Pamplona, Camino de Santiago, History, Hemmingway and the Running of the Bulls

Created by Colleen Sims * 12 February 2024

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Pamplona is famous for its San Fermin festival and the Running of the Bulls but it’s also one of the highlights on the Camino de Santiago.  I’ve fallen for Pamplona’s charms repeatedly, and I’ll share why it’s one of my favourite Spanish Cities.

I visited Pamplona first as a pilgrim walking the Camino de Santiago.  I returned the following year, again walking and a few weeks after this as a tourist with Gerry.  I think I’ve visited every year since.  If you’d like to learn more about Pamplona then read on as I share what I’ve learned from a decade of visiting.

Where is Pamplona?

Pamplona is in northern Spain, an hour from the northern coast and close to the French border and is the capital of Navarra.

It feels like the perfect location for a city, with the Basque Country to the west, Aragon to the east, La Rioja to the south, and France and the Pyrenees Mountains to the north.

For me Pamplona is 4 days walk from St Jean Pied de Port but if you’re driving it’s around 68 kilometres to the French Border.

Top Tip : Pamplona can be called either Pamplona (Spanish) or Iruña (Basque)

What is the History of Pamplona?

Early settlements have traced Pamplona’s history back to the late Bronze Age but the first documented mention was in 75BC.  Originally a simple Roman military settlement called Pompeiopolis or Pompaelo, the city grew in popularity due to its location along trading routes. 

However, its strategic position made it vulnerable to attack and Pamplona was destroyed by Charlemagne in 778.

By the early 11th century Pamplona was revived by the Navarran King Sancho III, naming his  city the Ciudad de la Navarrería.  In 1512 the armies of King Ferdinand entered Pamplona, and the city was incorporated into Spain.

Pamplona’s famous citadel was started in 1571 making Pamplona the most strongly fortified town of the north of Spain. Much of the medieval core of the Pamplona remains including of course it’s incredible fortified walls but also :

  • The imposing 14th – 15th century Cathedral
  • 13th–14th century Gothic church in the old district of San Saturnino
  • The 1364 House of Accounts (The Royal Treasury)
  • The 1741 Consistory with it’s Baroque facade
city hall in Pamplona.  You walk by this imposing buiding as you leave the old town on the camino de santiago

Pamplona and the Camino de Santiago

Pamplona has a rich pilgrim history.  Today it is one of the more famous cities along the Camino Frances but it also associated with two lesser know-routes; the Camino Viejo and Camino Baztan.

Whichever of these routes you walk, it is clear that Pamplona’s history is deeply rooted in Camino history and has served as a vital staging point for pilgrims travelling to Santiago de Compostela.

Camino Francés (French Way)

 The Camino Francés is the without doubt the most popular of all the Camino routes.  Starting in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France and ending at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela this 800 kilometre hike attracts visitors from around the world.

Pamplona is a significant milestone on the route and the first major city that pilgrims encounter after crossing the Pyrenees, typically entering the city through the historic Puerta de Francia (French Gate).

Camino Baztan

The Camino Baztan offers an alternative crossing of the Pyrenees and is thought by some to pre-date the Camino Frances. 

This Jacobean route runs through the Baztan valley starting in Bayonne in France and ending in Pamplona where historically it would have joined the ancient Camino Viejo and later the more popular Camino Frances. 

The Camino Viejo/Olvidado

One of the oldest routes to Santiago, the Camino Viejo it fell into disuse as the Camino Frances became more popular.  There are two starting locations, probably down to weather conditions.  Bilboa served as the winter starting point and Pamplona was used once the winter snow had melted.

The route ends in Santiago and is a sandwiched between the Camino Frances (to the south) and the Camino Norte (to the north), which in the days before the Spanish reconquest was considered safer. 

Following the Reconquista and the publication of the Codex Calixtinus the route fell into disuse in favour of the Camino Frances.  It is only in recent years that this camino has been revived and it’s certainly very high on our to-do-list. 

Then We Walking Club at the gates of Pamplona after walking from Zubiri on the Camino Frances

Is Pamplona Good For a Camino Rest Day?

Absolutely. Pamplona is a great city to visit and ideal for a rest day if you’re walking the Camino.  You can easily spend a few days here exploring. 

The walk from the mountains takes its toll and if you are looking for a day off then Pamplona is a good choice.  Indeed, walking with my groups, they often comment that they would have liked a day longer in the city.

Pamplona offers a lot for a visitor and plenty of accommodation to suit all budgets.  Many albergue, like my favourite Albergue Plaza Catedral is happy for pilgrims to stay several days and without the night-time curfew.   

If you don’t like taking rest days you can always have a short walking day.  I’ve done this. Spending the night in Pamplona after you arrive and the next morning go sight-seeing.  There are a few albergue just 6 kms out on the edge of the city where you can spend the second night.

Top Tip : There is a lot of accommodation in Pamplona because it’s a very popular tourist destination.  In busy times every bed can be filled.  I always recommend booking ahead if you are visiting the city.

Things To Do In Pamplona

The first think you need to do when visiting Pamplona is download your Visitor Card.  You can purchase one for a 1€ from the Tourist Office when you arrive or get it online for free.  You can use it to get discounts across Pamplona including : 

  • access to monuments, museums and city resources
  • guide services around the city
  • tickets for shows and events
  • participating shops, bars and restaurants

For more information and to get your card visit the Pamplona City Website.

My second bit of advice is to simply meander and lose yourself in the streets of Pamplona.  It’s a wonderful city for walking.  If you’d prefer an escorted tour guide the best value tours are offered by the city.  You need to book in advance and request an English speaking guide (which may be more expensive).  Find out more from the city website.

And an honourary mention has to go to the shops in Pamplona.  If you love shopping then you could spend a day exploring both the old and the new areas of the town, which is packed full of wonderful little boutiques to tempt you.

Pamplona City Pass a must if you visit the city.  The image shows a map of Pamplona with points of interest marked where the pass is accepted

Cathedral of Santa María la Real

You can see the towers of Pamplona Cathedral, the Cathedral of Santa María la Real, as you walk toward the citadel on the Camino Frances.  It’s a very welcome sight after a long, hot day of walking.

Pamplona Cathedral was built during the 14th and 15th centuries over the remains of two earlier churches. The neoclassical façade was designed in 1783 but the interior is French Gothic and the 13th century cloister is considered one of Europe’s finest.

Currently the cost to visit the Cathedral is 5€ for adults.  If you do not wish to visit you can get a Sello without entering.  Check the Cathedral website for visiting hours and service times.  

Within the Cathedral is a highly rated exhibition; The Occidens Exhibition.  It’s an immersive cultural experience that explores the medieval history and heritage of Navarra and western Europe.  Through interactive displays, multimedia presentations, and historical artifacts, visitors can delve into the fascinating world of knights, kings, and medieval life. 

Citadel de Pamplona and Vuelta del Castillo Park

The 16th-century pentagonal fortress walls are incredible.  You cannot fail to be impressed as you approach the city and walk beside them.  Built by the Spanish military to protect the city it is one of the best-preserved examples of military architecture in Europe and the oldest standing pentagonal citadel in the world.

Now a National Monument there are more than 5 kilometres of walls to explore.  Designed as a star-shape, it features bastions, moats, and landscaped gardens which offer a peaceful retreat from the city.   The park is located in the Zitadel-Takonera area and is sometimes called the green lung of Pamplona.

If there was ever a reason for staying here, walking and exploring the walls and parks of this incredible structure has to be one of them.

If you want to find out more about the city walls a great place to start is the Visitor Interpretation Centre.

a photo taken of a 3d plan of the old citadel that was once on display in the tourist office in Pamplona

Plaza del Castillo

Everyone who visits Pamplona must visit the Plaza del Castillo, so named as it occupies the site of the former castle of Luis Hutín.  This large square is located in the heart of Pamplona, ands is a popular gathering place for locals and tourists alike.

It’s home to a number of cafes and restaurants including my most favourite, Café Iruna.  Café Iruna is in turn the best place in Pamplona to enjoy an al-fresco café con leche and people-watching.

The last time we visited we stayed in apartment in the Plaza and I’d thoroughly recommend this as an option if you plan to stay in the city for a few days.

Ayuntamiento de Pamplona

The Ayuntamiento de Pamplona is the city hall and is a notable architectural landmark in the heart of Pamplona’s Old Town.

Found in the Plaza del Consistorio The original building dates from 1423 but was renovated between 1753 and 1759. It boasts an impressive facade adorned with columns and sculptures which you cannot fail to notice as you walk through Pamplona.

The building is still the seat of the Pamplona’s government, and home to a number of municipal offices.

early morning watching a pigeon take a bath in the fountain in Plaza de Castillo in Pamplona

Parque de La Taconera

The Taconera gardens can be found in the bastion of the same name and is considered of the most charming places in the city

It is Pamplona’s oldest park designed in 1830  and home to a number of specimen trees.  The park is a popular spot for picnics and summer concerts. It’s a great place to unwind and watch the resident  ducks, deer and peacocks.

Monumento al Encierro

The Monumento al Encierro is a bronze sculpture created by Rafael Huerta and it was inaugurated in 1994.  Found near Plaza del Castillo, this enormous sculpture depicts the running of the bulls.

Plaza de Toros

There is still a working bullring in Pamplona.  It was built in 1922, and it has a capacity for almost 20,000 spectators. The bullring is the final destination for the bulls during the bull run of the San Fermin festival.

The bullring also hosts other sporting, cultural and music events throughout the year and you can tour the arena to learn more about Spain’s bullfighting.  I have no interest in bull-fighting and have never visited.

famous bronze statue in the centre of Pamplona depicting the running of the bulls

Iglesia de San Saturnino

The Iglesia de San Saturnino, commonly called San Cernin, is a gem of a building in the heart of Pamplona’s Old Town.  Built in the 1297, it is thought to have been built on site of two older churches.

It’s fortress-like appearance is due to its original defensive role.  The Church of San Saturnino is dedicated to the city’s patron saint and features a simple yet elegant facade and a beautiful octagonal tower.   Its two tall towers are a common feature of Pamplona’s skyline.

Museo de Navarra

The Museo de Navarra first opened in 1910, and it houses an extensive collection of archaeological finds, prehistoric artifacts, Roman mosaics, medieval sculptures, and contemporary paintings from Navarra.

Since 1956 , it has been housed in the Hospital of Our Lady of Mercy and offers a fascinating journey through the region’s history.

Museo Universidad de Navarra

The Museo Universidad de Navarra was founded in 1969, is housed on the campus of the University of Navarra.  Its diverse collection includes works by many renowned artists.

Julián Gayarre Theatre

The Gayarre Theatre is a theatre that sits between the old and new towns of Pamplona.

Whilst much of the offerings are in Spanish, the theatre shows films and has hosted some incredible music events and is worth checking out if you’re in town.

colleen reflected in the window of the Theatre in Pamplona

Baluarte de Redin and Rincón del Caballo Blanco

This little corner of the city is considered by many to be one of the most charming spots offering some of the best views.

It’s a delightful place to discover, located next to the Plaza de San José and the Cathedral.  Take the alley to the left of the cathedral and keep wandering.

As well as city views, you’ll also discover the restaurant made famous in the film The Way, where Tom is walking through Pamplona and Joost calls him over for some lamb.

Estafeta Street

This is probably one of the most popular streets in Pamplona and perhaps one of the most famous.

I like to think this is because it comes alive at night with a host of Tapas or Pinxos bars.  However, it’s also famous as the long street where the bulls run during the Festival of San Fermin.

Ultreia, Interpretation Centre of the Camino de Santiago

For all pilgrims (and tourist) visiting the city, if you have time, do drop in to this little centre in the old town.

Not only does it shows the history of Pamplona and the influence of the Camino de Santiago it also offers as welcome centre, and help and assistance for pilgrims.  You can purchase Credentials here and obtain a sello.

San Fermin and The Running of the Bulls

It would be impossible to mention Pamplona and not mention the festival of San Fermin and the running of the bulls. This is an ancient festival, thought to be a combination of two different medieval celebrations.  In 1591 the festival was held in July and the rest as they say is history.  

Interestingly, the bull running started later in the 17th or 18th century and it was Ernest Hemingway who first brought the festival to the attention of the English speaking world in his book The Sun Also Rises.

I make no secret of the fact that I feel bull-fighting and bull-running has no place in 2024 however, if would be foolhardy to not recognise the incredible historical and cultural importance of this event. You can read more about the festival on the San Fermin website.

For pilgrims though, I would recommend not travelling to Pamplona during the celebrations.  Between the 6 and 14 July it’s possible that a million tourists will visit the city and finding a bed and negotiating your way might prove impossible.

Colourful houses line the narrow streets in Pamplona's old town; the camino de santiago weaves through these old streets

Ernest Hemmingway and Pamplona

Pamplona is a swell town, on a plateau in the middle of the Mountains of Navarre. Greatest country you ever saw. Ernest Hemingway, 1924

Ernest Hemmingway, the renowned American author,  loved Pamplona and it seems that Pamplona loved Hemmingway. His love affair with Pamplona started in 1923.

The young 24-year-old Hemingway visited Pamplona as a newspaper correspondent during the festival and the experience had a profound impact on him. He returned multiple times to the city forming deep connections here.

Those experiences culminated in his iconic novel, The Sun Also Rises which was published in 1926. The book captured the essence of Pamplona and helped promote the city and the San Fermin festival to international fame with English speaking readers.

In Pamplona, Hemingway is still celebrated today, with various locations in the city bearing his name or commemorating his visits. The Hemingway Route, is a walking tour that takes visitors to places associated with the author.

One of Hemmingway’s favourite haunts is Café Iruna and if you wander beyond the main café interior you’ll find yourself face to face with the man himself, immortalised in bronze, leaning against the bar.

Colleen finding Henningway in Cafe Iruna in Pamplona

Where to Stay in Pamplona

Pamplona offers so much accommodation that it would be impossible to list them all.  However, having spent many nights in town I do have places that I have loved and that I would be happy to revisit and recommend

My Favourite Albergue in Pamplona

My Favourite Hotels and Apartments in Pamplona

Just one little note about Aloha Apartment in Plaza del Castillo.  It’s an amazing location and it’s comfortable and very well equipped.  I would stay again but it was a bit of a nuisance having to walk 600m across town to collect the key. If you’re a pilgrim that adds 1.2kms to your day.  BUT it was a fabulous apartment and I would stay again… indeed I probably will. Just check with them about the procedure for collecting the key!

How to Get To Pamplona

Pamplona is an easy city to reach and you have the choice of trains, plains and automobiles.  When searching for methods of transport I find Rome2Rio a good place to start.  It’s not perfect but it will give you a good idea of your options.

People arriving in Spain from overseas will often land in Madrid or Barcelona and both have good links to Pamplona.

Bus

The main bus service in Spain is ALSA.    There are a host of other local and regional bus services but we’ve used ALSA many times and always been happy. If you’re travelling in Spain I recommend that you download their App.  You can book tickets from the app as well as check routes and timetables.

Jiminez is another bus service that I’ve used in Pamplona and always been happy.  I found their website a little difficult to navigate sometimes but it’s worth persevering as they offer good routes and services.

Train

Pamplona has a major railway station and served by trains from across Spain.  If you are travelling from Madrid or Barcelona you will probably need to change trains elsewhere but the Spanish rail network is very efficient and we have always found assistance if needed.

RENFE is the Spanish Rail provider and their website is excellent and in English.

Airport

Pamplona has it’s own airport although small it is served by the Spanish airline Iberia and has daily flights from Madrid and other regional airports

Driving

We have driven to Pamplona.  When we stayed in the Pamplona Catedral Hotel we drove.  The hotel has a car park and it felt very decadent driving through the city gates rather than walking.

Parking within the citadel is tricky and if you are driving, unless your hotel offers parking it maybe best to park outside the city and use public transport.

My walking groups have previously parked at the Airport and used the bus to get in. There is also parking under Plaza del Castillo.

driving in the old town of Pamplona is difficult but the city has ebikes for rent to help you get around

Travelling on to St Jean Pied de Port

If you plan to move on to Roncevalles or St Jean Pied de Port from Pamplona take a look at my post about Getting to St Jean.  It included a section about travel from Pamplona.

Best Time of Year to Visit Pamplona

Many old-school hikers will tell you that there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.  I’m sure that’s true but equally I prefer to visit places when it’s not too rainy.  Whilst no weather can be guaranteed here are some of the average weather facts for Pamplona.

I’ve visited Pamplona in April, May, September, October and November and thankfully always had good weather.  April is more prone to April showers but I’ve never had a full day of rain.  Too often the complaint is that the sun is hot and strong.

annual weather chart for pamplona showing temperatures, rain days and sunshine hours

FAQ about Pamplona and the Camino de Santiago

Are you planning to walk the Camino and thinking of staying in Pamplona or starting from here?  I’ve searched for some of the most frequently asked questions and answered them below.

Does it snow in Pamplona?

Yes.  In January and February snow can be common place.  Indeed we’ve driven along the motorway above Pamplona en route to Southern Spain and been followed by snowploughs working to keep the roads open.

Pamplona is in the foothills of the Pyrenees and whilst it’s never isolated by the snow, regular flurries in winter are common place.

Driving to Frigiliana in February 2015 we got caught in the snow around Pamplona

Should I visit Pamplona before starting my Camino?

This is a common question asked on forums and I am in two minds as to the correct answer.  If you fly into Madrid or are travelling to St Jean Pied de Port from Spain you will probably arrive in Pamplona en route.

I can see that it makes sense to rest in town and explore before starting your camino. 

The advantage of staying when you arrive is that you can easily plan this time into your schedule, you can recover from a long flight and explore the city on fresh legs. 

The disadvantage maybe that your arrival to the city when walking, may lose some of its impact if you’ve already explored.  However, if you have already made friends whilst walking from St Jean, you don’t need to lose that group by staying longer in the city.

Either way, Pamplona is a great destination and a good place to spend a few days.

Can you start the Camino de Santiago in Pamplona?

Yes.  You can start your camino from anywhere.  The only rule is that you must walk every step of the last 100kms and have 2 sellos every day on your credentials.

If you would like a distance certificate then remember to collect 2 sellos every day from the start.

I know that it’s not always possible to collect a sello (I’ve been know to draw one if there is not a stamp at my accommodation) and I know that pre-the last 100kms only 1 stamp is needed but for the sake of simplicity, just collect 2 stamps every day.

pilgrim credentials showing the first sello from the pilgrim office in St Jean and other sello from the first few stages

How long is the Camino de Santiago from Pamplona to Santiago?

Walking on the Camino France to the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela is 721 kilometres

How many days walk from St Jean Pied de Port to Pamplona?

How long to walk from St Jean will depend on how you tackle the mountain stage.  I love walking over the mountains and I hate to rush so I split this stage in two.  This is my usual route to Pamplona :

Can I get a pilgrim passport in Pamplona?

Yes.  Many albergue will have credential as will the Pilgrim Welcome Centre . Often the Cathedral will have credentials and there are a number of Pilgrim dedicated shops which also stock them; one in particular is along the road that leads to the front of the cathedral.

Pamplona, The Camino and So Much More

It’s very easy to wax lyrical about Pamplona.  I’m not a fan of the bullfights and that’s clear but I am in love with the city. 

Every journey through Pamplona reveals something new for me.  I can totally relate to Hemmingway’s love of the Pamplona spirit.  The town can be heaving with tourists and pilgrims and yet still feels at its heart like a small Spanish city. 

The city offers so much in a relatively small space making it ideal for exploring. Spend some time getting to know Pamplona, like me you’ll probably end up visiting more than once.  

P.s. I love to hear from fellow pilgrims so hop over to my Facebook page and share a photo from your journey. 

enjoying tapas in the plaza de castillo in Pamplona after a day walking on the camino.  Patatas Bravas and white Basque wine.

Are You Walking The Camino De Santiago from St Jean Pied de Port?

I have a series of posts that may be of interest you and help with your Camino planning :

Don’t Forget Travel Insurance

Whenever you travel overseas it’s imperative to travel with a good travel and medical insurance policy.  None of us expect anything bad to happen, but in the event of an incident, you want to be sure that your insurance will be there for you.

I’ve had the mis-fortune to end up in hospital in Peru, Indonesia, Portugal and Ireland; every time my insurance took care of everything. I would never leave home without full and comprehensive insurance.

Globelink : We have used and recommended Globelink for years and we’ve not heard of any issues. They are a great choice for European and UK Residents.

TrueTraveller : We have this policy now for an extended global trip and we are very happy with the cover, especially considering our ages and pre-existing conditions

Safety Wing : Many of my travelling buddies from the USA have recommended this company to me, although we’ve not used them personally.

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