Arriving in Pamplona a few days before orientation gives you ample time to explore the city before you start classes. Pamplona has about twice the population of Columbia with 200,000 residents, but is much more compact. Most families live in apartments with retail at street level, rather than in single-unit houses. I was pleasantly surprised how fast and easy it is to walk all over the city. There is a bus system that you can use as well.
During your first few days in town, I encourage you to grab a map from your hostel and ask someone to point out a few major landmarks. Here are some places to look for as you explore the city. Most of these places are concentrated in the downtown area.
Plaza del Toros: This is the third-largest bullring in the world and the ending spot for the Running of the Bulls. Bull flights are held here during the San Fermín (Running of the Bulls) festival and other times during the year. Other festivals and concerts also take place in the ring throughout the year. Because of frequent events in here, Chances are during your stay in Pamplona, you can go inside and see what it looks like.
Plaza del Castillo: This is Pamplona’s main square, and while there is no castle here as the name suggests, it is a great orienting point. Most of the big landmarks in Pamplona are located off this square. There are several cafés along the square, including the Café Iruña where Hemingway hung out and wrote while he lived here.
Calle San Nicolás and Estafeta: These two streets in the old part of Pamplona are the main places to get a pintxo (pronounced pincho) and a drink during the evening. No tapas in Pamplona. Here they use the Basque word: pintxos. They usually consist of a piece of bread topped with meat or cheese and held together with a toothpick. Pintxos are a social activity, and it’s very typical to go to three or four different bars trying a different bite at each. People will hang out in the street, rather than inside the bar. Here’s a quick video clip of Calle San Nicolás on a weekend evening.
Catedral Santa María la Real: Pamplona, like every other Spanish city, town and village, has a large church at its center. It’s not uncommon to see pilgrims here who walk the Camino de Santiago that runs through Pamplona on its way to Santiago de Compostela on the Atlantic Ocean. The cathedral is just one of many grand churches in Pamplona. There is a tour here, but all the other churches are usually open during the day for you to go in and look. Some churches to check out are the Gothic-style San Nicolás and San Saturino in the old part of the city. Another important religious site to visit is the Chapel of San Fermín (the saint for which the Running of the Bulls festival is named after). It’s important to note that many churches request that you are dressed appropriately to enter. There is typically a sign at the door specifying what that is for each church.
Palace of Navarra and Pamplona Townhall: Pamplona has a beautiful historic town hall and more neoclassical government buildings. The provincial governmental buildings are located just south of the Plaza del Castillo and the town hall is located to the northwest. It is also the provincial seat for the Navarra region. Occasionally, events for university students will be held at these buildings. If you have the opportunity, take it!
La Ciudadela: This is a fortress built in 1571 that has now become a city park. Like any other park there are running paths, benches and open spaces to picnic of play soccer. There are a number of interesting things to see within the Ciudadela such as where the arms were made and kept as well as cultural exhibitions. Free wifi is available in the park, but strength can be of varying quality.