scenery along Sognefjord.
Bergen: A Fairy-Tale City With Plenty Of Green Space
First of all, only in Norway would a nation’s second-largest city have an excellent hiking trail that starts in downtown. Seriously, outdoorsy people will fall in love with this incredible destination, and while Norway’s cities exude a certain old-world charm, the natural beauty of the region is permitted to stand on its own. The cities are built around nature and reflect an appreciation for all things earthy, and for us Americans in claustrophobic metropolises of identical high-rises, the change is a welcome one.
But these are discoveries I didn’t make until after arriving in Bergen.
The charming, unassuming architecture of Bergen, painted in gorgeous natural hues, blend into its surroundings.
Norway is part of the Northern European region of Scandinavia, which has traditionally referred to Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, but has since come to include Finland and Iceland. The wild, untouched, dramatic landscape of Scandinavia pulls adventure-seekers and scenery lovers to the region, and its cities are often little more than “that place thirty minutes from the airport.”
Sadly, with the exception of Copenhagen and Reykjavik, Scandinavian cities tend to be overlooked, and there isn’t all that much information about them online or in travel literature. As a result, Kevin and I arrived in Bergen with little knowledge about the actual city, which is located on Norway’s west coast.
So, why Norway? I know, especially for a first trip to Europe, Bergen might seem like a random destination. I first learned about the Norweigan fjords in high school, when a beloved history teacher talked about how these famous cliffs and lakes are considered one of the natural wonders of the world and often top “must-see” destination lists.
At fifteen, I was intrigued, and I honestly never thought I’d get to explore a country as remote and off-the-beaten-path as Norway. That night, I distinctively remember rushing home and researching the fjords using the slow Internet at my parents’ rural home. A simple image search online left me enchanted.
Fast forward eight years.
I can’t lie. Kevin and I traveled to Norway to see the fjords, not experience its urban side. We used Bergen, Norway’s second largest city, as our base and weren’t quite sure what to expect from the city besides a quaint little harbor and an enchanting, but tiny, old town. Most of my pre-departure research for Norway had centered around the fjords, and I’d vaguely read about Bryggen, a row of historic shops that line the Bergen harbor and date back to the 1400s. Bryggen is also an important UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Climbing Mount Floyen
We landed in Norway on a Thursday afternoon, and we didn’t have nearly enough energy or daylight left to start exploring the fjords, which are actually further from Bergen than they look on a map. After a few hours spent getting lost, driving on a city square where cars are forbidden, and trying to find a meal that didn’t cost over thirty dollars per person, Kevin and I found ourselves in desperate need of an activity.
Okay. I was in desperate need of an activity. Kevin would have been more than happy to slowly walk around town or relax in the hotel room. Nope, not me. My father is probably reading this, shaking his head, thinking, “Poor Kevin, she’s turning into her mother. Can’t sit still for more than five minutes without getting bored.”
Inspiration struck after eating forty dollars worth of pasta and dinner rolls. “I think there’s a hike somewhere in town,” I said, trying to recall information I’d read online a few days before. “And we won’t need to drive to get there.”
Even though there was about ninety minutes left until dark and a steady drizzle that showed no sign of letting up, Kevin and I gingerly headed back to the hotel room, where he promptly researched the hike I referenced and found out how to get there. I could tell he was slightly skeptical of how long the Internet claims the hike will take, but I remind him we can always turn around if we (read: he) gets too tired or if it starts to downpour.
It’s important to keep in mind that a mere two days before our arrival in Norway, I’d spent sixteen and a half hours straight walking around Paris, breaking only for meals and the occasional rest on a park bench. While my time in the French capital made for one of the most transformative travel days of my life – without Kevin, I finally had to confront my ineptitude when it came to using maps – by the time we touched down in Norway, my poor feet had had it.
I desperately wanted to hike, though, so exhausted Kevin and sore Kate made their way to Mount Floyen, which turned out to be much easier to climb than we’d guessed.
The path is a wide switchback trail that, although steep, isn’t strenuous. Naturally, being tax-heavy Scandinavia, the path is meticulously maintained, even in April. Talk about scenic surroundings! At some point on this trail, unfortunately, I discovered a hole in the sole of my well-worn brown boots, but such is the price of travel. I didn’t have dry socks for the rest of vacation, because water kept seeping through said hole. (If you’re wondering why I didn’t buy new shoes, Norway is expensive and I’d much rather spend money on traveling as opposed to boots. I didn’t end up replacing the hole-y boots until September, when a hole appeared in the sole of the other boot).
Doesn’t this forest look to be something straight out of a fairy tale?
Kevin trying to blend in with the athletic locals who essentially ran past us up Mount Floyen.
A funicular is available for those who need it or prefer to skip the hike.
The Witch of Bergen
In order to understand my favorite part of the Mount Floyen hike, one must have a little background on Scandinavian culture. For all the top-notch schools and near-100% literacy rates, we’re a superstitious people. Growing up, my father’s sister displayed these small, wooden figurines of an elderly couple. These family heirlooms actually came over with my great-grandparents from Sweden, and my father liked to tell my younger sister and I wacky stories about the legend of the old couple. It’s become a family joke for my sister and I to try to steal the little old man and woman from my aunt’s house – we’ve never succeeded.
In Mexico and other parts of Latin America, you’ll find that Catholicism effortlessly blends in with the traditions of the native peoples and their spirituality. Scandinavia is similar in that its a largely Protestant region, but Vikings refuse to deny the existence of trolls, witches, and other such supernatural woodland beings.
I’m sorry this photo is blurry, but I had to include it. Just to put this witch into perspective, Kevin is six foot one inches tall, and the witch of Bergen towers over him. Honestly, the Lad was a little freaked out by the giant wooden witch, and refused to touch or even move closer to her. I thought she was cute, and I appreciated the artist’s desire to “Scandinavianize” her – note the blue eyes. As a result, she almost feels part human.
The hike may have winded us a bit, but we found the view to be rewarding and completely worth it. The city of red roofs and yellow houses, nestled in the Norwegian hills.
And So Began My Love Affair With Scandinavia
As Kevin and I made our way back into town, we walked past a house where an elderly woman sat outside, huddled in a blanket. Ever the friendly Scandinavian, she waved at us, and we got to talking. She was excited to hear us speaking English, and initially mistook us for Brits.
“What brings you two to Bergen?” she asked. “Are you students?”
Kevin and I shook our heads, explaining that we were simply interested in this under-explored corner of Europe. Surprisingly, in all of Kevin’s world travels before we met, he’d never managed to visit northern Europe. I may have been the one to suggest adding Bergen to our travel itinerary, but he’d been just as curious.
“Well, you sure picked the wrong week to visit,” the elderly woman laughed. “This weather is unseasonably cold even for us. It’s usually about ten degrees (50 degrees F.) by now. Some spring, I tell you.”
“Of course,” Kevin and I smiled at each other. Traveler’s luck.
“You know, whoever said Hell was hot never visited Norway. Around here, we like to say that Hell must be freezing cold.”
Kevin and I grinned, and talked to her for a few more minutes before continuing on our way. Of all the people we spoke with on that particular ten-day vacation, our exchange with the elderly Bergen woman stood out. It’s rare to stumble upon a place where being an American is seen as interesting, rather than a nuisance. To me, friendly, chatty locals are what makes a great destination memorable.
So far in my travels, Scandinavia remains my favorite travel destination, and while it’s not the cheapest region to explore, it can be done on a budget for those willing to munch on buttered noodles every day. Why do I adore this little corner of Europe so much? Easy. I love the dedication to equality, the passion for nature and scenery, and the desire to live simply. For a people defined by their Viking heritage – after all, Scandinavia refers to those nations settled or conquered by the ferocious Vikings – Scandinavians are a peace-loving people. As an American, it’s incredibly refreshing to travel to a place whose standard of living and commitment to human rights puts ours to shame.
During Kevin and my three-day visit to Western Norway, the rain never fully stopped and the temperature didn’t climb above forty degrees Fahrenheit, but locals were still out in droves, hiking, walking their dogs, and just enjoying the outdoors. Since we traveled in the off-season, we were able to pretend that we too belonged in one of the happiest countries in the world.
- Bring water! I know everything in Norway is wicked expensive, including H2O, but you’ll find that it’s still important to hydrate even in this cold, non-humid climate.
- Nearly everyone in Norway speaks English, so if you don’t mind the country’s price tag, this is a great destination for folks just starting to travel internationally. I know, yet another country puts us one-language Americans to shame.
- Bergen, and Scandinavia writ large, is an incredibly safe place to travel to. Not only is the language barrier barely a problem, the people are incredibly friendly and have a desire to help you. Kevin and I received a discount on a pizza because we didn’t have enough cash on us, and I felt perfectly safe walking down the street after dark to grab some food. Norway is an excellent destination for women traveling alone, travelers with disabilities, families with small children, and LGTB travelers. I definitely sensed an “Everybody’s Welcome” attitude in Bergen.
- Unless you’re visiting the fjords on one of those large tour buses (which, as always, I heartily don’t recommend), you’ll need to rent a car. While the car rental rates are reasonable and affordable, be forewarned: parking in Bergen is an expensive nightmare and western Norway is littered with pricey tolls. We paid close to thirty dollars per night to park our car in our hotel’s garage, while we must have shelled out over seventy dollars in tolls in two and a half days. Tolls are collected automatically, via a sticker on your rental car’s windshield, and processed through your rental company. Be sure to travel with an enlarged map of Bergen and a quality driving map of the surrounding region.
- Read more about visiting Bryggen here.
- Plan your trek up Mount Floyen here.