by Janis / 0 comments - Orginally published:24th October 2023

Luckily, no bulls to be seen

Visiting the historic city of Pamplona in the northern Navarre province of Spain is a perfect way to dip your toes into the Basque region of Espainia.

Don’t be fooled into thinking Pamplona is all about the ‘Running of the Bulls’; it is so much more than those few hectic days in July. The ancient streets and squares are bustling with locals, young and old, enjoying a family lunch and sharing tales of the week gone by.

While exploring the charming plazas and lanes you may even bump into an enthusiastic pellegrino on their way to Santiago de Compostela in the west, following the Way of Saint James.

Pamplona was the first stop on our 2023 road trip tour of Spain; we’ve wanted to visit Pamplona for quite a few years to discover for ourselves the charm behind the energetic streets in the capital city of Navarre.

Did you catch our inspiration for this Spanish road trip?

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Where is Pamplona

Where to stay in Pamplona

The hotel Sercotel Europa in Pamplona is very centrally located and just a 2-minute walk to the Plaza del Castillo and the famous Calle de la Estafeta.

The rooms are very comfortable and clean and perfect for a couple of nights’ stay. Breakfast offers a good selection of cheese, meats, and sweet snacks.

Nearby the hotel is a public car park with allocated hotel parking spaces, where a daily charge is applied.

Alternatively, pop your dates in the search box and discover further options for all budgets.

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A brief history of Pamplona

From the Romans to the bulls
Pamplona was founded in 74 BC by the Romans. During the Early Middle Ages, Pamplona continued to be ruled by several different waring regions and was disputed through many conquests. Pamplona continued with power struggles until the 1500s.
The sandstone-coloured bandstand in plaza del castillo, pamplona, surrounded by tall, historic buildings on all sides.
Bandstand in Plaza del Castillo

The city was fortified during the 16th century and was regularly at the centre of fighting troops and nearby wars. In 1915, one side of the citadel was destroyed to allow expansion of the city, and the fort continued to be used as a garrison until 1964.

Over the centuries, the Basque city of Iruña continued to expand; however, the distinct Navarre Old Town is easily identified with its beautiful architecture and historic features.

As I stated, Pamplona is along the French way of the Way of Saint James and is the first Spanish city once across from France.
The El Mundo de Toros monument with four bull heads mounted on a sphere atop a column reflects pamplona's association with bull fighting
El Mundo de Toros

The annual San Fermin festival must be mentioned, and of course, Ernest Hemingway, who made the festival famous. The San Fermin festival runs from the 6th to the 14th of July; if you’re looking for high-octane action with the ‘Running of the Bulls’ and full party vibes, then this annual tradition is for you.

However, we happily avoided the festival and explored Pamplona in its full Basque glory.

Tourist Information

If you’re planning to explore Spain, ensure you check out the Visit Spain official tourism website. It is overflowing with helpful information covering every region of this beautiful country from north, south, east, and west.

There are so many incredible places to discover in Spain and I love planning road trips. I often use the DK Eyewitness books, I find them extremely informative, easy to follow and the pictures and maps tempt you into searching for more.

We used a previous version of this book to plan our Spanish road trips, now you can grab the revised copy.

Exploring Pamplona’s Plaza del Castillo

Style and sophistication in Navarre

Although our visit to Pamplona was just for a few hours, it’s amazing how much you can squeeze in and how quickly you start to enjoy Pamplona’s laid-back and friendly atmosphere.

We immediately strolled towards the Old City, passing the Palace of Navarre, the site of Navarre’s Government. This mid-19th-century building has a striking neo-classical façade.

The sandstone-coloured palace of navarre in the heart of pamplona, spain
Palace of Navarre, Pamplona
Just a short hop from the palace, we arrive at Pamplona’s magnificent main square, the Plaza del Castillo. The tree-lined Castle Square is encircled with eye-catching 18th-century buildings, and its centrepiece is an elegant bandstand.
One edge of plaza del castillo lined with tall baroque buildings in pamplona, spain
Plaza del Castillo
The stylish buildings surrounding the plaza add such class and sophistication with their ornate balconies and shutters. All around the grand square are colonnades and porticos for you to grab some welcome shade.
The ornate inside of café iruña in the spanish city of pamplona
Inside Café Iruña

Ensure you spend a little time exploring Plaza del Castillo; take a seat and enjoy the sights and sounds of Pamplona. For a little decadence and style, wander inside Café Iruña for that special spot of lunch.

Don’t forget you’re in the Basque Country, so it’s pintxo, not tapa.

Create your own Spanish Road Trip

If you live in the UK like us and wish to embark on your own Spanish Road Trip, then we'd recommend Brittany Ferries to deliver you to the Spanish ports of Bilbao or Santander from Portsmouth & Plymouth.
Alternatively, you could fly to your favourite destination (check our for price comparison) and pick up a hire car. We'd recommend to find the best deal with well-known brands.

Discovering Pamplona’s ancient streets

Journey through time
We visited Pamplona on a Saturday, so not only were the streets alive with enthusiastic tourists, but there were also locals out and about relishing time with their families.
The narrow cobbled lane of calle curia, lined on either side by colourful, historic, balconied, 5-storey buildings in the centre of pamplona in spai
Calle Curia
The cobbled lane of calle caldereria, lined on either side by colourful, historic, balconied, 5-storey buildings in the centre of pamplona in spain
Calle Caldereria

Strolling down the narrow streets of Pamplona, it is almost unbelievable to visualise that these ancient lanes are still used during the San Fermin festival for the ‘Running of the Bulls’.

Ambling through the colourful cobbled streets, we discover Pamplona’s Ayuntamiento (City Hall) in Plaza Consistorial. This charming plaza is overshadowed by the splendid City Hall with its majestic Baroque façade, which was built in 1752.

The ornate baroque 17th-century pamplona city hall in north east spain
Pamplona City Hall
The Ayuntamiento commemorates the unification of the three boroughs of Pamplona, San Cernín, San Nicolás and Navarrería.

There are so many incredible places to discover in Spain and I love planning road trips. I often use the DK Guides,

I find them extremely informative, easy to follow and the pictures and maps tempt you into searching for more

Pamplona’s ‘Running of the Bulls’

Ernest Hemingway left his mark
There’s no escaping the fact that Pamplona is world renowned for the summer San Fermin festival, which includes the ‘Running of the Bulls’. I personally would avoid it; however, I appreciate that this holds deep heritage and traditions with the locals.
The encierro monument, a bronze statue depicted a mixed group of men and bulls as they charge through the streets of pamplona in spain
‘Running of the Bulls’ monument

The route is around ½ a mile in length. It is mainly run along Santo Domingo, continuing along Calle Mercaderes, leading up to Calle Estafeta’s crossroads. This is where it becomes exceptionally tight and continues up to Pamplona Bullring.

Even though 15 people have died since 1925 it doesn’t appear to put people off.

Visiting Pamplona reminded us of the scene in the 1991 Billy Crystal film City Slickers. Where “Mitch” (Crystal’s character) is gored from behind by a bull during his vacation with his friends.

The pamplona bullring sitting in a square surrounded by poplar trees
Pamplona Bullring

Pamplona's bullring is quite imposing; it was rebuilt in 1923 and seats 19,529 people. It is the second largest bullring in Spain after Madrid.

Just in front of Pamplona’s bull ring is a statue of Ernest Hemingway; Hemingway made the festival famous in his 1926 novel ‘The Sun Also Rises’. Ernest first visited the Pamplona festival in 1923 and returned frequently until 1959.

The ernest hemingway monument outside pamplona bullring
Ernest Hemingway statue

Apparently, Ernest Hemingway regularly drank in Café Iruña in Plaza del Castillo; in Ernest’s relatively short lifetime, he certainly experienced life.

There's also a plaque to Ernest Hemmingway in the hilltop town of Ronda in southern Spain. His novel "For Whom the Bell Tolls" is allegedly based on the accounts of killings that took place in Ronda at the cliffs of El Tajo, during the Spanish Civil War.

Visiting Pamplona Cathedral

Gothic elegance
In the centre of Pamplona’s La Navarrería district stands Santa María la Real Cathedral. The construction of the present cathedral began in the mid-13th century on the site of a former Romanesque cathedral; however, it wasn’t completed until the 16th-century.
Looking up at the sandstone facade of Santa María la Real Cathedral in pamplona, spain.
Santa María la Real Cathedral

María la Real Cathedral has three Gothic-style naves as well as several neoclassical features within.

Take a stroll inside to appreciate the sheer scale of the structure.

The two marble figures of Charles III of Navarre & his wife Eleanor lying with their hands set as if praying in their mausoleum in pamplona cathedral in spain
Mausoleum of Charles III of Navarre & his wife Eleanor

In the central nave of Pamplona Cathedral is the alabaster mausoleum of Charles III of Navarre and his wife Eleanor of Castille.

The high altar is dominated by the striking image of the Virgin of Santa María la Real. It’s here where the monarchs of Navarre swore their oaths in coronation ceremonies.

the ornate high altar in pamplona cathedral
High altar in Pamplona Cathedral
Looking along the sandstone columns of pamplona cathedral's cloisters
Pamplona Cathedral cloisters
Step outside to discover the astonishing Gothic Cloisters, which were built during the 13th & 14th centuries. The charming cloisters and ornate quadrangle were incredibly peaceful; it’s hard to believe you’re in the centre of a bustling city.

Have you?

Ventured on a road trip around Spain? Which regions did you explore, and do you have any unique places you would love to share with us, as there is so much more we want to discover?

More from Spain

This is our third road trip around Spain, and we have also had a couple of weekend mini-breaks. On those trips, we discovered a lot about this beautiful country, from north to south, east to west.

Why not look at some of our other posts if you want to discover more.

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