It’s a mixed blessing to be internationally renowned for one thing. Case in point: take Pamplona, the legendary Spanish town in northern Spain known almost exclusively for its bull run (the San Fermín festival’s “Running of the Bulls”) each July 6-14. But as tourists from across the globe are discovering, you don’t have to be a world class, bull-dodging daredevil to add this urban gem to your travel itinerary.
Granted, most travelers arrive during jam-packed encierro (as the bull run is called), but Pamplona is equally worth a stop for its year-round cultural activities and festivals, upscale hotels, and Michelin-star restaurants. Just as you’ll find in other Spanish and Mediterranean cities, life is lived outdoors—and Pamplona’s lively plazas offer plenty of first-rate people watching.
About one hour from the border of France, Pamplona is surrounded by mountains, which help give it a moderate climate. Most visitors arrive between June and September, in large part due to city festivals staged during this time. If you’re already traveling in Spain, flights from the capital city of Madrid and Barcelona (as well as other international cities) land at Aeropuerto de Noaín, less than four miles from Pamplona’s city center. And visitors can easily get here via train from Madrid and foodie favorite San Sebastián.
“Running of the Bulls”
Although it’s been popularized by images of thousands of white-and-red-clad thrill seekers dashing and darting through narrow streets, the running of the bulls actually takes place during the religious Fiesta of San Fermín. He’s the co-patron saint of Navarra—the Spanish region in which Pamplona sits. American literary legend Ernest Hemingway immortalized both the fiesta and its bull running in his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises, which put Pamplona on the global tourist map forevermore.
Unlike other Spanish cities, Pamplona only holds bullfights during this fiesta, when a nonstop party vibe is in the air. It starts early, as the bulls are released at eight a.m. from their holding queue and take off in a stampede en route to the Plaza de Toros for each evening’s bullfight. About 500,000 visitors pack balconies and the always happening Plaza del Castillo, taking over the city. Learn more about the bull-running tradition at the Museo del Encierro, which offers lively, behind-the-scenes looks at the San Fermín experience.
Even if you’ve got zero interest in the bulls and are just coming to soak up the Spanish scene during San Fermín, reserve hotels six to 12 months in advance. And if you’re looking to roll like a rock star in upscale digs, know that hotel prices often triple or quadruple for rooms near Plaza del Castillo and other central locales.
If you’d rather check out Pamplona at a less hectic (and bull-dominated) pace, visit during the next-to-last weekend in September. You’ll experience San Fermín de Aldapa, a mini-version of the July festival which honors the saint’s martyrdom with frequent concerts, traditional dances and processions through Pamplona’s scenic streets.
Sleeping in Serious Spanish Style
A city steeped in rich Basque culture, tradition and history, Pamplona is now home to a range of great hotels, from posh, storied favorites to modern resorts. The five-star Gran Hotel la Perla—housed on a corner of the elegant Plaza del Castillo—offers rooms and suites overlooking the bulls’ storming down nearby Calle Estafeta. These include the preserved “Hemingway’s Room”—complete with tapestries, chairs, and original desk—where the iconic American author often stayed, penning articles and entertaining Hollywood royalty.
A former family residence, the historic and spacious four-star Palacio Guendulain has 18th-century palace charm with the comforts of a modern luxury hotel. Its 25 bedrooms and suites overlook either the city’s charming and lively Plaza del Consejo or the hotel’s intimate inner courtyard, a gorgeous place to unwind with a cocktail. Don’t miss the Palacio’s Bar Taittinger, complete with leather club chairs and constant Taittinger champagne tastings. Be sure to check out the hotel’s original art collection on its wide staircases and public rooms.
Just outside Pamplona’s city limits is the four-year-old Castillo de Gorráiz Hotel Golf & Spa. It features sumptuously decorated guest rooms (all with balconies) in its main building and medieval-style “castle,” and a scenic 18-hole golf course, which guests can view from the Gorráiz Terrace. The destination hotel’s stunning spa—inspired by the baths of ancient Roman palaces—is itself worth the 15-minute trip from Pamplona. With a hydro-massage pool, waterfalls, a Finnish sauna, Turkish bath and “sensations” shower, it’s a water paradise on many levels. Ask about spa and golf packages—as well as private cars and shuttles to Pamplona during the fiesta.
For true medieval style, sleep at the 15th-century, 43-room Parador de Olite. Part of the Spanish government’s network of paradores (castles, fortresses, palaces, stately homes and rustic structures authentically restored to offer guests an experience rather than just a place to sleep), the Olite parador is a castle-palace with uniquely furnished guest rooms. And its restaurant’s stained-glass windows and brick walls provide the backdrop to traditional Navarrese cuisine, including cordero al chilindrón, a suckling lamb stew.
Dine Like Royalty in Pamplona
Foodies will be right at home in Pamplona, where seasonal specialties from northern Spain’s Navarra region are on full display at tapas bars and Michelin-star menus. Check out seasonal cuisine at the hip and sophisticated La Nuez Restaurante of Venezuelan chef/owner Julio Flames, who makes the rounds at Pamplona’s local markets and is big on Navarra wines.
Another don’t-miss gastronomic experience: the elegant Europa, just steps from popular Plaza del Castillo. This restaurant’s Michelin star comes courtesy of the inventive cuisine of Pamplona-born chef Pilar Idoate. Europa features several seasonal dining options, including a degustation menu for those willing to put their taste buds in this talented chef’s hands.
Chic family-owned Rodero would be at home in any world-class city. The gorgeous restaurant earned a Michelin star for self-taught chef Koldo Rodero’s innovative use of top-quality Navarrese products. But he’s also a fan of international ingredients like Japanese black garlic and shiitake mushrooms, and global influences from Peru and France—all adding to Rodero’s deliciously diverse menu.
From stampeding bulls to world-class restaurants and palatial hotels, Pamplona serves up a cultural mélange to please nearly every global palate. So why not indulge?
Maureen Jenkins blogs at UrbanTravelGirl.com about “living globally through international travel.” A Chicago native, she recently spent one year living in a small village outside Paris. Follow her on Twitter @UrbanTravelGirl.