We think everybody should see the passion and drama of the Pamplona bullrunning festival at least once in their lives – from the safety of the sidelines or up in a balcony with views of the action. The world-famous San Fermin festival held from 6-14 July is a busy one and it’s never too early to book your place.
How to Experience San Fermin – the Pamplona Bull Run?
Unless you are in the habit of partying for 9 days in a row – you might be thinking after watching that video that it looks like great fun but you’re not sure that you are ready for the crowds and the noise 24×7. Don’t worry. Do what many Spaniards do. Stay nearby and enjoy the party but when you’ve had your fill, head back to your nearby town and get a great night’s sleep. And when you are refreshed and rested – get back over to Pamplona again. See our suggestions for daytrips into Pamplona at the end of the post.
Where is Pamplona?
The city of Pamplona is in the Northern Spanish province of Navarra which is an hour from the foodie city of San Sebastian and 90 mins to Bilbao and its beloved Guggenheim museum. The wineries of La Rioja are one hour away.
Why is San Fermin so Well-Known?
Although the many celebrations are for San Fermin – the patron saint of the city – mostly visitors come to see the Running of the Bulls through the streets made famous by the writer Ernest Hemingway who was passionate about the San Fermin festival and who attended nine in his lifetime.
Who Goes to Pamplona?
The week-long festival is attended by the young and old, residents and visitors. It’s one of Spain’s most international festivals – almost half the people there are from outside Spain. 20 percent are French as Pamplona is only 60km from the French border. 16% of attendees are from the US and 10% are from Britain. So although it’s a very traditional and regional event, it somehow feels quite international too. There are a number of international ‘peñas’ or social clubs with headquarters in the Nordic countries, the US and UK. One of these international clubs – Los Gatos – with a number of members from the California area hosted Ernest Hemingway’s grandson John (who ran) and great-grandson Michael (who took photos) on the 90th anniversary of Hemingway’s first visit in 2013. In case it’s not obvious from the images and videos, this really is a party for all ages – you’ll see that and feel that when you are there.
We should perhaps warn you that this festival is infectious. Hemingway went back eight times after his first San Fermin. And a good blogger friend in La Rioja has made over 40 San Fermines festivals. A tricky record to beat Tom! Even if you can only go once – you’ll never forget the buzz – it’s indescribable. It really is one one of the most thrilling and unusual religious celebrations in the world.
The origins of the Pamplona festival can be traced back to the 12th century however the bullrunning through the streets is a more recent accidental element. It appears the butchers’ guild was responsible for bringing in the bulls along with the drovers. During the day the bulls were ‘run’ by the drovers from their enclosure through the streets and into the pens within the bullring ‘Plaza de Toros’. The exciting event became popular with locals who decided to run along with the bulls. From this the more daring challenge of running in front of the bulls took off.
The San Fermin festival begins proper at 12 mid-day on the 6th of July when a firework, the ‘Chupinazo’, is ceremoniously set off from the Town Hall in the Plaza Consistorial. Thousands gather for this moment when sprays of corks explode into the air and champagne drenches the packed crowd. The streets are filled with singing, cheering and revelry.
The Sense of Emotion and Danger
The moment before the actual bull run begins is full of anticipation and nervous energy. At the starting line on the steep and cobbled Santo Domingo Street the runners gather and repeatedly sing their simple prayer for protection to a small statue of San Fermin, which is placed, in a niche in the wall overlooking the crowd.
At exactly 8am a firework explodes and the gate of the bull enclosure is flung open freeing the beasts, each weighing over 500 kg, and allowing them to commence their run through the streets. A second firework is heard a moment later to signal that all the bulls have been released. There are normally about 10 to 12 bulls followed by several ‘cabestros’ which are harmless bell carrying cows that help the drovers to guide the bulls and collect any strays. The atmosphere is electric as the crowd cheers, gasps and screams. The runners sprint forward, heads turning wildly, trying to stay fully alert and focused on what’s happening and deciding when exactly they should make their escape – some diving into doorways and others leaping fences. Each section of the run is different and each has its own unique dangers. It’s mad and frantic and it’s over before you know it.
The feeling afterwards is quite amazing. Some spectators are shocked while others are incredulous. Locals and experienced runners take it all in their stride and re-commence partying. First time runners and those who’ve had a narrow escape or even a near death experience are found wandering or sitting quietly no doubt sharing a few grateful moments with San Fermin himself. The injured nurse their bruises and cuts while the bravados hoot and holler and boast loudly to their companions. Everywhere you go you can hear the festive music of the traditional brass bands known as ‘charangas’ who play continuously as they tour the streets, plazas and bars livening up every minute of every festive day.
Where the Pamplona Bull Running takes Place
Since 1852 the route from Santo Domingo Street, through the Plaza Consistorial and along Estafeta Street via the dangerously twisting Mercaderes Street has remained unchanged. The run itself is about half a mile long through cobbled, narrow streets marked out by a tall, sturdy double-lined fence. The gap between the fences is strictly for police, medical teams and runners who need to make a quick escape. Spectators must stay outside the second fence. Where can you find a number of good vantage points along the route? Try the Plaza Consistorial, and the end of Mercaderes Street as well as Estafeta Street. Other good locations are the starting point in Santo Domingo Street and the entrance to the Plaza de Toros. To secure a good spot, you’ll need to get there before 6.00am as any later and you’ll be battling the crowds. People start securing their places from 2am on. Early mornings are cold in Pamplona so be sure to wrap up well.
Best Views – From a Balcony
The best coverage is on TV. The run is shown live every morning and viewers can enjoy the entire run plus action replays (if you can stomach it) from the comfort of your own hotel room or in a local bar. But the best views are from a balcony. Many residents during San Fermin rent spaces on their balconies. What you’re looking for is a place with a TV near the balcony so you can catch the action before it arrives and after it passes by your balcony. Some rental agreements also include breakfast on the premises or in a nearby bar. If you are looking for a good place to record or take photos, make sure to research it in advance. And check about access times because the streets and doorways will be closed to the public in advance to the bullrunning. Make sure you clarify access times beforehand. Some balconies are for hire during the Chupinazo opening ceremony – another great opportunity for photos. If you don’t want to start queuing from 6am or before to see the bull-run, there are free seats available in the bullring where you can watch the bulls and runners charging into the ring at the end of the run.
Considering Running with the Bulls?
15 people have died at San Fermin and many more have been saved by the efficiency of the local ambulance service. It is a dangerous activity. If you are going to run, we recommend you pick a quiet day and watch the running the previous morning so you know exactly what to do. For example avoid the weekends – which are always the busiest days. You need to realise that much of the danger comes from the other participants and how they react rather than the bulls themselves. Remember that more than half of the bull runners are first time runners. In addition to watching the bullrun the day before, on the morning (or beforehand if possible) try to pair up with or pick out somebody that is experienced and ask them for advice. We don’t recommend you run but if you are considering it – you should do some research prior and know the rules and recommendations.
Rules & Tips for the Pamplona Bull Run
The rules are getting more and more strict each year and it looks like fines of up to 3,000 EUR will be served to those who flaunt these rules:
• Under 18s are forbidden to run
• Never, ever run if you are drunk or excessively tired.
• Do not carry items such as cameras, phones, videos, backpacks, etc.. They’ll get damaged or impede your exit. Unsuitable clothing or footwear is forbidden.
• You must enter the route at an official gate either at the Plaza Consistorial or at the Plaza del Mercado. Gates close at 7.30am.
• Never stand still during the run.
• While running you must be sure to look all around you. Up ahead for other runners who might trip you and behind for the bulls. This is not a race and you won’t be able to run the entire route so have in mind beforehand a spot where you plan to exit. The bulls run very fast and will be ahead of you before you know it.
• Do not try to touch the bulls or catch their attention as a distracted bull may decide to break from the herd. A lone bull is extremely dangerous and much more likely to attack. Also the drovers, who carry very large poles, do not tolerate messing and freely whack offenders.
• If you should fall there is one and only one thing to do. Stay down and cover your head. When all the bulls have passed someone will tap you on the shoulder to let you know you’re safe. You may receive some bumps and bruises but that should be all.
• If you happen to run the last section of the route into the bullring then upon entering the ring spread out to the sides and let the drovers do their work of sidling the bulls into the pen. There will be a lot of runners in the ring and again a distracted bull can cause serious danger.
After the madness of the running of the bulls in the morning, every evening the bullfights take place at 6.30pm. These are also a noisy and colourful affair. Tickets are always limited and vary in price depending on whether you choose a shaded seat or a seat in the sun. The tickets in the shade or ‘sombra’ are the most expensive with those in the sun or ‘sol’ the least expensive.
Away from the Bulls
If you are travelling with a group of bull runners or aficionados but have no personal interest in the bulls – don’t worry. San Fermin is a huge festival and you will find plenty to do and see without having to watch the bullfighting. Make sure to seek out the Comparsa – which is a Procession of the Giants and Bigheads – the Gigantes and the Cabezudos. Try catching some of the atmosphere at the funfair, and it’s worth trying to get into the Espadrille Dance which is held indoors at 9am every morning at the Casino on Plaza del Castillo. You’ll find there is plenty of non-taurine activity through the week including music, song and dance in the streets.
San Fermin Closing Ceremony
This is where you get to experience just what San Fermin means to the city and its visitors. A closing ceremony like no other…If you can’t make it for the opening ceremony – this is just as special – with lots of tears. You’ll hear the song ‘Pobre de Mi‘ or ‘poor me’ and see everybody holding up their neck scarves as they lament the end of festival for another year.
What To Wear – The Red & White of San Fermin
You’ve probably guessed by now that the entire population of Pamplona and almost all of its visitors wear white tops and white trousers and the distinctive red San Fermin neck scarf around their necks. White espadrilles with red laces complete the look for the most fervent.
Dining in Pamplona during San Fermin tends to be done very much on the go unless you make a restaurant reservation. All bars serve ‘pinchos’ (like tapas but more varied). A typical early morning breakfast might include ‘caldo’ which is a delicious clear soup or ‘chocolate con churros’, a large mug of thick hot chocolate served with fried doughnut sticks often coated in sugar. The tasty Spanish omelette called ‘tortilla’ is available everywhere. And a local drink that you’re sure to see is ‘kalimotxo’ a 50/50 mix of Coca-Cola and wine. It’s a popular drink in the Basque Country especially during the summer festival season.
Hotels in Pamplona
Hotel accommodation in Pamplona and the surrounding area during the festival is at a premium and needs to be reserved early. If you are looking for somewhere to relax, and haven’t booked already booked accommodation, you may be better off looking outside Pamplona and daytripping into the city.
Daytrips to/from Pamplona
An excellent alternative for those wishing to combine the experience of San Fermin with a more complete and varied tour is to stay in any of the neighbouring towns and cities of Vitoria, Bilbao, Logrono or San Sebastian and travel into Pamplona for a daytrip. Smaller towns such as Estella, Tolosa and Olite are also good bases for the festival. You’ll find more accommodation options outside Pamplona city and possibly more peace and quiet at night as well. Frequent bus services are laid on for the San Fermin festival and we can also provide private drivers to take you back and forwards. Of course, you can hire a car and drive yourself but you won’t want to be driving inside Pamplona city centre during the festival.
How to Get To the Pamplona Bull Run
It’s a four hour drive or train ride from Barcelona and just over 3 hours by train and 4 hours by car to Madrid. You can fly direct into Bilbao Airport and you should also consider Biarritz Airport over the border in France which is a little over 100km away from Pamplona. Remember to check insurance cover with your car-hire company that you can cross into Spain. It’s usually not a problem.
Useful Phrases for San Fermin
- No vengo a correr – I’m not here to run
- Has corrido alguna vez? Como fue? Have you run? How was it?
- Perteneces a una peña? Are you part of a bullrunning social club?
- Un balcon con buenas vistas – A balcony with good views
- Donde esta la plaza de toros? – Where is the bullring?
- Habra vistas desde aqui? – Will we have good views from here?
- Cuantas horas dormiste anoche? How much sleep did you get last night?
Can’t Travel in July or Want to Avoid the Crowds of Pamplona?
There are quite a few other bull running festivals in Spain – many of which are older than Pamplona.
- Cueller in the region of Segovia is considered the oldest bull running festival in Spain. It’s held on the last Sunday in August
- Ampuero’s encierro in Cantabria is held in September. The most curious part of this one is the children’s festival held in the second week of September – where kids get a chance to run through the street’s pursued by fake ‘bulls’ on wheels. They can also bullfight in the Bull Ring with fake bulls also pushed by adults on wheels. You’ll also see a lot of people wearing white with the red neck scarves – red and white is the region’s colours.
- Riopar in Albacete (Castilla la Mancha) is a much smaller and more rustic bull running festival held at the end of August every year. There are three days to see the bulls running through the streets.
- San Sebastian de los Reyes in the region of Madrid celebrates its bull-running festival at the end of August. Because of its history and its proximity to the capital, big numbers turn out to see the bull running and run with the bulls.
If you are interested in this festival, let us put together a customised package for you. We can book hotels, reserve restaurants, arrange guides, organise tickets to the bullfights, and book balconies to see the bullrunning. We can also arrange day-trips into Pamplona as part of a wider trip to Northern Spain. How about a few days visiting some of the top restaurants and artisan food producers in San Sebastian and popping over to Pamplona for a day or two? Or an more active break walking the Camino de Santiago for a few days and taking a break in Pamplona to see the festival? Or maybe a tour or some of La Rioja’s top wineries with a day or two in Pamplona? Have a look at our Suggested Spain Tours for ideas on the types of packages we put together which we can customise for you!