Pamplona, a historic city with a strong Basque heritage, is a legendary luxury travel destination in northern Spain. American adventurer Ernest Hemingway immortalized Pamplona's daring, world-famous Running of the Bulls, which has been held for centuries every July.
Today, luxury travelers visit Pamplona for more. June through September are the most popular months to visit. But year-round, Pamplona offers upscale hotels, Michelin-star restaurants, vivid culture, and thrilling festivals. Lately, Pamplona's outstanding hospitals and clinics attract medical tourists.
The capital city of northern Spain's Navarra region, Pamplona is picturesquely set in the mountains one hour from the French border. It is easily accessible by train from Madrid and other cities such as San Sebastián, Zaragosa, and Madrid. Pamplona's close-by Aeropuerto de Noaín handles international flights from France, Portugal, the UK, and other European countries, but not North America.
Pamplona comes to life during the Fiesta de San Fermín, which honors a patron saint of Navarra. (Pamplona is Navarra's capital.)
This highlight of the Fiesta is El Encierro, the Running of the Bulls, which takes place in Pamplona from July 6th to 14th.
An electric thrill courses through Pamplona as the bulls stampede down Calle Estafeta and other narrow Pamplona streets. They start running at 8 in the morning en route to the Plaza de Toros for each evening's bullfight. (Unlike other Spanish cities, Pamplona holds bullfights exclusively during this fiesta.)
Pamplona remains in party mode throughout Fermín. About a half-million red-and-white-wearing visitors overtake the town, packing balconies, jamming ever-lively Plaza del Castillo, and carousing into the wee hours.
- In recent years, animal activists have held their own event protesting bullfighting and the Running of the Bulls. Their visually powerful statement is called Running of the Nudes
- Visitor tip: Pamplona hotel rooms become a commodity during San Fermín, and many hotel rates triple or quadruple. Room reservations, especially for upscale hotels, need to be made at least six months in advance; a year ahead is not too soon
Pamplona was once a fortified city with walls to keep invaders out. Now Pamplona invites luxury travelers in with a range of first-class lodgings. Hotels range from storied grand hotels to historic parador inns to modern resorts.
Pamplona's best hotel is the five-star Gran Hotel La Perla. It stands proud on elegant Plaza del Castillo, the heart of Pamplona.
- Nearly all of La Perla's 44 spacious, soundproof rooms face the Plaza, offering great views of the Running of the Bulls; balcony rooms are the ultimate
- This true grand hotel, the big name in town, has seen celebrity guests like Hemingway and Orson Welles come and go, burnishing its own legend
- La Perla's preserved Hemingway's Room has the view of the Running of the Bulls. It is outfitted with furnishings from the 1920s, when Ernest Hemingway chronicled the San Fermin Festival
A former family residence, the spacious Palacio Guendulain has 18th-century palace charm with the comforts of a modern luxury hotel
Just outside Pamplona's city limits, Castillo de Gorraiz Hotel Golf & Spa features sumptuously decorated guest rooms, a refined spa and scenic 18-hole course.
Guests at the 43-room Parador de Olite sleep in 15th-century medieval style. Many of the uniquely furnished guestrooms in his restored palace feature canopy beds and fireplaces.
From historic, stirringly authentic tapas bars to Michelin-star restaurants, luxury travelers dine well in Pamplona.
The well-trained palate will savor Pamplona's unique specialties from the Navarra region. These include sweet red piquillo peppers; ajoarriero or salted cod in garlic sauce; sun-dried peppers in olive oil; and full-bodied wines from Navarra and also the Rioja region.
Where to dine in style in and around Pamplona:
- Venezuelan chef/owner Julio Flames shops local markets and gets creative with seasonal Navarrese cooking at Pamplona's modern La Nuez Restaurante. Standout dishes include beautifully presented cordero de leche de Navarra, or milk-fed lamb. La Nuez's small-producer Navarra wines are delectable
- Steps from Plaza del Castillo in Pamplona is elegant Europa. It boasts a Michelin star, thanks to the inventive cuisine of Pamplona-born chef Pilar Idoate. Europa features several seasonal dining options, including a degustacion menu
- Cosmopolitan, family-owned Rodero also earned a Michelin star for its chef's innovative use of top-quality Navarrese products. International ingredients like Japanese black garlic, shiitake mushrooms, and Pacific tuna add to Rodero's culinary mélange
- The menu changes monthly at well-regarded La Cocina de Alex Múgica, housed in Gran Hotel La Perla. Expect Chef Múgica to add luxurious touches such as foie gras to traditional Navarrese dishes
- At the Restaurant at Parador de Olite, stained-glass windows and brick walls provide the backdrop to traditional Navarrese cuisine. Parador de Olite's tempting specialties: sugar-sweet fresh asparagus; cordero al chilindrón lamb stew; cake made with almonds from the nearby medieval town of Ujué
- Luxury travelers can then visit Olite's stunningly designed Bodegas Pagos de Aráiz for customized wine tastings, tours, and harvest experiences. Family-owned Pagos de Aráiz also contains a collection of Spanish art dating back to the 16th century
Pamplona's popular festivals, spacious parks, and charming old section offer visitors a rich variety of things to do and see.
Located in the ancient land of Navarra, Pamplona gives travelers a taste of the historic and modern:
- The Museo del Encierro offers lively, behind-the-scenes looks at San Fermín bull-running. This central Pamplona museum also features a shaded terrace for city visitors seeking a peaceful break from all things bull
- Travelers who visit Pamplona the next-to-last weekend in September can experience the San Fermín de Aldapa festival. A mini-version of the big, bull-running San Fermín festival in July, this San Fermín honors an early martyred saint with frequent concerts, traditional dances and processions
- During September's San Fermín festival, Gran Hotel La Perla offers visitors a concert tribute to violinist Pablo Sarasate, a 19th-century virtuoso violinist and Pamplona native. The concert is staged on the plaza-facing balcony of Room 207, Sarasate's favorite room. The prestigious Pablo Sarasate International Violin Competition for young musicians is held nearby annually
- San Fermín is the patron of wine traders. The interactive, multilingual Wine and Vine Museum of Navarra is in nearby Olite
- The 14th-century Cathedral of Santa María houses the most historical and artistic treasures in Pamplona. The cathedral contains a world-famous Gothic cloister and a small museum with religious sculptures and holy relics from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance
- Pamplona is an important stop on medieval Catholic pilgrimage routes undertaken annually by thousands of pilgrims on foot. Pamplona is the first city on the Pilgrims' Road to Santiago de Campostela, also known as the Way of St. James. These routes are honored as UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Pamplona's prestigious Clínica Universitaria de Navarra has become internationally known for its superlative healthcare.
Medical tourists from over 50 countries now make pilgrimages to this acclaimed non-profit medical center. Most of its doctors are also professors at the University of Navarra Faculty of Medicine.
- Pamplona's most modern visitor attraction is medical tourism to its Clínica Universitaria de Navarra. This acclaimed, 400-bed hospital's personalized diagnostic and treatment programs draw tens of thousands of patients from across Spain and abroad each year
- International patients are starting to seek out the Clínica Universitaria de Navarra for diagnosis and treatment. In-depth, pre-treatment patient checkups at Clínica Universitaria de Navarra take one to two days
- Many patients come here specifically for the hospital's Neurosurgery unit
- Other specialties include heart surgery and other complex surgeries; eye stem cell transplants; phlebology treatments for varicose veins and ulcers; and cochlear implants for the profoundly deaf
- Plastic surgery here tends toward the restorative, especially following cancer, trauma, and paralysis
- Internationally sponsored oncology research is conducted at Clínica Universitaria de Navarra's state-of-the-art labs
- New and renovated patient rooms feature the latest in automated and personal technology
- Patients' families and visitors feel comfortable here, too. The Clínica Universitaria de Navarra's Cafeteria Restaurant is a very pleasant eatery, with first-rate food served in a sleek, stylish orange-and-brown setting
Pamplona is easy to get to. It's an easy train ride on Rail Europe from anywhere in Spain or Southern France, or a quick flight from the UK or Portugal.
The Festival of San Fermín and its Running of the Bulls is in July. Hotel rooms in Pamplona and surrounding towns sell out months before, so advance planning is critical.
Where & How to Begin Planning Your Pamplona Trip
- Pamplona's official travel website
- The official English-language site Pamplona's Navarra region
- More info on Pamplona's Running of the Bulls
- To whet your appetite: About.com's Guide to Spain's photos of the Running of the Bulls
- More Pamplona pix on Pinterest