Pamplona, a sleepy city of 200,000 souls, is known chiefly for the famous San Fermines fiesta. Every July, the streets of the old town are closed off for the iconic running of the bulls, an event that invariably sees a number of ill-prepared foreigners waking up with something worse than a hangover. And also a hangover.
Outside of the San Fermin festival, however, Pamplona is a charming place to spend a few days en route north to San Sebastian and the Pyrenees, or south to the travel hotspots of Madrid and Barcelona. At the heart of the ancient kingdom of Navarra, Pamplona is a conservative kind of place where traditional values still hold strong. Watch out for locals in Basque boinas and the peculiar Navarran diminutive ‘-ico’.
Roll up – How to get there
Pamplona is served by a small airport 6km from the city centre, with regular flights to Madrid. High-speed trains are also available to Madrid and Barcelona (see here for tickets, average return journey approximately €100), as well as an extensive network of (slower) regional trains. If you would like to hire a car, most of the big players (Avis, Europcar, etc) have offices in the city and Navarra’s roads are well-maintained and make for comfortable driving.
Shack up – Where to stay
Pamplona’s hotels range from five-star luxe to budget bunks, but accommodation at the cheaper end of the market tends to be fairly short on character. Make sure you book early if you are coming for the San Fermin festival, and budget extra for accommodation – prices skyrocket for that week.
Gran Hotel La Perla (5*), on the central Plaza del Castillo, has been a firm favourite among visiting writers, artists and bullfighters since the 19th century. For Hemingway fans with cash to spare, a night in room 201 is not to be missed – the room has been left largely as it was in Papa’s day with views across the plaza. Other rooms are dedicated to such famous former guests as Orson Welles, Cayetano Ordóñez, Manolete and (somewhat improbably) the Aga Khan. The ground floor restaurant is probably the plushest way to get up close and personal with the running of the bulls: July’s famous encierro runs right past the window. If you can take your eyes off the excellent food, that is.
Just around the corner and housed in a former palace, the Hotel Palacio Guendulain (4*) certainly gives the Perla a run for its money, with sumptuous period decor and a lovely champagne terrace on a hidden courtyard. Heck, there’s even a gilded horse-drawn carriage in the lobby (presumably for if any of the well-heeled guests get caught short), and a sedan chair for if the horses are tired. Top all of that off with an award-winning restaurant and you’re on to a winner.
At the cheaper (but sadly carriageless) end of the spectrum, Hotel Restaurante Europa is situated centrally on Plaza Castillo with double rooms from just €56. The Michellin-starred restaurant downstairs is also worth a visit, with three course menu and wine from €40. Hotel Eslava, not the most luxurious of Pamplona’s hotels, but one of the few budget places in town that has managed to retain an authentic air, has doubles from €70.
Fill up – where to eat
We recommend the Cafe Iruna (Hemingway’s favourite, as featured in The Sun Also Rises) for its elegant Art Deco atmosphere and face-meltingly good churros as well as a decent Menu del Dia (3 courses for €13.90). The aforementioned Restaurant Europa is also worth a look if you are feeling fancy, and just a couple of streets away, Casa Otano offers traditional Basque cuisine (menu del dia €18.90).
If you are on a tighter budget, Catachu is a trendy place for indie kids to fill up on traditional dishes while lounging around on reclaimed furniture. For pintxos (a Basque specialty) try Gaucho, just off Plaza del Castillo.
Wise up – what to see
Start by taking a walk around the city’s casco antiguo and make sure to take in the central Plaza del Castillo and the tranquil Plazuela de San Jose, as well as the famous Plaza de Toros (bull ring). From there, head to the Mirador del Caballo Blanco for a view over the surrounding countryside (and maybe a snack at the charming Meson del Caballo Blanco). Don’t miss the old citadel (ciudadela) and city walls, and the gothic cathedral, resting place of many of the Navarran kings.
To get to grips with Pamplona’s long and colourful history head just down the hill to the Museum of Navarra (incidentally, right next to the starting point of July’s encierro). The collection spans over 2000 years of Navarran history from the Iron Age to the present day (not to mention a crowd-pleasing Roman section) and with a special emphasis on local artists including Ciga and Basiano, as well as the odd Goya thrown in for good measure.
For lovers of modern sculpture, the Fundacion-Museo Jorge Oteiza, a Basque sculptor and theorist, is worth the trip out of the city centre (take a taxi).