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?
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? - the Traditional ReasonSpain 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.
Why do the Spanish Stop for Siesta? - the Modern InterpretationWhile 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 big reason is because 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). A rest before going back to work is essential after that.
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'). Subsequently, if it has been a really late night, an afternoon sleep can be very welcome.
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.
But another 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.
But in July 2012, 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.
Will this see 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 this law change, 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.