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Running of the Bulls festival | A guide for tourists

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The Running of the Bulls festival in Pamplona is a popular part of Spanish culture. It takes place yearly as part of the San Fermin Festival in July, and tourists are welcome to spectate and participate. If you are planning on visiting, here’s everything you need to know!

What is the Running of the Bulls Festival?

Running of the Bulls festival

Put simply, bull-running is pretty self-explanatory. It is a Spanish tradition (also found in Mexico, Portugal and the south of France) that involves people being ‘chased’ by bulls through the streets. The biggest and most famous example of a Running of the Bulls festival, and the one this blog post pertains to, is that which takes place in Pamplona in July of each year. It is part of the annual San Fermin Festival.

DID YOU KNOW: The San Fermin Festival starts on July 6th each year and lasts until July 14th. The celebrations honour Saint Fermin. He is the patron saint of Pamplona – a martyr and legendary holy man.

A brief history of the running of the bulls

The history of the Running of the Bulls festival is a pretty interesting one, that can be broken down into three sections- the birth, life and maturity.

The birth of the Running of the Bulls

It is thought that bull-running goes back to the 13th century.

We don’t know the exact date that the Running of the Bulls festival originated, but we do know that it didn’t have an awful lot to do with Saint Fermin (San Fermin).

Saint Fermin was a Bishop in Toulouse, France and lived much of his life in Pamplona, Spain. He lived during troubling times and both he and his predecessor were brutally murdered (beheaded).

Following his death, myths developed about his life, and death. Legend has it that he was a Bishop in Pamplona and that Saint Fermin’s grave emmitted a sweet smell that melted snow, made flowers grow, healed the sick, and made trees turn toward him as if they were bowing.

Running of the Bulls festival

What does all this have to do with the history of the Running of the Bulls festival, I hear you ask?

Well, it appears that the bull fighting events and the celebration of Saint Fermin’s life merged together over the years, and misinformation meant that there was little clarity about what the purpose was of these specific events.

By 1952 there was one clear singular event celebrated each year and during this year it was moved from September to July, when the weather was better.

So, if the origin of the bull run itself had little to do with St. Fermin, then what was it all about?

In actual fact, it stemmed from cattle herding. At the beginning of the 1000s, herders would transport their cattle from their rural farm yards to the city centre, where the market and bull ring were located. On route, people would clear a pathway for the bulls to walk through.

Over time, random men from the city began to join in with the herding and chase the bulls down the street. Over time, this became a local tradition….

And that was the birth of the Running of the Bulls!

DID YOU KNOW: a bull can run at around 15mph (24km/h).

The life of the Running of the Bulls festival

As time went on, bull-running became more and more of a spectacle. Events got bigger and eventually It is was broadcast on live TV.

Tourism started to gain traction in Pamplona and domestic tourists arrived from nearby cities in Spain to partake in the festivities each year.

The Running of the Bulls entered the international stage following the publication of Earnest Earnest Hemingway’s book The Sun Also Rises (now also available as a film) in 1926.

Hemingway loved Pamplona and his travels to the city inspired the production of his novel, where he provided a romantic depiction of the festival. Hemmingway can also take credit for the term Running of the Bulls, which had never appeared in print prior to the publication of his book.

Running of the Bulls festival

Maturity of the Running of the Bulls

Just as Butler outlines in his Tourism Area Lifecycle, all destinations will eventually reach maturity, when they will then either decline or rejuvenate. Right now, the Running of the Bulls and subsequently, tourism in Pamplona, is in decline.

The Running of the Bulls festival has seen mass tourism and overtourism in recent years, which has had problematic impacts on the local environment and society.

Furthermore, the concept of bullfighting has become somewhat controversial, with animals rights and protection being much more in the forefront of people’s minds than it once was.

Controversies surrounding bull-running

The history of the running of the bulls festival is a little chequered.

Bull-running isn’t particularly safe – surprisingly! Earlier numbers are unknown but since 1924 the St. Fermin festival in Pamplona has seen the deaths of 14 people due to the running of the bulls.

The number outside of this particular city is unknown too. However, it is likely that there have been hundreds of deaths caused across Spain, Portugal, Mexico and southern France due to bull-running.

It is not just the bulls themselves that pose a danger. The slippery cobblestone streets are a hazard, and the amount of adrenaline you would have pumping through your veins before, during and after the running of the bulls is a lot.

Foreign visitors to Pamplona and beyond like to partake in the running of the bulls as it is an ‘exotic sport’ and poses a lot of excitement. But they are just not prepared for it in the same way that the Spaniards are. 

Running of the Bulls festival

Some rules of bull-running

There is a rule in place that if a person is struck down by a bull they should stay on the ground. In 1995 Matthew Tassio, however, did not. He got up again and was then struck by a second animal which gored him to death.

There is also a lot of drinking at the San Fermin festival. You are not technically allowed to partake in the running of the bulls festival if you have been drinking but sadly this is a rule that often gets broken. Again, this tends to be by tourists. This is simply because they often don’t understand the cultural significance of bull-running and see it as an adrenaline rush similar to bungee jumping or riding a big rollercoaster.

Runners should be 18+. However, in 2007, a 10 year old boy was seen partaking in the running of the bulls. His mother – along with everybody watching the event on TV – was horrified. The boy’s father lost his visitation rights and had to pay a €200 fine for allowing the child to participate.

Is running with bulls safe for tourists?

When it comes to watching the running of the bulls in Pamplona or elsewhere, it is perfectly safe for tourists. You can watch it on TV at your hotel, or from a safe distance with the locals.

However, if you want to partake in the event, then this is a totally different story. In fact, there have been several people who have died as a result of taking part in a bull running race. Watch then video below and you will see why…

Can tourists attend the Running of the Bulls Festival?

Tourists are more than welcome to attend the Running of the Bulls festival. The streets of Pamplona are filled each morning as people watch the bull-running, and there is always plenty of sangria. Tourists are also allowed to participate in the Running of the Bulls Festival. Many people choose to do this on their trip to Pamplona as it is such an adrenaline rush. If you’re a thrill-seeker then this is the perfect holiday activity for you.

Find out what to wear to the running of the bulls in this blog post – there are guidelines but as long as you bear in mind the colour scheme of red and white, you’ll be good to go!

Attending the Running of the Bulls Festival: practical information 

The bull-running takes place each morning of the festival week. It starts at approximately 8.00 am and lasts around 2-3 minutes. The Running of the Bulls is free to attend. The festival is popular with (and suitable for) people of all ages.

If you want to take part, you don’t need to sign up in advance. Just make sure you’re of age (18+) and not under the influence of alcohol or drugs! The run starts from the slope of Santo Domingo Street and extends 875 metres (approx. 2870 ft). Be there between 6.30 and 7.30 am if you do want to take part.

Running of the Bulls festival
The running of the bulls festival can be dangerous.

You will hear four rockets. The first rocket is to let you know that the Running of the Bulls has commenced, and the second is to tell you that all of the bulls have left their pens and are now on the streets. Rocket number three tells you that the bulls are now inside the bullring itself, and the fourth and final rocket is to inform you that the streets can now be used again by the public. Party on!

DID YOU KNOW: since records began in 1911, 16 people have died during the Running of the Bulls Festival. In over 100 years, this number isn’t as big as it could be.

Many people question whether the Running of the Bulls is ethical. There is no straightforward answer to this – it has been part of Spanish culture for many years. It entirely depends on your views around bullfighting, as that is what the bulls are running towards.

Where to stay in Pamplona

There are plenty of places to stay in Pamplona when attending the Running of the Bulls festival as a tourist. Here are some of the best…

Aloha Hostel is one of the various hostels in the centre. Pamplona Bus Station is just 450 yards away, and Ciudadela Park is 5 minutes away on foot. There are dormitory and double rooms available. The hostel offers free WiFi in all areas, a shared kitchen and lockers. There is a designated smoking area and a terrace. Previous guests praise the friendly staff and comfortable beds.

Running of the Bulls festival

If you’re looking for a modern and luxurious hotel, check out Hotel Tres Reyes. With twin, double and triple rooms as well as family rooms and suites, this is the ideal hotel for anyone travelling to the Running of the Bulls Festival in Pamplona. Parking and free WiFi are available. There is an on-site restaurant, a pool & spa area, live music and much more on offer at the hotel. They also accept pets if you’re a semi-local visitor! Previous guests have praised the owners’ passion for local food and the fantastic views.

Travelling in a larger group? There are plenty of apartments in Pamplona such as Navas I. With two units – one sleeping five and one sleeping eight – they are ideal for bigger families or friends travelling together. There is plenty of space to really enjoy your trip. Pets are allowed, WiFi is free and parking is available too! Previous visitors have praised the location and the decor.

The weather at the Running of the Bulls Festival

In July, the weather in Pamplona is hot without being too hot. On average it gets to a high of 27°C with lows of around 15°C. There is only around 4 days of rain across the whole month so you’re guaranteed to have mostly dry days during the San Fermin Festival week.

Pack your SPF, a good hat and some sunglasses. And remember to stay hydrated during the Running of the Bulls Festival – and that means water, not just sangria!

Other things to do in Pamplona

Pamplona is a major stop on the famous Camino de Santiago. You can step onto the trail and get a feel for what it’s all about, and you’ll likely meet plenty of people who are walking the whole trail. Most of them will have an incredible story! Definitely take the time to stop and talk to any hikers if they are open to chatting with you.

There are plenty of other things to do in Pamplona!

  • Jardines de la Taconera is a beautiful park full of colourful flowers, lush green spaces and access to the old city walls. It is regarded as one of the best places to watch the sunset in Pamplona!
  • The Museum of Navarra, Navarre’s art museum which is full of ancient art and artefacts, is located in an old hospital.
  • Pamplona Cathedral is a beautiful historic church with a stunning gothic interior – home to the bodies of medieval kings.
  • The Church of San Lorenzo is a must-see. It is a stunning historic chapel on the edge of the old centre of town, and perfect for travel photographers.

What to wear to Running of the Bulls Festival

Whether you are running with the bulls or simply a spectator, there is a bit of a dress code. It adds to the fun and the sense of community involved in the Running of the Bulls. Plus, think of the cool family photos you’ll be able to look back on!

If you’re a runner (or a mozo) then the typical outfits is as follows:

  • White trousers
  • White shirt
  • Red bandana (to be tied around your neck or waist)

And what to wear to Running of the Bulls as a tourist or spectator is pretty much the same. As long as you’re wearing mostly-white and a splash of red, then you’re good to go! Whether you opt for white skinny jeans, white chinos, a swishy white skirt – anything is fine. Pair with a white shirt, vest top or t-shirt and add a red sash, red scarf or a red bandana.

GOOD TO KNOW: don’t wear anything that is too precious to you. By the end of the Running of the Bulls you’ll be covered in sangria stains and, chances are, your clothes might get ripped too.

Is it compulsory to wear red and white?

When planning what to wear to Running of the Bulls, red and white isn’t compulsory. It is, however, a big part of the culture than comes alongside bull running. To really feel as though you are involved in the tradition, wearing red and white is a good idea.

You can add a little something extra too. The Running of the Bulls is broadcast live across the world, and chances are if you’re attending (or indeed partaking) you’ll have let your friends and family know to look out for you. So make yourself stand out! Choose a bright football shirt or add a neon hairband into the mix. As long as you’re mostly in white and red, you’ll still be part of the celebrations but it’ll be easy for your loved ones to spot you – and for you to spot yourself who you’re watching the bull-running footage back in the future.

GOOD TO KNOW: bulls are actually colourblind in terms of the colour red. This means that wearing a red scarf, sash, rag or bandana doesn’t make you more of a target to these animals.

What else do you need to know about the Running of the Bulls?

There is a lot to bear in mind when planning a trip to Pamplona to catch the bull-running. It’s not just what to wear to the Running of the Bulls that’s important – there is so much more to it.

The Running of the Bulls takes place daily between July 7th and July 14th, at around 8.00 am each morning. Typically, the bull-running is over within a few minutes.

If you want to take part and actually run with the bulls, you must over 18. You don’t need to sign up in advance but it is imperative that you respect the rules. This means that you cannot run when under the influence of drugs or alcohol, you can’t touch or harass the bulls, and you can’t carry objects which may impede the safety of those running.

running of the bulls

The bull-running parts at the slope of Santo Domingo street, and it ends inside the arena at the bullring. This is a distance of just 875 metres. Runners must make their way to a gateway next to City Hall between 6.30 am and 7.30 am – spectators are advised to look for a good spot early too. It can get crowded and you don’t want to miss the action!

There are four rockets to be aware of:

  • The first rocket: the Running of the Bulls has commenced.
  • The second rocket: all six fighting bulls have left the pens and therefore are now on the streets.
  • The third rocket: the bulls have now entered the pens inside the bullring.
  • The fourth rocket: the fencing can now be open and the streets can be used as normal for the rest of the day.

Running of the Bulls: To Conclude

Running of the Bulls has a lot of history, but also a lot of controversy. Should we attend the Running of the Bulls festival? Well, the answer is not clear-cut. But hopefully you have a better insight into what the Running of the Bulls is all about now, to help inform your decisions.

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