Drone view of Bryggen Wharf in Bergen

Bryggen in Bergen – a big piece of history in a small place

The row of houses on the wharf is among Bergen’s most iconic attractions. Red, yellow and white, the photogenic yet slightly crooked wooden houses take you on a journey far back in time.

“For almost 400 years, we’ve had a German community in the middle of this Norwegian city,” says Jo Gjerstad, a local historian and author. Jo Gjerstad is standing in the middle of Bryggestredet – the place he refers to as the very heart of Bryggen. “Bryggen’s history goes back much further than the creation of the Hanseatic League,” he continues. “If we were standing here 800 years ago, everything would look pretty much as it does now, except at that time all the houses were red.”

Bryggen is a tourist magnet and most people who visit Bergen stop to take a quick selfie and peek through the windows of local shops. But Bryggen offers far more than just beautiful buildings. Take a look behind the iconic façades, among the dark and narrow passages, and you will discover a wealth of history and interesting facts all the way from the Middle Ages to the present day – thanks to Jo who is always ready to generously share his in-depth knowledge.

For instance, did you know that…

  1. Bryggen is Bergen’s oldest district. At over 1,000 years old, it was originally founded as a trade center for stockfish – a type of dried fish – that was transported south for sale from northern Norway towards the rest of Europe.
  2. Originally Bryggen stretched for more than half a kilometer from the meat bazaar to St. Mary’s Church.
  3. St. Mary’s Church is Norway’s oldest building, and Øvregaten was Norway’s first street. Øvregaten marks the rear boundary of Bryggen and St. Mary’s Church is where priests preached in German during the Hanseatic period.
  4. A number of fires have ravaged Bryggen throughout history and the great fire of 1702 left the entire area in ashes. When the buildings were being rebuilt, their original architecture was carefully restored, meaning Bryggen still looks the same as it did in the 12th century.
  5. Bryggen is included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Together with Urnes Stave Church, it became the first Norwegian entry at UNESCO.
  6. For almost 400 years, Bryggen was a German trade office. The Hanseatic takeover was a result of the Black Death which attacked Bergen in 1347 and took the lives of three quarters of Norway’s population within a year. The Norwegian state collapsed. As a result, Denmark managed the state, while the Hanseatic League took control over trade.
  7. The wooden fish on Bryggestredet stands as a symbol of Bergen’s continuous existence as a city that has made a living from fishing for 1000 years.
  8. Тhe story goes that walking through Bryggen in the Hanseatic period was more dangerous than walking in Chicago during the gangsters’ heyday in the 1930s. At any one time, up to 1,000 teenagers and young people aged between 14 to 20 years old worked in the area.
  9. As a Hanseatic office, Bryggen was known by the name ‘Tiskebrüggen’. This German name was changed back to Bryggen only after World War II in 1945. You can still see a sign that reads ‘Tyskebryggen’ mounted on the wheelhouse.
  10. When you walk along the wharf at Bryggen you will notice that several of the buildings are decorated with beautiful figures. These buildings were originally built in the Middle Ages and each of them had its own name. For example, you will see a carving of a king’s head with three faces over the door of Svendsgården and a unicorn at Enhjørningsgården.
  11. Just behind Bryggen you can see Steinkjelleren – Norway’s oldest brothel.
  12. During the Hanseatic League period, all the buildings were turned into German trading points and guesthouses. Over generations, they gradually became Norwegian again. The last guesthouse to become Norwegian was the ‘Unicorn room’.
  13. To date, 61 out of more than 200 buildings in Bryggen are recognized as landmark buildings. Of the 16 houses with a gable roof that adorn the wharf, 10 date back to the year 1703. The remaining 6 houses were copies of their original buildings, rebuilt after a city fire in 1955.
  14. As Bergen served as a German trading center in the past, you can still find many German surnames among the city’s residents. Some of the most common family names are Friele, Mowinckel and Mohn.
  15. Bryggen is still a lively central part of Bergen’s city center. Behind the wooden walls of the former warehouses and Hanseatic offices, you will find good restaurants, boutique shops and galleries.
  16. Just next to Bryggen you will find even more historical attractions – such as the Fish Market and the Bergenhus Fortress.