The Spanish festival La Tomatina, or Battle of the Tomato, may not be as well-known as Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls, but it’s just as much of a spectacle.
What’s billed as the world’s biggest food fight takes place annually the final Wednesday of August on the narrow medieval streets of Buñol, with 22,000 revelers pelting one another with 140 tons of ripe tomatoes in an hour-long fruit-filled frenzy.
After a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, La Tomatina is back for 2022 and celebrating its 75th anniversary on August 31. And while the tomato battle is certainly the highlight, there are all sorts of activities leading up to the main event, including paella cook-offs, parades, verbenas (open-air parties), and fireworks.
For the small Valencian village of Buñol, the fiesta is more than simply an excuse to throw tomatoes. “La Tomatina is the town’s most important showcase,” says María Vallés, councilor for tourism and La Tomatina. “All Buñoleros and Buñoleras experience it as part of our culture, of our way of being.”
If you want to participate in this tomato-tossing extravaganza, or if you simply want to learn more about this quirky traditional celebration, read on for everything you need to know about La Tomatina.
What and where is La Tomatina?
La Tomatina is celebrated annually on the last Wednesday of August in Buñol, a medieval town of 9,000 located about 25 miles west of Valencia.
The origins of La Tomatina are a bit hazy, but it’s believed to have unofficially started in 1944 or 1945, following a dispute between locals during a parade honoring the town’s patron saint, San Luis Bertran. Legend has it that a group of rowdy youngsters knocked off the headpiece of a costumed performer and a fight ensued, with the frenzied crowd grabbing tomatoes from a nearby fruit stand and hurling them at one another. At the following year’s parade, people decided to repeat the food-flinging event, bringing tomatoes from home.
The tradition continued, briefly banned in the 1950s under General Franco’s regime, and it was very much a regional event until a 1983 television broadcast garnered it worldwide attention. La Tomatina was officially declared a Festival of International Tourist Interest in 2002 and today it attracts people from around the globe, from as far away as Japan and Australia. In 2013, the town hall introduced a ticketing system, limiting the event’s attendance to 22,000 people.
How is La Tomatina celebrated?
The festivities begin early, with crowds arriving to Buñol by train and bus–just follow the masses to the city center and join the sangria parties along the way. At 10 a.m. in the town’s main square, Plaza del Pueblo, there’s the prebattle ritual known as el palo jabón, where a ham is hoisted to the top of a pole slicked with soap and people struggle to climb up and pull it down. The massive food fight starts at 11 a.m.—a booming water cannon signals the kickoff—as huge trucks loaded with tomatoes dump the over-ripe fruit into the streets.
The premise is simple: For the next hour, scoop up as many tomatoes as you can and hurl them at your fellow festivalgoers. (The only rule is that they must be squashed first.) The end of the event is marked with another boom, then the tomato-soaked crowds queue up to shower off. Firefighters come in to hose down the streets and in less than an hour things are pretty much back to normal.
The party continues throughout the afternoon, with live music, dancing, and plenty of sangria being served in plazas around the town.
Where do all those tomatoes come from?
Surprisingly, tomatoes aren’t even grown in Buñol. The tomatoes used for the battle are cultivated especially for the event, not for their flavor, and are trucked in from all over Spain. If that doesn’t sound very green, consider the flip side: “If there was no La Tomatina, tomatoes would not be planted,” says Vallés. “The production and purchase of these tomatoes translates into jobs in agriculture.”
How do I get tickets?
Tickets are 12 euros and can be purchased online from the official La Tomatina website (note that it’s only in Spanish). Because they sell out quickly, check tour sites such as tomatina.es and ticketstomatina.com, which sell various packages that include bus transportation from major cities like Valencia and Madrid.
What should I wear?
Since you’ll be coated in slushy tomatoes, wear old clothes or anything you don’t mind throwing away. And with all that juice and pulp, streets can get very slick, so tennis shoes are your best bet. Some people opt for swimsuits underneath their clothes, since you’re going to get wet—both from the tomatoes and the showers afterward. Goggles are also a good idea to protect your eyes; if you forget, there are plenty of makeshift stalls in the town selling them. A change of clothes is also a good idea.
Will anything be different due to COVID?
As of publication time, Spain has lifted all mask and social-distancing restrictions. But “if COVID again becomes an issue, La Tomatina has a Plan B to be able to carry on the event,” says Vallés.
How to get to La Tomatina
Since accommodation in Buñol is extremely limited, most visitors stay in Valencia and take the train to Buñol for the day. There are trains leaving approximately every hour from Estación del Norte, Valencia’s main railway station, to Buñol on Renfe’s C3 line (the trip takes just over an hour and it costs about 10 euros each way).
Be sure to buy your ticket well ahead of time. Most tours offer a prearranged round-trip journey by bus, which will make planning easier.
If you’re taking the train, there are many budget hotels surrounding Estación del Norte, but the area is a bit dull. Consider staying in the lively, bar-packed Russafa (or Ruzafa) neighborhood or the atmospheric medieval Ciutat Vella (Old Town). Both are about a 15-minute walk from the station.