You can’t talk about this city in northern Spain without mentioning San Fermín, the explosion of merry-making every July. During a week of mayhem there are daily bull runs, in which crazy tourists and locals try not to get trampled or gored by marauding fighting bulls and steers.
There’s a lot more to the fiesta than just the bull-run, just as there’s much more to Pamplona: For most of the year it’s a quiet provincial city, with a quite peculiar history, beautiful sights, superb food and some of the best wine in Spain.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Pamplona:
1. Ciudadela de Pamplona
In the Vuelta del Castillo Park is this renaissance-era citadel, which shows off the flat star-shaped design that took shape after gunpowder was adopted by European armies.
Construction began in the 1570s and wasn’t completed until 1645, although extensions were made in 1685 to bolster the outer walls.
And after that, well, not much happened! It never faced a siege and so is in a good state of preservation.
The bastions now host art exhibitions and concerts take place within the walls in the summer.
During San Fermin in July the nightly fireworks competition takes place from the citadel walls.
2. Pamplona Cathedral
The site of this 15th-century cathedral has got a pretty eventful history.
This spot was the centre of the Roman town of Pompaelo, and it was here that its first Christian cathedral was built.
This was demolished when the Moors arrived, and put back up after the city was taken, before it collapsed and was replaced by another romanesque cathedral that also fell down! Finally this French-style gothic building was put up and has remained ever since.
Look up in wonder at the vaulting above the nave, and check out the choir, which is fitted with carved stalls from the renaissance.
Take a look at the Diocesian Museum leading off the cloister, where religious art from lost churches around Navarre is on display.
3. Plaza del Castillo
Pamplona’s main square is such a big part of the city’s social life that it’s often described by locals as their “cuarto de estar” “(the living room). It’s just south of the old town (San Cernin), between the former medieval settlements of San Nicolas and Navarrería.
The square is arcaded on all sides in the typical Spanish renaissance style, with the outdoor seating of cafes and restaurants next to lawns and rows of pollarded plane trees.
In the middle of the square is a stone bandstand and concerts are held here on summer evenings, especially during San Fermín.
4. Museo de Navarra
Some intriguing fragments from Pamplona’s earliest cathedral are on show at this museum that casts light on the entire human history of the Navarre region.
Inside this gorgeous renaissance hospital are large chunks of the romanesque cathedral’s stonework, including the elaborately carved capitals that stood atop the pillars of a long-lost cloister.
A little older is a mosaic of the Triumph of Bacchus, dating to the 1st century, while there’s also a Moorish ivory chest from the 1000s.
Part of the fun of the museum is its eclectic displays that cover anything from medieval frescoes to a Goya portrait of the Marquis of San Adrián.
5. Iglesia de San Saturnino
As we’ve seen, Pamplona didn’t start out as one city; it was a set of three neighbouring “burgos” (villages or boroughs) and none of them really got on very well with each other! The proof can be seen at this 13th-century gothic church, which was the parish of San Cernin.
If it looks a bit like a fort then this isn’t a coincidence as this church had a defensive role during skirmishes between the neighbourhoods.
These days the church’s two towers are one of Palmplona’s favourite postcard images, and the clock tower is the centre of attention on the 6th of July when it counts the start of the San Fermín at noon.
6. Iglesia de San Nicolás
From there you should make the five-walk down to the parish of San Nicolás, whose medieval church is just as well-defended.
This building has a reinforced watchtower with turrets on each corner.
Originally there were three towers on this gothic 13th-century church, which was built after a deliberate fire had destroyed the old romanesque building on this site.
The highlight of the interior is the magnificent baroque organ, considered the best of its kind in Pamplona.
7. Running of the Bulls
This is the spectacle that most people associate with the city, first brought to foreign attention by Hemingway’s classic The Sun Also Rises.
It’s part of the San Fermín Festival that starts on the 6th of July and runs to the 14th.
Bull-runs are held daily to the end of the festival and have taken place for at least 250 years.
Six fighting bulls and six oxen are released from a corral to run the 825-metre course through the old-town and into Pamplona’s bullring where they’ll be killed in fights later that day.
People running with the bulls tend to wear a white uniform with a neckerchief bearing the city’s coat of arms, and needless to say it’s a seriously dangerous activity, with hundreds hurt each year.
At noon on the 6th of July is the emblematic opening of the festivities, held from the balcony of the Ayuntamiento (Town Hall). The tens of thousands gathered in the square below will hold their red neckerchiefs in the air with two hands and join in chants praising Saint Fermín, before a firework is lit to signal the start of the festival.
The event is usually broadcast live on regional TV, and the person in charge of leading the chants and lighting the firework is normally a local politician, but can also be a star football player or local celebrity.
9. San Fermín Procession
At 10.00 on the 7th of July a long procession leaves the Church of San Lorenzo and winds through Pamplona in honour of Saint Fermín.
It’s another of the essential events during the festival because of its sense of ceremony and the enthusiasm of the gathered crowds.
All sorts of musicians march through the streets, including the city’s official brass band, and impromptu chants and songs will start up in the crowd.
Also in the parade are the Giants, large papier-mâché figures that often date back decades or hundreds of years.
Lining the procession route are crowds several people deep, and almost everyone will dress in the white garb with a red scarf.
It’s a sight you won’t soon forget!
10. Urbasa Andía Natural Park
An hour west of Pamplona is where two mountain ranges, the Urbasa and Andía meet.
In between the high ground is an elevated corridor of green pastures and mossy beech forest.
It’s an idyllic landscape that is lush with vegetation and is the source of several of the region’s rivers.
The karstic geology of the park also creates some stunning natural landmarks to track down, like gorges with sheer walls, lofty waterfalls and dreamlike pools of turquoise water.
The source of the Urederra River is the most beautiful sight, where the spring splashes down a 100-metre cascade enveloped by woods of hazlenut, elm, maple, oak and yew.
11. Taconera Gardens
A light amble uphill to the west of the old city is Pamplona’s oldest park.
It’s a refined location for a stroll, laid out in the French style with long avenues between deciduous groves and trimmed hedges.
On the southeastern side of the park is a triumphal arch dedicated to Julián Gayarre, the acclaimed 19th-century tenor.
For the little guys there’s a small zoo with deer, peacocks, pheasants and ducks that live in semi-freedom.
The park also has portions of Pamplona’s old walls, and from the northern rim of Taconera you’ll have gorgeous vistas over the River Arga, Pamplona and the dark foothills of the Pyrenees behind.
12. San Sebastián
Just an hour north by road is Spain’s summer escape for generations of wealthy families.
On the Concha Bay, San Sebastián has two seductive golden sandy beaches.
The Atlantic is smooth here as the Island of Santa Clara, visible at the entrance of the bay, is a barrier against the currents.
You could laze by the ocean during the day or climb the small mountains and headlands that add a sense of grandeur to the landscape.
The crest of Igueldo to the west has a wonderful, clear view over the bay and city.
By night you’ll have the run of Spain’s best culinary city, whose restaurants have a reputation surpassed only by Paris.
13. La Rioja
Southwest of Pamplona are the sweeping vineyards of La Rioja wine region, one of Spain’s most exported labels.
Wine has been made here since the Phoenicians settled this part of Spain some 2,500 years ago.
The industry really took shape at the start of the 12th century when it got legal recognition from the King of Navarra and Aragon.
A superb place to connect with La Rioja’s viticulture is the city of Logroño, a veritable wine capital.
In the city there are cellars (bodegas) where you can share a bottle of wine with friends and pair it with cheese or cured ham.
There are also wineries and co-operatives in the countryside to show you how some of Spain’s best wines are made.
14. Regional specialities
Set just to the south, Pamplona’s cuisine has a few things in common with Basque food, but there some lovely local foods to seek out and even take home with you.
The obvious one is asparagus, which even have designation of origin in Navarre.
These are thick, white and grown on the fertile banks of the Ebro River.
They have that ghostly pallid appearance because they are grown entirely underground, but are delicious in salads, stews or even grilled.
Navarre’s signature liqueur is Pacharán, a bright red digestif flavoured with sloe fruits.
The northern Spanish form of tapas gets its name from the toothpick (pincho) that is used to hold each little dish together, usually on an open slice of crusty bread.
Friends will go out for pintxos at any time of the afternoon or evening , and unlike in some parts of Spain the dishes don’t come free with drinks.
They can be surprisingly imaginative concoctions, especially in the posher bars.
For something earthy and regional go for txistorra, a spicy sausage from the Basque region that is also a staple in Navarre.
If you’re out on a Thursday many bars have something called Juevintxo, when if you order a beer you’ll get a Pintxo to go with it for a reduced price.