When you come to Bergen, you have to go for a walk through Bryggen. Many people wander along the front of these timber houses, browsing in and out of the shops. But there’s a whole world behind the postcard view. And it’s best explored with either a walking tour with a guide or a self-guided walking tour.
Bryggen has a fascinating story. It is where Norwegians first settled in the city. It’s where trade took off in the country, and it was the largest settlement in Scandinavia until the 16th century. For hundreds of years, Bryggen was operated by the Hanseatic League, a large German trading society. During World War II, Norwegian resistance workers hid in Bryggen. There’s so much to tell.
I do a comprehensive walk through Bryggen on my walking tours, which you can look at by clicking here. If you don’t have the time, or maybe you just want to understand what Bryggen is all about, I’ve put together a self-guided walk. It’s a summary of the best bits of Bryggen: concise but informative.
There is a printed version of the Bryggen Self-Guided Walking Tour available on my website.
- About Bryggen
- Join me on a walk through Bryggen
- Get the Walking Guide
- Important to Know
- Beginning Point: Bryggens Museum
- St. Catherine’s Hospital
- Buekorps Statue
- St. Mary’s Church
- Bergen in the 14th century: Population growth, the Black Plague, and the Hanseatics
- The First Courtyard
- The Front of Bryggen
- Enhjørningsgården & The Theta Museum
- The Stockfish
- Jacobsfjorden & Bellgården
- Rosemaling Painting
- The End of the Hanseatic League
- Holmedalsgården & the City Hall
- The Brick Buildings
- Symbol of Lubeck and the Brick Buildings
- Off-loading Building
- Hanseatic Museum
- Share Your Thoughts
- Join Me on a Walk of Bergen!
- Shop the Walking Guide
Bryggen (the wharf) is Bergen’s historic trading centre that goes back to the 11th century. While Bryggen was built up as a Norwegian wharf, between 1360 and 1954 the area became a main trading settlement for the Hanseatic League.
Read more: The Hanseatic League. Simplified.
After some fires and modernisation efforts, Bryggen is a fraction of what it used to be. There are 61 buildings (or 30%) left, and 25% of them are from 1702, the last time Bryggen burnt down in its entirety.
Bryggen is the most popular place for visitors coming to Bergen. It’s packed full of Norwegian restaurants, souvenir shops, museums and galleries. The image of Bryggen is on t-shirts, postcards, Norwegian forums and tourism campaigns. Yet, at first glance, these buildings seem unassuming. Bryggen has a fascinating history, and in my self-guided walk, I try to provide an outline of what that history is. This is like the walk I do for groups, and I’ve done this walk hundreds of times. Hopefully, you enjoy it!
Join me on a walk through Bryggen
Explore Bryggen with me! I do specialised 2.5 hour walking tours of Bergen, including Bryggen and many off-the-beaten-path sites.
Get the Walking Guide
Get a printed version of the Bryggen walking guide.
Bryggen Self Guided Walking Tour
Important to Know
Before you begin your walk in Bryggen, here are some important bits of information to know:
Everything was rebuilt after a fire in 1702
Warehouses in Bryggen were first built in the 11th century. Having lots of timber structures built close means that Bergen has suffered from many fires. The city has burnt down over a dozen times. The largest fire was in 1702 – over 90% of the city was destroyed. All of Bryggen burnt down, so the wooden buildings we see today are from after 1702. Yet, their architecture and layout are like the earlier buildings, so the sense of history is still there.
Only a few buildings survived the 1702 fire, including St. Mary’s Church and the white stone buildings you’ll see on the walk.
Bryggen is sinking
The original beach stood about 120m (390 feet) further inland than it does today. After each fire, the ashes of the buildings were pushed into the fjord and new buildings placed on top. The wooden buildings we see today are built on ashes and landfill. This is slowly compressing, causing the wharf to sink at around 3mm per year. This is why the buildings are leaning a little.
Beginning Point: Bryggens Museum
This tour starts from behind the Bryggen Museum. As you are approaching the museum at the front, walk to the right (between the museum and the Radisson Blu Hotel). You will see that the museum has glass windows on your left-hand side. Look inside the windows to see the first warehouses of Bryggen.
The First Warehouses of Bryggen
These are the oldest buildings on Bryggen. They were warehouses and had a similar appearance to the current ones on Bryggen. The difference is that they were single storey and coated in tar. The oldest ones, which are closest to St. Mary’s Church, are from around 1150. Families lived and traded together in these buildings. When they burnt down in 1170, the remains were pushed into the water and the buildings in front were constructed. These new buildings were on the water; with piers out into the harbour.
Yes, Bryggen we have today is built on the water. About 100m into the bay, to be exact.
Directions: Behind the Bryggens Museum you’ll see two remains of stone structures. Let’s go see these!
The Old Chapel & City Hall
The square stone building with the entranceway carved out is St. Lawrence’s Chapel. It was built here sometime in the 12th century, but after one of the fires, it was never rebuilt.
The same goes for the city hall, which is the remains next to the chapel. The city hall had its name from St. Mary’s Church (Maria Guildhall). This is because the original city hall meetings took place in the church graveyard. After one of the fires, the new city hall was constructed further away from Bryggen. Later it, it was moved far away from the Hanseatic League.
Directions: Make your way up to St. Mary’s Church. Behind St. Lawrence’s Chapel you will see a small staircase – that’s the quickest way to get to the front of the church. Before you stand in front of the church, head across the street towards those large windows. There you’ll see…
St. Catherine’s Hospital
St. Catherine’s Hospital is Norway’s first hospital for women. It is from some time around 1250 and remained in use until a fire in 1527. The building was then abandoned and forgotten until it an excavation in 1986. It’s believed that (before it burnt down) the Hanseatics were large donors to the hospital.
There is an information board just inside the building so you can read more about the hospital.
Directions: Cross the street once again and head towards the church. The statue on your right is…
The Buekorps is a unique Bergen tradition. It consists of clubs (depending on where you live) made up of boys up to the age of 18. They are something like marching bands; practising through the streets of Bergen. Their main performance is on the 17th of May, Norway’s national day. The Buekorps began in the 19th century. Bored kids started copying the Norwegian army practice marches. Eventually, that developed into the Buekorps. If you are in Bergen in spring or early summer you may hear or even see them! What makes them especially unique is that they carry wooden weapons when they march. You can see this statue is holding a crossbow.
This particular statue is to commemorate the members of the Buekorps who fell during World War II.
St. Mary’s Church
St. Mary’s Church is the oldest building in Bergen; built sometime between 1130 and 1170. The towers are a Romanesque style and there are High Gothic characteristics inside. The church received the country’s first stained-glass window in 1336 when a German glass painting was put in the northern wall. The church was important to Bergen. The king may have taken initiative to build the church in cooperation with the citizens of the town. It was most likely built to be the main church of Bergen.
St. Mary’s is the only church to survive (without major fires) because the Hanseatic merchants loved the church. The Germans controlled the church from 1480 onwards. It was a church for the German congregation in Bergen until 1874. Moreover, the Germans had the resources to maintain the church. They also kept the Reformation from affecting the interior.
You’ll notice a lot of the graves have German names on them. When the Hanseatic merchant died, they left their fortune to the church were buried here.
Directions: Walk along the footpath that runs between the ruins and St. Mary’s Church towards a red wooden building. This is the Schøtstuene Museum.
Bergen in the 14th century: Population growth, the Black Plague, and the Hanseatics
Now you’re standing in the middle of the first city centre of Bergen. In the year 1300, Bergen was the largest city in Scandinavia with 10,000 people living and trading here. The merchants lived along the waterfront. They traded stockfish for goods from Germany, the Netherlands and England.
In 1349, the Black Death came to Bergen via a ship from England. Around two-thirds of the population died from the plague. Much of the trade that had taken place in Bergen more or less stopped. The King in Norway at the time allowed the Hanseatic League to take over trade in Bergen. He did this to bring food, supplies and income back into the country. The Hanseatic League was eventually granted status and ownership of Bryggen. They were also the only group in Norway allowed to trade stockfish with the rest of Europe.
The rest of the walk will be about the Hanseatics at Bergen.
Who were the Hanseatic merchants?
I’ve got a whole article about this, which you can read here.
Directions: Walk to the Schøtstuene Museum and stand outside, where the museum information board is.
The Hanseatic Coat-of-Arms
Standing outside the museum, you’ll see a logo on the information board. This symbol, which is half eagle and half stockfish, represents the Bryggen Hanseatics. The eagle represents the Lubeck coat-of-arms, which is the town in Germany where most of the merchants came from. The stockfish, of course, represents what they traded at Bryggen.
What was the Hanseatic League? It was a commercial confederation of merchant guilds and market towns. The League dominated Baltic and Northwest European maritime trade for around three centuries. They traded in over 300 locations with 4 permanent offices (London, Brugge, Novgorod & Bergen). By working as a close-knit society, the League was able to protect their economic interests and diplomatic privileges as well as the trade routes they had established. In Germany, they were established in Bremen, Lubeck & Hamburg (plenty of Hanseatic influence is still seen there today).
I’ve got a very big article about the Hanseatic League I’d recommend reading if you want to understand them. There’s also plenty of wonderful books available to purchase in Bergen. Click here for my article.
You are standing outside the Schøtstuene Museum, which provides information about how merchants lived in Bergen. When the museum opened in the late 1930s, the Hanseatic merchants had a rather negative reputation in Bergen. The museum aimed at changing this. It represents the spirit of the Hanseatic’s through their games, drinking, meals, and social order. It’s a fantastic museum well worth a detour.
Directions: Continue past the Schøtstuene Museum. To your right, you’ll see a cobblestone path leading down towards Bryggen. Take that path. When you get to the end, turn left and walk towards the white stone building.
The First Courtyard
We are now standing in the first of two courtyard areas we’ll visit on this trip.
The large patches of grass you see here had timber houses on them. The Bryggen buildings went all the way to the street to the left of the view in the image (the street is Øvregaten). After the biggest fire in 1702, the Hanseatics decided to not rebuilt here. Instead, they designed vegetable gardens so they could grow produce. Today these gardens are rainwater catchments. Bryggen is built on landfill, it is sinking (3mm a year). These gardens catch rainwater (not a challenge in Bergen!) and send it to the landfill underground to keep the ground underneath moist and stable.
The Stone Buildings
The stone buildings predate the wooden buildings at Bryggen. This is because they survived the 1702 fire. They to protect valuables (money, weapons, deeds) from fire. Each gårder (row of tenements) had a storage building at the back, as you can see with Bredsgården, for example. The little stone building by itself was built in 1666, and the same family who built still own it today! If you look at the stone above the door, you’ll see the Hanseatic symbol of Bergen and the original owners’ initials.
The street behind Bryggen is Øvregaten (Upper Street). It is the oldest street in Bergen and possibly Norway and marks the original boundary of the city. When the Hanseatic League settled in Bryggen, German craftsmen settled on Øvregaten. They made anything and everything from combs to shoes. By the 16th century, Øvregaten had a different reputation. Since the Hanseatic League was a male society, Øvregaten became known for prostitution.
Prostitution was banned in Bergen, but it was tolerated on Øvregaten. It is probably because the Norwegian’s didn’t want the Hanseatic men straying into town and corrupting the pure Norwegian women! Yet, the Hanseatics were banned from engaging with the locals. If a German man and Norwegian woman were caught, the woman was thrown into the water and the man had to buy beer for every other merchant on Bryggen! There’s an old document saying “He got someone pregnant and was punished, but we got to have a big party and can’t wait for it to happen again!”
Directions: We are now going to make our way down Bredsgården. Turn right where the entrance to Bredsgården is (at the yellow wooden building). As you do this, look at where the cobblestone turns to wood; this is the original shoreline; everything with the wooden floor is built on landfill into the fjord! You will start seeing that the buildings are leaning because of this.
Bredsgården is the most original of the gårder on Bryggen. It was first mentioned in history in 1310 and stands on the same site. It has been rebuilt a few times, for the last time in 1702, but the building style has always been the same.
The layout of the Tenements
Each gårder (row) contained 10 smaller businesses. At the front, they shared a pier. At the back, they shared a stone building and a schøtstuene. Each business is on each side of the alley, which is why staircases and bridges are linking the two rows.
On the bottom floor is where they store the fish. The middle floor is where they store imported goods. They are lifted onto the floor with the hooks on the roof through the wide openings on the wide. On the top floor is where the manager, journeyman (assistant manager) and the apprentices would sleep and eat cold meals.
Fire was (understandably) prohibited on Bryggen, so all hot meals were cooked in the schøtstuene. Also, the merchants had to rely on natural light. Bryggen could thus be very cold in the winter! The buildings on the waterfront had the largest windows and most natural light, so they were the best buildings to own. The smaller businesses along the alley were much smaller.
In the summer months, up to 7,000 Germans could be working at Bryggen.
Directions: Continue to the front of Bryggen
The Front of Bryggen
We are now standing at the front of Bryggen. You’ll see the cobblestone patterns on the front change. The cobblestone path closest to the buildings is as far out as Bryggen used to go. The road and square are from the 20th century.
On the front of the buildings, you’ll notice each one has a mascot of sorts (lumberjack, unicorn, etc). These were like company logos. It wasn’t common for fishermen to read. When they were arriving with their stockfish, they’d find their Hanseatic merchant according to the logo on the front. They always returned to the same merchant. Often they had relationships spanning generations. If the fishing catch was bad that year, the fishermen could still get the food and tools he needed; like a credit system.
Directions: We are going to make our way down the unicorn alley (it’s the next alley to the right of Bredsgården if you’re looking at Bryggen front on. This alley can often be closed; if that’s the case, just head up Bredsgården again and instead of going to the courtyard, take a right under the wooden building. The unicorn alley (Enhjørningsgården) will be the first alley on your right. You end up in the same place!
Enhjørningsgården & The Theta Museum
This alley, which translates to Unicorn Alley, is dark and narrow. More-so than the others, it gives you the feeling of being in another century. It has the oldest wooden planks, fastened with wooden pegs. The alley also has some of the bare timber (the newest buildings are with wooden planks).
Inside this alley, you find the Theta Museum. This is about the Norwegian Resistance group who occupied it between 1940 and 1945. It was uncovered by Nazis in 1942 and most of the group was sent to concentration camps. Those who survived came back after the war and turned the room into a museum. It’s a very worthy detour, but it’s very seldom open.
June-August Tues, Sat and Sun 2pm-4pm. 50 NOK for adults.
Directions: Make your way into this second courtyard area. You’ll see a statue of a stockfish on the other end of the courtyard; we are going there. First, though, stand between the two red wooden buildings.
These two red wooden buildings used to be connected and belong to Svensgården, the closed-off alley. Svensgården has been closed for over a decade due to extensive rot. I’ve been coming to Bergen for nine years and never walked down it. The red wooden building to the left is the only remaining schøstuene in its original place. Today it’s a restaurant, so you can sit in the same spot the Hanseatics did and enjoy a traditional Norwegian meal!
Directions: Okay, now it’s time to continue to the fish!
Here we are at a statue of the stockfish, what the Hanseatic League traded.
Stockfish (tørrfisk in Norwegian if you want to find it in a shop) is dried cod. It is caught during the Lofoten Fishing Season in winter. The cod is then hung out on racks to dry for a few months. Once dried, the cod is good for 10-15 years.
When the Hanseatic League gained exclusive rights to trade stockfish, the Lofoten fishermen made the trip to Bergen twice a year to sell their goods. Stockfish was famous across Europe, especially in European countries where religion dictated they could only eat fish. The Spanish adopted a salted version of stockfish (called klippfisk) to bacalao, a famous dish.
To rehydrate the stockfish, soak it in water for 24 hours. Then it’s like a regular fish! If you soak it in lye, you get lutefisk.
Stockfish kept Norway alive. A lot of people wonder why the Norwegians didn’t force the Hanseatic League out sooner. It was simply that the North Norwegians needed this connection with Europe. The continuous export of stockfish meant that Norwegians could survive in the harsh and hostile northern climate. While the Hanseatic merchants weren’t popular in Bergen, they certainly were in Northern Norway.
Jacobsfjorden & Bellgården
The small wooden building you’ll see between Jacobsfjorden and Bellgården is an old schøtstuene. It is from the end of the use of Bryggen, so it was constructed in the middle of the alley rather than at the back.
Both were separate alleys.
Bellgården was first mentioned in 1310 and Germans owned it from 1370. Jacobsfjorden used to be called Åfjorden (after a fjord in Sogn) and was first mentioned in 1309. The Munkeliv Monastery owned the building and land in 1399. The stone cellar (which was behind the stockfish statue) is from the 1420s. After a fire in 1476, the two alleys merged and came under German ownership. The name Jacobsfjorden took over in the early 1500s.
Secret Detour: If you are okay with steep stairs, you’ll notice a staircase next to the cafe KAF Bryggen. Go up those stairs to walk on the first floor and get a more authentic feel for how old these buildings are. If you look on the walls, you’ll see…
If the stairs are not suitable, continue down the alley to the front of Bryggen and jump to number 15.
Up until 1730, these buildings would’ve looked like simple wooden buildings. They were bare and coated in tar to protect the wood from the rain. After discovering that tar was a fire hazard, they began painting the buildings in red ochre. The colour comes from a mineral found in the ground. Red paint is historically the cheapest coat of paint due to these minerals.
When rebuilding after the 1702 fire, some of the buildings were painted with floral decorations. When clapboarding was added in the 1730s, these floral decorations were hidden. This painting is the only spot on Bryggen where you can see the original floral painting. This type of design is only found in this spot, on Øvregaten and at the Bergen Fortress. Otherwise, it is not found in Norway.
All the wooden buildings were painted white at the beginning of the 19th century. This is when Neo-Classical was trendy. White is historically the most expensive coat of paint. The colours we have today on Bryggen are from recent times.
Directions: There is a staircase at the other end of the hallway (towards the front of Bryggen). Head down the stairs and continue out onto the main road on Bryggen.
The End of the Hanseatic League
Here we are standing in front of Bryggen once again. Let’s talk about how Bryggen came to be what it is today.
The Hanseatic League ended at Bryggen in 1754, 150 years after the last office had closed abroad. All the Germans here took Norwegian citizenship and founded the Norwegian Office. This separated them from the powers in Lübeck. Still, the main language spoken here was German. St. Mary’s Church gave free lessons to any Norwegian wanting to work here. Most of the merchants working on Bryggen were of German ancestry.
Trade ended here in 1899, moving further away from the growing city centre. The buildings became abandoned, were rotting, infested with rats, and in need of modernisation. Look to your right at the brick buildings. At the beginning of the 20th century, 1/3 of Bryggen was torn down and rebuilt with these modern brick buildings. They resemble North German architecture and have kept their old Hanseatic names.
They stopped building because in 1916 there was a major fire in Bergen city centre. This destroyed most of downtown Bergen. The city couldn’t afford to rebuild both Bryggen and downtown, so it abandoned Bryggen.
During the war, Bergen was occupied. A large explosion on the harbour in 1944 damaged some of the buildings. After the war, there was a lot of animosity towards the Germans. A movement emerged and locals wanted to remove traces of their German ancestry. There was a push to tear down the rest of Bryggen.
The 1955 Fire and Archaeological Discovery
Look to your left. In 1955, 1/3 of Bryggen burned down in a fire; the last six buildings in the row burned down. There is a rumour that the locals stood on the other side of the harbour cheering!
Archaeologists had six months to examine the area. After that, the city would build the new Radisson Blu Hotel. Six months turned into 13 years. Archaeologists found piers, boats, combs, food, clothing, games, religious objects. They the largest collection of rune inscriptions in the world. Most importantly, they found the remains of the first-ever warehouses built on Bryggen. This confirmed something that they had never really known; Bryggen had never been founded and built by the Hanseatic League; Norwegians had been living and trading here well before then!
With this discovery, they realised it needed to be protected. The area was restored and in the 1970s it entered into the UNESCO World Heritage List. That’s why Bryggen is so special to us!
For a bit more of Bryggen, head down the last alley in the row. This is Holmedalsgården. As you follow it, the alley will widen at the back.
Holmedalsgården & the City Hall
Holmedalsgården is from 1309 and German merchants began to stay there soon after. From the 1370s onwards, they owned the building. All the accounting books from the 18th century onwards for Holmedalsgården are preserved. The last German merchant to own the building was Hille-brand Harmens (1736-1813). He was the son of an immigrant from Hamburg and he exported dried fish and imported grain, salt and hemp. By the time of his death, he was the richest man in Bergen, owning three farms.
If you follow Holmedalsgården to the end, you’ll end up in a wide courtyard area with a road (Nikolaikirkeallmenningen) to your right. If you look on the wall where the road is, you’ll see a small sign.
The Old City Hall
This is where you can see the Old City Hall. The sign explains everything pretty well in English. This is where the city hall was constructed after the one we saw near St. Mary’s Church burned down. This city hall was abandoned due to the growing Hanseatic presence in the area. Christopher Walkendorf donated his house to be the new city hall; it’s the one we have today!
Finding the opening hours for these ruins feels impossible. The area has recently undergone a major renovation to make the ruins more accessible. Yet as of 2020 I couldn’t find any information on actually visiting through the door. Still, though, give it a go! One news article (from 2009) says that it is open Saturdays 11am – 4pm.
Follow Nikolaikirkeallmenningen back to the front of Bryggen
The Brick Buildings
Lets have a closer look at the brick buildings. When you’re standing on the front of Bryggen, look up to the walls of the brick buildings. You’ll see the coat of arms for various cities; London, Brygge, Skåne (a region in southern Sweden) and so on. These are various Hanseatic cities.
The date on the building refers to each time it has been rebuilt. This used to be the site of the Kjøpmanstuen, or the main meeting area for the German Office. It was originally built in the late 13th century (first mentioned 1389). The wine cellar was the oldest part of the building and had rooms for serving and warehouses.
The Kjøpmanstuen was rebuilt after 1476. It is rumoured that shortly after this King Christian II of Denmark had an affair with Dyveke Sigbritsdatter here.
The Kjøpmanstuen burned again in 1702 and was rebuilt. The wooden structure had two floors with high ceilings. Above the entrance were weapons. The ground floor had a living room and a guard room.
This is where all the merchants in Bryggen would have their meetings to discuss important matters. ‘Kjøpman’ means merchant and ‘stuen’ (like schøtstuene) refers to the room.
Directions: Cross the street towards the green building (an old steamship building) and look back onto the front of the brick buildings.
Symbol of Lubeck and the Brick Buildings
On the front of the brick building closed to Bryggen you’ll see two coat-of-arms: Lübeck and Bryggen. This is where you can see how similar the two are.
Now we are going to walk along the brick buildings, which are from the beginning of the 20th century. They were built to replace older wooden ones. You’ll notice they all have their original Hanseatic names on the front.
These buildings were the last gårder to be constructed. Most of them were built for the first time in the mid-15th century, well after the Hanseatic League took over Bryggen. Revelsgården, where the Bryggeloft restaurant is today, was first mentioned in 1460. Bratten, named after countryman Hallvard Bratte (who is mentioned in the sagas as an opponent of the king) was built in 1403. It was the last one to be owned by Germans and when a Norwegian took over in 1766, it ended German ownership of Bryggen. Bergen’s first cinema room was built inside the new brick building in 1905.
Directions: Continue along the road until you reach the little wooden building. Step onto it, and then look for the information board on the wall (on the opposite side of the building from where you came on).
This little wooden building is a reconstruction of the off-loading buildings that used to be along the entire length of Bryggen; each gårder had one. When the fisherman came in with the stockfish, he would dock alongside this building. The apprentices would offload the fish and keep it on this building until it was sorted into 30+ various qualities. You’ll see there’s a reconstruction of a crane. The cranes were used to help offload the barrels.
The information board has some images of what Bryggen looked like at its full length, as well as some images of the Hanseatic Museum, our final stop.
Fun fact: These off-loading buildings are also where the toilets were!
Finnegården is the last gårder on Bryggen. The building was first mentioned in 1403 but is probably much older than that. Finnegården was owned by Germans from 1414 onwards. It was the largest commercial premise on Bryggen and more equipped than others.
Johan Wilhelm Wiberg ran trade here between 1866-1898. When he noticed that interest in Bryggen and the Hanseatic League was coming to an end, he took care of the interior of his building and collected objects from the other gården to preserve as much of Bryggen’s old trading environment as possible.
He founded the Hanseatic Museum, which his son Johan Christian Koren Wiberg developed further. The municipality purchased the building in 1916 to ensure it was never demolished.
In 2018 the Hanseatic Museum closed for renovation as it was found that the building was sinking. The renovation work is expected to take several years.
Share Your Thoughts
I hope you enjoyed my self-guided walk through Bryggen. If you have any suggestions for improving the walk, or have down it yourself and have feedback, please let me know in the comments!
Join Me on a Walk of Bergen!
Read about my walking tours of Bergen, including Bryggen and many off-the-beaten-path locations.
Shop the Walking Guide
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