Siesta Time in Sleepy Spain

🕔 6 mins (total)
Afternoon is “sleepy time” for old-school Spaniards!
Afternoon is “sleepy time” for old-school Spaniards!

No doubt you had already heard of la siesta long before coming to the Costa Brava. Indeed, most people who have never even been to Spain have heard of la siesta – but actually witnessing first-hand commercial life coming to a complete halt in the middle of the day may come as a bit of a surprise at first.

The sleepy Spanish?

The siesta exists in countries other than Spain, particularly in the Mediterranean, but here they just seem to take it a lot more seriously! The Spanish word siesta comes from the Latin hora sexta meaning the “sixth hour” (counting from dawn), 12 noon in other words, and evolved over time to come to mean “midday rest”.

Typically today the hours of the siesta in Costa Brava towns are from 13:00 until 17:00 (give or take 30 minutes or so at either end), during which businesses shut up shop and workers supposedly go home for a hearty meal, possibly followed by a snooze. In cities like Barcelona and Girona the length of the siesta might be a little shorter, and not every single business will shut down, but it’s still something that takes a bit of getting used to for other Europeans.

The Origins of La Siesta

The origins of the practice can be traced back to a time when those involved in outdoor labour, particularly agricultural workers, would take a break in the middle of the day to escape the scorching heat, as well as to the fact that after the Spanish Civil War, the economic situation was such that many people had to work at more than one job to make ends meet. Very often these jobs would not be near one another and so the workers needed a long break in between (with or without a nap!) in order to be able to travel from one job to the other, in an era when public transport was scarce to non-existent in many places.

Although in more recent times the percentage of Spaniards who claim to actually have a midday nap on a daily basis has been decreasing, the custom of those long lunch breaks still lingers on and shows no signs of disappearing any time soon. And there are still quite a few hard-core siesta lovers who will proudly tell you that they actually put on their pyjamas, pull down the blinds, and get back into bed. None of that having a snooze on the sofa for those guys!

Siesta pros and cons

There are arguments to be made in favour of a midday nap – the main one probably being that a link has been made between daytime sleep and a reduction in coronary mortality, possibly due to reduced cardiovascular stress. This may well be true but those of us who are “not from around here” often find ourselves asking if the siesta hours really need to go on for as long as they do, especially given the fact that fewer and fewer Spaniards actually take a nap during the siesta hours.

And while on an individual level, a short siesta might be beneficial to one’s health it could also be questioned as to whether the entire workforce needs to take its middle of the daybreak, all at the same time, unlike countries where lunch breaks are usually staggered so that businesses can remain open throughout the day. It can be quite tricky trying to get anything done if you get out of work at 13:00 with a to-do list only to find that everywhere else has also just pulled the shutters down and gone home, only to reopen at 17:00, when you have to return to work yourself!

A case could be made that the Spanish should be commended for not bowing to mass consumerism as many other countries could be accused of doing, and for prioritizing family values over commerce. Even when cruise ships pull into the Port of Palamós between the months of April and October, for example, the vast majority of businesses will still close their doors between 13:00 and 17:00, much to the bewilderment of the visiting passengers who are left to wonder if they are visiting a ghost town – so the locals certainly cannot be accused of over-commercialization!

On the other hand, the greater distances many people travel to their place of work nowadays, in comparison to times past, mean that the family midday meal seldom happens anymore anyway, other than at weekends, and, in addition, the late finishing time caused by the siesta actually impacts negatively on time spent with one’s family in the evening. In fact, the average Spanish working day is longer than that of all their European Union counterparts, typically 10/11 hours, from 9:00/10:00 to 20:00/21:00, albeit with a three or four-hour break in the middle.

We’re sure Homer Simpson would be fully in favour of La Siesta!
We’re pretty sure that Homer Simpson would be fully in favour of La Siesta!


Studies also suggest that Spanish workers are significantly less efficient than their European counterparts. (We suspect not too many of you gasped in surprise at that one! Another Spanish word most foreigners are familiar with before coming to Spain is mañana!). After all, who would really be in the mood for heading back in for the second half of the working day at 17:00 after a big feed and a snooze? This might also go some way toward explaining the fact that there tend to be more workplace accidents in Spain than elsewhere in Europe. (See Homer Simpson above. We suspect he may secretly be Spanish!).

The knock-on effect of a working day that only finishes at 20:00 or 21:00 is that everything tends to happen late in Spain, from prime-time television (including big football matches or movies, for example) to the typical time for going out socializing. Almost incredibly, there are some bars that only open at 23:00 and close very late. In fact, for many Spaniards the night typically only ends around the time the sun is coming up – not ideal if you have to be back in work for 10:00!

Touchy subject!

What can be surprising to many foreigners is how vehemently many Spaniards will defend their tradition of the siesta. They will insist that the long lunch break is necessary due to the midday heat in summer, and if you counter by remarking that in places like Australia or the USA, for example, the summers are also hot, they will argue that the lack of a siesta in those countries is down to their “anglo-saxon” culture. If you point out that many former Spanish colonies in Latin America also have hot climates and yet do not have siestas, then they often just get annoyed and change the subject!

As far as they’re concerned it’s up to foreigners to adapt to their way of life if they choose to live here rather than the other way around – and, in fairness, they do have a point there…

The siesta in the 21st century

So, while the custom of the siesta might get on the nerves of some foreigners who may think it’s high time Spain adapted to the rest of Europe, the other side of the coin is that, like it or loathe it, the siesta is part of the culture here. And while it can be frustrating sometimes, we can occasionally use it to our advantage.

For example, most supermarkets tend not to close in mid-afternoon so this can be the perfect time to get your grocery shopping done without having to deal with crowds or long lines at the checkout. Similarly, some foreign-owned businesses (such as callCarlos!) remain open and tend to be far less busy between 14:00 and 16:00.

Will they ever change?

Although there have been a few murmurings in recent years about Catalunya possibly amending its labour laws to do away with the siesta hours, or at least to shorten them considerably, it would’ve been hard to see anything happening any time soon until the impact of the restrictions imposed on society to limit the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus. One citizen-based initiative in Barcelona called the Barcelona Time Use Project suggested that those Covid restrictions might have been the prod Catalans needed to review their daily working schedule and hopefully shift to a healthier timetable.

And they might have been right. According to a study from the Catalan Consumer Agency released in April 2022, most Catalans do think it is time to change. Over 76% of those surveyed are in favour of switching to more “rational and healthy” schedules to help improve their quality of life.

Just over 52% would like to see working hours more in line with the rest of Europe and cultural and social hours happening between 18:00 and about midnight, with nightlife ending at 02:30 rather than 06:00. Younger respondents were against that last suggestion with 02:30 seeming ridiculously early to them! Nightclubs and like-like aside though, it seems there is an appetite for change, among Catalans at least, whatever about the rest of Spain.

Only time will tell!

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