Do the Spanish Really Sleep During Siesta?

Quiet afternoon in Avilés
••• A quiet afternoon in Avilés. Rudi Sebastian/Getty Images

The siesta is one of the most famous aspects of Spanish life - that dead period in late afternoon when everything shuts down in Spain, in theory so people can go to sleep.

The Spanish take the siesta very seriously, even going so far as to have a Sleeping Competition in its honor. But, on a normal day, do the Spanish really go to sleep at this time?

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When is the Siesta?

There are two periods of siesta in Spain - siesta for shops and businesses, during which time many people go to a bar or restaurant, and then siesta for the restaurants, who obviously can't rest when everyone wants to come and eat.

The siesta for shops and businesses is from approximately 2pm until 5pm while bars and restaurants close from about 4pm until about 8 or 9pm.

However, new laws in Spain might change the length of the siesta. See below for more details.

Why do the Spanish Stop for Siesta?

A lot of Spanish culture is connected to the siesta. In some ways, there is a chicken-and-the-egg situation: some aspects of modern life in Spain are because of the siesta, but they may also contribute to why the idea of the siesta has not completely died.

The reasons for the siesta are as follows:

  • To Avoid the Mid-Day Heat 
  • To Enjoy a Long Lunch
  • Because the Spanish Don't Get Enough Sleep at Night
  • Because it's Good for You!

Avoiding the Mid-Day Heat

Spain is a hot country, especially mid-afternoon, and the traditional reason for the siesta is for the workers in the fields to shelter from the heat. They would then feel refreshed after their sleep and would work until quite late in the evening, longer than they would have been able to without the siesta.

While people do still work in the fields in Spain, this reason doesn't account for why shops and businesses in big cities close down today. Indeed, offices can get hot too, but the invention of air conditioning has helped in this department. So why do they still do it?

One reason for the siesta is that there was a law that limited shop trading times to 72 hours per week and eight Sundays a year. With these limits, it made sense for businesses to close when many people are hiding from the heat and stay open later. This would in turn reinforce itself, as people would stay off the streets as all the shops were closed anyway.

A few years back, the law on Spanish business hours was relaxed. They will now be able to stay open for 90 hours a week and ten Sundays a year.

Then, in 2016, the Prime Minister announced that (official) working hours were to end at 6pm rather than 7pm, spelling the (official) end to the two-hour lunch break. 

And, as more and more people work in offices, most of which are now air conditioned, this reason for the siesta is dying away. 

Lunchtime, the Most Important Time of the Day

One big reason for the siesta is that the Spanish like to have a long lunch. At home, mother will cook a huge lunch for the whole family (and yes, that does include for her 35-year-old accountant son, he'll still come home for mommy's cooking).

The meal could last up to two hours (longer if time allows), and alcohol is often included. A rest before going back to work is essential after that.

The Spanish Don't Sleep Enough

According to this Washington Post article,  the Spanish sleep an hour less per night than the World Health Organization recommends, while this article claims the Spanish go to sleep later than any country in the world, after Japan). So why is that?

The main reason is that Spain is in the wrong timezone! Spain shares the Iberian peninsula with Portugal, and, geographically speaking, is almost perfectly aligned with Britain, both of which operate on GMT, while Spain is on Central European Time, which extends as far east as Poland's border with Belarus and Ukraine!

Why is that?

Many articles, such as this one from the BBC, claims that Spain changed its timezone in World War II to 'follow Nazi Germany'.

This is not strictly true. In fact, most of Europe went to Central European Time during World War II, to avoid confusion about when exactly attacks were going to take place. After the war, most countries reverted to their old timezone, but Spain did not. Why? Who knows, but it wasn't to align with Nazi Germany, as the Germans had been defeated. In fact, Spain was allied with the UK and the US in the post-war years as the West tried to keep Spain from falling into the Sovet Union's sphere of influence.

The result is that the sun stays out much later in Spain than in most other European countries, thus encouraging later eating and partying.

The Spanish nightlife is an all-night affair - visitors to Spain are surprised to see the streets just starting to fill up at midnight and are even more surprised to see people in their 60s and 70s still out at 3am. They wouldn't be able to do this without a siesta.

And in winter, it is still dark when most workers get up in the morning. If you get up at 7am, but the circadian rhythms of your body clock tells you it's actually 6am, you're going to feel 'sluggish', as a Spanish report into a proposed changing of the timezone claims. 

Sleeping in the Afternoon is Fun and Good for You!

Another reason why the Spanish stop for siesta is not so much out of need but out of want - the Spanish like stopping for a while at lunch time. It allows them to stay up later in the evening without fading (you'll rarely hear a Spaniard saying 'I think I'll have an early night tonight'). The late nightlife of Spain may have (partially) caused (or maintained) Spain's siesta culture, but it is the chance for a siesta which allows the late night partying lifestyle to continue - and many Spaniards don't want that to change. 

Also, a nap in the afternoon is good for you. The Spanish Society of Primary Care Physicians say that a siesta reduces stress and improves memory, alertness and cardio-vascular performance. They say that siestas should last around 25 minutes to have the optimal benefit. 

The End of the Siesta?

In truth, the siesta had been dying for a while now. Pressure in the job market means that many people are unwilling or unable to take long breaks and air conditioning has helped them to work through the hottest part of the day.

The gradual disappearance of the siesta has not changed the late-night lifestyle, which means the Spanish sleep an average of one hour less per day than other European countries.

Even before the recent law changes and economic pressures of the past few years, the siesta would hit Madrid and Barcelona much less than in Granada or Salamanca. Big supermarkets and department stores in much of the country stay open during the siesta (I don't know why they weren't affected by the old 72-hour-per-week law). In winter, when the heat isn't stifling, this can be a good time to go shopping as many Spaniards will stay away during this time. But be careful, many stores will be closed and you may struggle to get everything done.

But do the Spanish Actually Sleep During the Siesta?

Today's hectic lifestyle will often not allow people the time to sleep, but many still do their best to fit a little nap in when they can. But no, the Spanish office is not equipped with a bed out back for the director to catch forty winks - though I'm sure they'd like one!

See also: Viva la Siesta: Should Southern Europe Really Be More German?