Tim Pozzi, The Daily Telegraph, May 14, 2013
Vitoria has an impressive history of carefully planned expansion from its medieval, almond-shaped core: recycling and renewable energy schemes are all very well, but what impressed me were its magnificent public spaces. You have to travel quite a way to find cars, buses and motorbikes, and broad pedestrian walkways are lined with so many trees that you can almost fancy yourself in woodland.
From early evening until midnight, the atmosphere around the central plazas and their bar-crammed side streets is as convivial as any I've encountered. It's that familiar Mediterranean thing of people strolling, gossiping, waving wine glasses about, while seniors play cards and kids muck about on the steps of venerable churches.
Yet here it is played out on such a large scale, with such a loud reverberation of conversation through the traffic-free centre – especially Saturday lunchtime and evening – that it feels not unlike being at an excellent party.
Vitoria is less a city of sights – although noble 15th and 16th-century palaces and gorgeous, narrow-fronted belle époque houses with glassed-fronted verandas abound.
The pintxos (aka tapas) here are as good as any you'll find in Spain: mini-meals in themselves – slices of ham, cheese, potato, pepper and onion skewered on to a slice of bread; simple favourites, such as tortilla, executed to perfection; fancy baroque creations, such as foie gras in a mini ice-cream cone topped with raspberry.
It can be intimidating trying to get served at the best and busiest bars on Cuchillería, Correría and Pintorería streets, which run off the main square, Plaza de la Virgen Blanca. Aldama, at 20 Postas street, is an excellent low-key alternative, with friendly service and mouthwatering pintxos piled high on the bar.
That's not to say that there are no conventional attractions. The contemporary art at Artium, unfortunately closed at the time of my visit, is claimed by some to rival that at the Guggenheim in Bilbao. The Fine Arts Museum of Avala is housed in a splendid, century-old palace, with canvases by the likes of Ignacio Díaz Olano offering a rewarding insight into bygone Basque culture, both agricultural and aristocratic. And the Fournier Playing Card Museum is a quirky treat, with examples dating as far back as the 15th century.
Vitoria's pièce de resistance, however, and which should on no account be missed, is the 13th-century cathedral of Santa María. In 1994 it was closed because of "structural problems" – it was falling down. A guided tour of the restoration process, on scaffolded walkways and via narrow stone staircases, offers a privileged perspective from every angle, from bowels to bell tower. It's a narrative of architectural problem-solving rather than religion, and absolutely fascinating.
easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com ) has daily flights from Stansted to Bilbao from £24.99 one way. There are frequent buses from the airport to Bilbao bus station, 30 minutes away. There are buses every half-hour to Vitoria-Gasteiz, taking 75 minutes; pay around €8 (£6.75). A taxi will get to Vitoria-Gasteiz in about an hour and costs around €85 (£72).
Kirker Holidays (020 7593 2283; kirkerholidays.com ) offers short breaks and tailor-made itineraries to the Basque Country, including Vitoria-Gasteiz. Three nights' b & b at the Ciudad de Vitoria costs from £498 per person based on two people sharing, including flights from London to Bilbao, return private transfers and the services of the Kirker concierge to book expert local guides or a table for dinner.
THE BEST HOTELS
Canciller Ayala ££
This 10-storey, four-star hotel was renovated in 2008. It's central, good value, and rooms on the upper floors have superb views across parkland and church towers to the surrounding mountains (Ramon y Cajal 5, 0034 945 130000; nh-hotels.com ; double without breakfast from €60/£51).
Ciudad de Vitoria ££
Another four-star, also nothing special. But service is friendly, rooms are pleasant, the breakfast buffet is generous and you're an easy five-minute stroll from the centre (945 141100; hoteles-silken.com ).
La Casa de los Arquillos £
Eight spacious, light-filled and attractively styled rooms built into an ancient porticoed walkway overlooking the main square. Positioning couldn't be more perfect; with prices from €76 (£64) for a double with basic breakfast, it's a steal (945 151259; lacasadelosarquillos.com ).
El Portalón £££
This 15th-century inn has preserved its double-height entrance through which horses were once led in to feed and rest. Upstairs it's all burnished copper, dark beams, polished terracotta floors, old bellows, etc – highly atmospheric, and pricey, but also the perfect environment for roast suckling pig (Correría, 151; 945 142755; restauranteelportalon.com ).
Unusually subtle lighting and classy décor – somehow blending thick stone walls with designer wallpaper and outsized lampshades – make this the romantic choice. The €27 (£23) tasting menu is excellent value: six simple, substantial dishes focusing on fine produce, from tomatoes to peppers to strawberries (Mateo de Moraza, 1; 945 230080; restaurantearkupe.com ).
Always buzzing, this is the place for pintxos, with posters and pictures on the walls advertising the many national and regional awards it has won. Through the back is a quieter restaurant serving simple, perfectly grilled slabs of meat and fish (c/ Prado, 18; 945 288676; sagartoki.com ).
THE INSIDE TRACK
On the top floor of the indoor market on Azoka Plaza next to the Corte Inglés department store you can get a glass of txakoli, the tangy, effervescent Basque wine, and a pintxo – bread and cheese perhaps – for just €1 (85p). Saturdays only; at the farmers' market outside, discover some of the biggest onions and tomatoes you've ever laid eyes on.
Forgot your reading glasses? On the corner of Calle La Paz and Portal del Rey is a vending machine that dispenses spectacles, hearing aid batteries and contact lenses (some coloured). Accepts Visa and Mastercard.
To reach more far-flung attractions like the restored Salburua wetlands 3km from the centre of the city, hire a rickshaw. From around €20 (£17) per hour, Bilintx Knörr (638 452494) will organise your itinerary.
If you're in the mood for dancing, head for Florida Park. On Saturday and Sundays live Latin rhythms begin to flood out from the bandstand at around 7pm.
You can get coffee from a machine at the Fine Arts Museum of Avala for just 35c (30p) – about the cheapest in Western Europe, and not at all bad.
On Sunday mornings there's a bric-a-brac market under the porticoes of the Plaza de España – a good place to pick up a souvenir
WHAT TO AVOID
Don't risk simply turning up for a tour of Santa María cathedral – make a booking (945 255135; catedralvitoria.com ).
The midafternoon sun. It can get extremely hot between 3pm-5pm.
Bicycles – the demarcation between cycle and pedestrian paths is a bit blurred at times.
Eating too early. Many restaurants don't open until 9pm, and most tables remain empty until 10pm.
The bronze statue of Ken Follett near the Santa María cathedral.