Woman and dog practizing the old Spanish siesta tradition

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Sleeping at midday: the Spanish siesta tradition

What is siesta time in Spain?

DEBUNKING THE MYTH OF SPANISH SIESTA

When somebody thinks about Spain, what pops most commonly in their minds is likely to be flamenco, bullfights and… siesta! But what is siesta? Is it just a nap after lunch? Is it a time of the day when everything is closed? And is it still really a thing in Spain? Or is it just a myth, a stereotype, a cliché? In this post you’ll learn what to expect, how to navigate its inconveniences or how to join it. AND how to use the word correctly without offending the locals.

Origins of the tradition of siesta in Spain

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Where the word "siesta" comes from

Spain's siesta time dates back to the Roman times

Over 2000 years ago, back in the Roman times, they used to count the hours of the day based on the sun raise. Their sixth hour, called "sexta" in Latin, was more or less around noon. And that was when they took a break from their tasks of the day and rested. The word "siesta" comes from the Roman "sexta" tradition.

2

Why taking a siesta

In Spain, lunch is the biggest meal of the day. And it’s not unusual to drink wine during lunch. So who doesn’t feel a bit sleepy after eating a big meal? Your blood heads to your stomach and intestines to help with digestion, and the brain slows down due to having less resources and energy to function. If you add alcohol to the equation, the need for a nap is understandable.

In the other hand, Spain’s warm climate needs to be taken into account, too. And before the industrial revolution Spain was mainly rural. The farmers would stop working at midday for lunch, and stay indoors until the heat receded, then went back to work in the fields until the sun set. An even in the cities, until air-conditioning became more common some decades ago, the hottest hours of the day were the least productive hours.

Is really siesta time to sleep?

3

Who takes a siesta in Spain nowadays?

Sorry to break the news: the statistics show that 50 to 60% of the Spanish people NEVER take siestas. And at least a 25% only take a nap in the weekends, days off or during their vacations. So who takes siesta in Spain? Mostly retired seniors and infants: most adults with a job don't have the time, nor can't find the ideal conditions to allow them to nap. And while in kindergarten children are encouraged to sleep after lunch, older kids and students can't take siestas in school.

4

How do Spaniards take their siesta?

  • Do you nap in bed? Most people don’t. The Nobel prize winner, writer Camilo Jose Cela, used to say that siesta had to be done “on pajamas, after praying the Our Lord prayer and using the urinal”. But that was decades ago and he didn’t have a 9-to-5 job. Most Spanish people nap on their sofas (and if they are tired enough to go to bed to sleep, they don’t put on their pajamas).
  • Do you need complete darkness for a Spanish siesta? The sleep specialists will tell you that darkness helps falling asleep and provides a better rest. But the truth is that it’s not always possible to create complete darkness for siesta time. A lot of Spaniards will tell you they nap at home while watching TV, surrounded by the rest of their family. 
  • How long is a siesta? The experts believe that a 20 minutes power nap is enough to give you enough rest to keep going with your day, and it won’t affect your night sleep. However, a lot of siestas in Spain take longer than that, from 40 minutes to one hour, or even more.

Spain siesta hours (the lunch break)

5

But don't do shops close for siesta?

If you ask a Spaniard when do shops close for siesta… you’ll get an “are you serious?” look. Or worst: you’ll offend them. Because in Spain “siesta” means sleeping, and shop attendants don’t get to sleep in the middle of the day. So why do shops close in the middle of the day? It’s time to reveal you a secret: in the Spanish culture food is more sacred than sleep. Locals eat from 2PM to 3PM. Nobody is out in the streets shopping, because everyone is having lunch. 

But the shops don’t reopen immediately after lunch. Why is that? In Spain kids don’t come out of school until 4 to 5PM, depending on the schools. Until then, moms are at home getting things ready before they arrive. Or they are still at the office. It’s the lowest business hours: that’s why many business owners choose to close until people are back to the streets.

6

How long is this lunch break, then?

First of all, I want to be clear with one thing: nowadays, most businesses in the largest cities in Spain stay open without a lunch break, because it's busy enough for them to pay employees to take shifts. That also goes for international chains and shopping malls. Lunch break happens in areas that aren't busy enough. 

The size of the city also matters. In a large city like Barcelona, shops tend to close from 2PM to 4PM or a bit longer. But when you are visiting a smaller town in Catalonia, it’s not unusual to see their down time starting as early as 1PM and until 5PM. And don’t even think of suggesting they should at least shorten their break time during the tourist season: they won’t let you mess with their slow life culture and traditions!

A note on restaurants and cafes. Of course, restaurants need to stay open during lunch… But a lot of restaurants that serve full meals will close around 4PM and not reopen until 8PM for dinner. That will allow their staff to rest, and to get everything ready for the evening service. On the contrary, cafes that don’t serve full meals but mostly hot drinks and snacks might close around 2PM and reopen around 4PM or 5PM. And it’s safe to assume that most tapas bars stay open from breakfast to dinner non-stop, because tapas work for any time of the day.

What can you do during siesta time in Barcelona? (or the rest of Spain, for what matters)

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Sightseeing ideas

If the perspective of facing Spanish siesta times bothers you... My recommendation is to plan ahead. Decide in advance what sites you will save for the middle of the day. In a city like Barcelona all of the top sites stay open. And there's going to be less people after 2PM than in the morning. Consider which ones are indoors and likely to be cooler, if you are visiting in the Summer. Museums and big churches are a great choice.

Also take into account that visiting a park isn’t a guarantee of shade: there can be areas of open space where it can be very hot in the middle of the day (Park Guell is a good example of that). And small museums, not so famous churches and minor sites might be closed during siesta time.

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More things to do if you aren't taking a siesta

  • Buy a gelato and go for a walk by the sea, under the palm trees.
  • Go shopping in a shopping mall or a main shopping street with international brands.
  • Eat lunch at a Michelin star restaurant: the meals there take 2 hours or more. By the time you leave, everything will be open again.
  • Or take a tapas tour during lunchtime – you’ll also be ending by the time shops are starting to open again, and spend most of the time indoors.
  • Read a book (or visit a library that doesn’t close during lunch time)
  • Watch TV or a movie (some cinemas have early bird sessions starting around 4PM).
  • Take a cooking class that includes lunch (with all the cooking and eating, they tend to end around 4PM or later.

I hope to have helped you understanding the culture of Spanish siesta!

Marta

Author Marta Laurent Veciana

AUTHOR BIO

Marta is the founder of ForeverBarcelona. She is a passionate tour guide that loves Barcelona and loves writing too. She is the main author of our Blog, and is committed to sharing her knowledge about Barcelona and her best tips with our readers.

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