Spain is known around the world for its flamenco, paella, sangria, and of course, bulls. There’s a lot more to it than that, I’m learning, but I was undeniably excited to spend the summer in Spain so I could attend San Fermin in Pamplona.
Though it’s been around since Medieval times, the 8-day festival’s wild popularity is attributed to Hemingway’s account in The Sun Also Rises. Now, over one million people come to Pamplona every year to traipse the toasted stone streets, to experience the machismo, and to drink wine with wild abandon.
I went to watch. It left me wanting more, and not just because it goes by so fast. I’m going to save the exposition about adrenaline pumping, hands shaking, hooves slipping, horns hooking, runners sliding to safety. There’s plenty out there about that, and I assume you’re reading this because you’re at least a little curious about seeing it yourself.
So instead, I’m going to do you the favor of sharing my experience and what I’m going to do next time to get even more out of it. Because there will be a next time, if I can help it.
How to see the running of the bulls at San Fermin:
1. Take the bus the night before
I took one of the last buses from Logroño to Pamplona. It left at 8 p.m. and took about an hour to get there, so we arrived around 9 p.m. The ticket was 9 euro, and all of the other passengers were decked out in white outfits with red pañuelos. Clearly, we all had the same idea.
Actually, I got the idea from locals in Logroño. They told me this is how most Spanish people attend San Fermin. Rather than booking a hotel or hostel in the city, they bus in at night and go out. If they get tired, they sleep in the parks or gardens. Then they watch the running of the bulls* the next morning and keep partying.
*In Spain, ‘running of the bulls’ translates to ‘encierro’
It’s a cheaper way to experience the running of the bulls. You get there in time for the events at night, and you don’t have to spend a lot to stay in a hotel just to see the encierro the next morning.
2. Stay up all night with the party-goers
The bars and discos stay open until about 5 or 6 a.m., so you should have no problem staying out all night in Pamplona until the encierro in the morning. I’m not much of a night owl, and I survived. You can walk the course, check out the bulls for the next morning’s run and scope out a good spot to watch from.
It’s easy when everyone else is also out and the streets are packed until 3-4 a.m. It almost seems normal.
3. Buy supplies in Pamplona to make your own drinks!
Party-to-go? Yes, please! Along nearly every street you’ll find bars and small stores advertising drink kits. Definitely do this. You get a bag with cups, ice, mixers and some type of alcohol. You can get a bottle of liquor or wine.
We obviously opted for a box of cheap tinto (normally, yuck), but when at San Fermin… mix it with Coke to make poor-person calimotxos in the street. From our kit, we made about 6 drinks. It was the right balance of alcohol content and caffeine to keep me going, but not sloppy, till dawn.
And it was nice to get to choose our own drinking spot. For a large part of the night, we sat on the old city wall overlooking a carnival happening in the valley below, talking and enjoying our drinks. Not loud bars or party bros until I was good and ready.
4. Be wary of pickpockets
I was warned several times by locals that San Fermin is a magnet for all the petty criminals across Europe. Fortunately, no one took anything from me while I was there. But Chris went seven years ago and had a camera stolen out of his back pocket when he was walking through a crowd.
Be careful about what you bring. I only carried enough cash to get me through the night and my phone in a purse with a cross-body chain strap that couldn’t be cut. Stay vigilant about who is around you, don’t whip out your fancy new iPhone in crowds and keep an eye on who is around you.
5. Get a place on the fence at 6 a.m.
Because the bars kicked us out before 6 a.m., we managed to get a great spot on the rail of the encierro route. We were there right as they were putting the fences in, and snagged two places as soon as the city workers were finished.
If you’re thinking about watching from the street, here is what the view looks like from on top of the fence. As you can see, it’s pretty good. But the area in front of the fence fills up with police and medical personnel, who hop up on the first rail and obstruct your view.
If we had been even a half an hour later, we would have been out of luck and had to stand back behind the rail. People were that fast to secure a spot. It was competitive and the *nice-looking* girls in this picture were there a few minutes after us, trying to nudge us out. (Fat chance, jerks)
If you so much as move, there are others waiting right behind you to take your place. There were even people asking if they could stick their heads between the bars under my feet. I obliged, but it also meant I couldn’t adjust or I could stomp all over their fingers and faces, which meant an hour and half of sitting on the fence in the same position … after staying up all night. My butt has never hurt worse.
The run is promptly at 8 o’clock. No lies. And it’s over in 4 minutes, so make sure you’re there before this with plenty of time to spare so you can find a place.
6. Go at the start of San Fermin (it goes from July 6 – 14)
I didn’t know San Fermin was a week-long event when we decided to go. I imagined it went on over a weekend or something, but not so. It lasts for a full seven days.
I was there for the first night because I wanted to see the first bull run the next morning. Even though San Fermin had only started eight hours earlier, the amount of trash on the ground was already incredible. We were wading through ankle-deep plastic cups and beer cans on the ground.
Here’s a pic I snagged of the overflowing dumpsters from day one:
Remarkably, Pamplona gets it almost all cleaned up in time for the bull run at 8 a.m., but I’ve heard the city gets smellier the longer the festival goes. With thousands for over a week, drinking and eating and peeing and throwing garbage in the streets, it’s bound to get nasty despite their best efforts to keep it clean.
If that kind of thing bugs you, I’d recommend going at the beginning of the event.
7. Don’t stress about the festival wear
Everyone at San Fermin wears white from head to toe with a red pañuelo tied at the neck and a red sash tied at the waist, called a faja. I also saw some people wearing red berets. That being said, I would advise you not to worry too much about getting the costume just right.
There are shops along every street that sell the whole get-up for about 11 euro. So you will have standard-issue festival wear if you want.
BUT, I noticed by the end of our time there, that locals don’t necessarily stick with the loose white festival trousers and t-shirt. They wear anything white. Ladies had on nice white dresses. Men wear white button-up shirts with red pañuelo tied over the top. So, if you want opt for something different, do it!
Here’s what I would do if I went again:
Stay for 2-3 days (and no more)
The first bull run is so exciting, but it goes by SO fast. I felt like I could barely take it in as it was happening. You’re waiting, and everyone is so tense and anxious. Then, they set off a firework to announce the bulls’ release, and you just wait. You can tell the bulls are coming when the runners stop looking backward and turn to run in terror, but the bulls are caught in the middle of the group and you can’t really see them.
I did my best to take pictures, but I was disappointed that they didn’t really come out, and I wasn’t truly paying attention to the 30 seconds of action as it blew by.
One more run would be enough to feel that I’d experienced it fully. However, more than that seems like overkill. People wake up, bulls run, people drink, and there are activities. I couldn’t image booking a trip to go there for several days and doing the same thing every day.
Rent an Airbnb with a balcony WAY in advance
After we got back home, I seriously considered going back to see it again. But this time, I wanted to have an even better view from where I could see all the action unfold. I found some Airbnb listings along the route that included a balcony.
I imagine that if you book in advance, you can get something for a decent price. When you search, look along Estafeta street. This way, you could go out at night to enjoy the festivities, then come home and get some sleep and catch the run without any of the hassle.
Rent a balcony to watch
On the San Fermin website, there are links to rent balconies on the encierro route. A lot of these look like they charge $80 at minimum per person to have a place to watch the run. (And some will serve you coffee and breakfast, too.)
I would definitely considered making the splurge, because it’s such a cool vantage point. You can see the bulls coming down the street, rather than only being able to watch them as they pass by at eye-level.
Check out the events schedule
The running of the bulls is the main event for most people, but there are a lot of attractions going on throughout the city, like:
- The carnival I mentioned
- Bull fights
- Big heads
So it’s worth checking out the events schedule before you go, so you get the most out of your trip to Pamplona. Of course, if you go the Hemingway route, that means finding a quiet and shady bar where you can drink away the afternoon. And there’s nothing wrong with that either.
If you want a sample of what it’s like, here’s the footage I got from the encierro! I counted about 3 black bulls plus 2 steers.