By Liz Pitt
While San Sebastián is known for its beaches and Bilbao is known for the Guggenheim, the capital of the Basque Country, located in the province of Alava, Vitoria (Gasteiz in Basque, or Vitoria-Gasteiz, as it’s more commonly called), is often overlooked. I spent the afternoon in Vitoria, and was thoroughly impressed with what I saw.
Vitoria is a walkable city. It’s smaller and more intimate than Bilbao and San Sebastián. The old town, like most in Spain, has great shops and outdoor cafés. We spent part of the afternoon browsing the stores and, and later, we headed to the main plaza, Plaza de la Virgen Blanca, where we spent the rest of the day people-watching and drinking cañas (beer). There are also a variety of Basque tapas, called pintxos that are readily available in the area. While Vitoria might not have the same variety of pintxos as Bilbao or the culinary creativity as San Sebastián, there are still many to choose from, and they’re typically cheaper in Vitoria.
There are two cathedrals in Vitoria, but the Cathedral de Santa Maria (the old cathedral) is something you don’t want to miss. It’s one of my favorite churches in Spain, and I spent a lot of time wandering through the cloisters. It’s very different than a lot of the other churches scattered around the Basque Country, as it’s bigger and built in the Gothic style. After visiting the cathedral, I learned that Ken Follett’s book, Pillars of the Earth, was based on the cathedral in Vitoria.
History nerd that I am, I had to read the book, and learned a lot about the construction of this very impressive cathedral. There are also many exhibits in the cathedral describing its construction, and show the various phases it went through over the years. The new cathedral, Catedral de Santa Maria Immaculada, is also worth a visit if you have the time.
Vitoria also has an impressive amount of art museums for anyone who is interested in anything from modern Basque art to the classics. There is a fine art museum, archeology museum, and even a museum that displays playing cards, since a variety of playing cards are produced in Vitoria.
Remember, if you choose to visit Vitoria (especially in the winter), it can be a lot colder than the rest of the community. It often snows, so make sure you have a jacket.
The easiest way to get to Vitoria from Bilbao and San Sebastián is by bus (Autobuses la Unión), as trains are infrequent from major cities around País Vasco and Spain. From Bilbao, it is approximately an hour to Vitoria. From San Sebastián, use the bus company Pesa, which leaves every hour.