Ernest Hemingway's portrayal of Pamplona, Spain, in The Sun Also Rises is one of its most famous. In the 1926 novel, he paints a colourful picture of Pamplona's San Fermin Festival, best known as the Running of the Bulls. This festival has become the foundation for the city's economic growth nearly a century after his last visit.

Last week, for the first time ever, the 2014 Running of the Bulls was transmitted live on NBC in the US, putting one of Europe's largest festivals, with more than 200,000 visitors, front and centre for the world to see.

But, Pamplona is more than San Fermin.

"For me Pamplona is not bulls, but business," said Marco Aguas, senior technical manager at British retail and food service supplier Winterbotham Darby. "Our business volume has grown for the past six years, and the city's location is essential for a demanding logistical operation with ease of access to much of Europe. Pamplona has embraced development and technology, making it a great place to do business."

This vibrant business community near the French border thrives on international investment. Part of its appeal is its prime geographic position along the Pyrenees Mountains, which facilitates business between the Iberian Peninsula and the rest of continental Europe.  The city boasts one of the highest incomes per capita and the lowest unemployment rate of any major Spanish city (14% versus 30% nationally). As well, Pamplona is also Spain's greenest city (five new parks have opened in the past two years totalling 26 square metres of green space per inhabitant).

Jaguar chose Pamplona's Navarre Racing Circuit to unveil its new F-Type vehicle in 2013, and the Baluarte convention centre, which offers free wi-fi and seats 2,000, has hosted numerous global events including the First Lego League Open European Championship robotics exposition. The International Flamenco Festival will come to Pamplona in August.

To boost business further, a new Meetings and Conventions board has been established to draw large conference and congress events. As well, meetings can be planned at more unorthodox locales. "Our historical heritage provides unique sites for meetings,” said Javier Lacunza, director of Baluarte. "No other city in Spain, or the world for that matter, regularly hosts functions in its medieval cathedral."

To meet demand, the city’s hotel capacity has been growing steadily (Pamplona saw a 7% jump in hotel visitors last year). Conveniently, the vast majority of hotels are within walking distance of the Baluarte.

Pamplona's fastest growing sector is medical tourism, thanks to the Clinica Universitaria de Navarra, a private hospital that attracts visitors worldwide for its high standard of affordable health care. This niche  has helped to build Pamplona's pharmaceuticals business and science sector. Spanish pharmaceuticals company Cinfa has its headquarters on the outskirts of town, and medical equipment manufacturer Vettel has its corporate headquarters in downtown Pamplona.


Pamplona's main airport is quite small and has minimal facilities making it a cinch to navigate. It is the easiest to fly into because it is less than 5km from the city centre and has regular connections to major hubs at Madrid and Barcelona for international travel.

Taxis average less than 10 euros ($13) from the airport into town, and visitors can exchange money at the airport or in city-centre banks (for better rates).

Bilbao's international airport is another common gateway to the city with flights from most of Europe's main international airports.  

Money matters

Like the rest of Spain, it is customary to use the euro here. Hotels, restaurants and retail outlets accept credit cards, but some food outlets may have trouble accepting credit cards without an EMV chip. This is vastly improving, but it is always wise to have cash as a backup. Expect to carry some form of identification, often required when using a credit card.

Compared to Madrid or Barcelona, travellers will find daily necessities like crispy churros (fried doughnuts with sugar) and a cafe con leche (standard breakfast fare) to be cheap. Ernest Hemingway's favourite haunt, Cafe Iruña serves coffee and churros for less than 5 euros ($7).

Cultural know-how

As in the rest of Spain, locals dine late. Lunch typically begins around 14:00, and dinner rarely starts before 21:00. Business meals are a common way of getting to know potential clients, and there are a few prudent features that may stump foreigners.

Butter is not provided for bread; occasionally, olive oil is available, but can be messy. Many restaurants do not provide bread plates; it is acceptable to place bread on the table cloth, if that is the case.

Following a meal, the Spanish are known for "la sobremesa," the custom of lingering long after a meal is completed to chat over coffee. It is considered impolite to get up before the host.


The 108-room AC Hotel by Marriott is preferred by groups that want an international brand they recognise near the city's medical and pharmaceuticals business district.

As the largest hotel in the city centre, the 138-room Maisonnave is popular with business travellers given its central location. It is fresh from a 2013 renovation of guest rooms, which included placing photographic wall murals in all rooms depicting vibrant scenes of Pamplona daily life. Rooms on the sixth floors have the premium views of the city's famous cathedral.

Pamplona's most famous hotel is Gran Hotel La Perla, which is home to nearly all celebrities and diplomats who come to town. Its 44 rooms have seen the likes of Orson Wells, Charlie Chaplin, Woody Allen and Ernest Hemingway (whose second-floor room is among the most popular). Many rooms face the city's main square, Plaza del Castillo, but soundproofed windows and a pillow menu mean that not a sound can be heard. So popular are the pillows here that reception has sold 50 in 2014 alone.

Dinner for one

Pamplona is home to three Michelin-starred restaurants including family-owned and operated Rodero. The two sisters seat and serve, while brother Chef Koldo Rodero has added his own modern touch to his father's favourite Navarran recipes. Reservations are a must; favourites include a seafood-laden mother of pearl soup and Iberico hamburgers with Spanish Roncal cheese.

Another of the Michelin stars belongs to Europa, a restaurant near Plaza del Castillo. Dishes such as grilled Peron red peppers and roast pigeon with creamed apple have put this restaurant on the map. Numerous small dining rooms give the impression of an intimate cafe, making it popular with the business lunch crowd.

Off the clock

A popular pastime in Navarra is spending an evening out for pintxos (traditional tapas from northern Spain). Numerous bars and cafes serve a variety within walking distance of the Plaza del Castillo. These can be ordered off a printed menu or by standing at the bar and simply pointing to dishes in the display case. Diners keep the toothpicks holding each item on the countertop, which are later used to calculate one's bar tab. Favourites include stuffed peppers, marinated hake fish, and croquettes of cheese or Iberico ham.

Joggers may enjoy a run along the paved city walls that encircle the downtown area.

Special considerations

While it is acceptable to be fashionably late for a party, foreigners should still plan a punctual arrival to business meetings, even if that means waiting for a Spaniard to arrive. Once a meeting begins, do not be surprised if someone interrupts or talks loudly over another. The Spanish have a tendency to speak with vigour, which should not be interpreted as anger or displeasure.

Where does business travel take you? To comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Capital, head over to our Facebook  page or message us on Twitter.