Bergen's oldest quarter runs along the eastern shore of Vågen Harbour (bryggen translates as 'wharf') in long, parallel and often precariously leaning rows of gabled buildings. Each has stacked-stone or wooden foundations and reconstructed rough-plank construction. It's enchanting, no doubt about it, but can be exhausting if you hit a cruise-ship and bus-tour crush.
The current 58 buildings (25% of the original, although some claim there are now 61) cover 13,000 sq metres and date from after a great fire in 1702, although the building pattern is from the 12th century. The archaeological excavations suggest that the quay was once 140m further inland than its present location.
In the early 14th century there were about 30 wooden buildings, each usually shared by several stuer (trading firms). They rose two or three stories above the wharf and combined business premises with living quarters and warehouses. Each building had a crane for loading and unloading ships, as well as a schøtstue (large assembly room) where employees met and ate.
Do explore further than the frontages facing the harbour, as the wooden alleyways inside Bryggen are the most charming; a haven for artists and craftspeople, there are bijou boutiques at every turn. The atmosphere of an intimate waterfront community remains intact, and losing yourself in Bryggen is one of Bergen's greatest pleasures.