I went here to: see what the fuss was about concerning the Fiesta de San Fermin. I'd heard it was a huge party, and of course I'd seen pictures of the encierro, or bull run, and it was pretty impressive.
I traveled here with: a group of 12 people, including my mother, my sister, and one of my sister's friends. We'd all booked through a tour operator called Intrepid.
I stayed at: a 3-star hotel in Pamplona's new town, Hotel Pamplona Plaza. Hotel prices across Pamplona skyrocket during the week-long Fiesta, and rooms are nearly impossible to come by in the old town. (Many people come in by bus from neighboring towns and pull all-nighters lasting from before the afternoon bullfight until after the morning bull run.)
The best thing I ate was: Pintxos. That's the Basque spelling of pinchos, which are inexpensive bar snacks served everywhere across northern Spain. They're good for 2-4 bites, and are usually served on a piece of bread similar to a baguette. The single best one was probably a combination of Serrano ham, goat cheese, honey, and walnut. My sister loved one she had that was similar but replaced the ham with fried eggplant.
Don't miss: the encierro, or bull run, held each morning at 8:00 a.m. There are many others across Spain since it's a way to get fighting bulls from their pens to the bull ring. But this encierro is the most famous, mostly because it was mentioned in Ernest Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon and Sun Also Rises. Six prize bulls and hundreds of people -- women are strongly discouraged from running, and I think women have enough sense not to run anyway -- will make the run along an 800+ meter uphill course along narrow, winding, cobblestone streets. Collisions, chaos, and occasional injuries are frequent.
My advice for first-timers to Pamplona would be: to expect a sleepy Basque town unless you're there for San Fermin. The place is borderline chaos for 8 days each July, when the streets are filled with people of all ages dressed in all-white with red neckerchiefs. For the other 51 weeks a year, it's pretty quiet.
My advice for first-timers to Fiesta San Fermin would be: Don't plan on sleeping too much. Spaniards are nocturnal by nature, and most of the Fiesta takes place between 5 p.m. and 8 a.m. Your evening will start with an assortment of parades, followed by the bullfight (if you can get tickets and care to witness this extremely Spanish but disturbing to non-Spaniards tradition), then you'll probably be out in the streets taking in the bars and pintxos until the massive fireworks display starts at 10 p.m. Some could go to bed after that, but most will power through the night until the encierro starts at 8 a.m. Widespread consumption of kalimotxo, a mix of red wine and Coca-Cola, will help you stay up. Those who will run with the bulls start taking their places in front of town hall by 6:30 a.m., and the bulls start running at 8 a.m. The entire bull run, which ends when the bulls are in their pens at the bull ring, will only last about 3 minutes.
Next time I'll definitely: Find a closer place to watch. Knowing what I know now, I'd have watched the start of the run from behind one of the barriers near town hall, rather than on TV from my hotel. There's not much safety along the encierro course, and two people were badly gored on the day I was there. But, as I only learned after the fact, you can find some protection and a semi-decent view if you get there early enough, around 6 AM. If you're not courageous/fit enough to run, your best view of proceedings would involve spending $100+ per person for access to a balcony overlooking the course.