The Real Reason Spaniards Take Siestas

Spanish culture has long embraced the midday nap. But why do they do it? And do they still? Here’s what travelers need to know.

Mature man having a siesta next to an old blue wooden boat at La Malvarrosa Beach, in Valcencia Spain

A study found that about 17 percent of Spaniards still take a siesta four or more times a week.

Photo by Kauka Jarvi/Shutterstock

The after-lunch sleep is common to many cultures around the world. It’s a physiological thing: After a copious meal on a hot day, the digestive system needs downtime. But the Spanish siesta (the word derives from the Latin sexta, referring to the afternoon “sixth hour” of the Roman timetable) is a special case. Sancho Panza, Don Quixote’s sidekick in the great novel by Cervantes, confessed to hitting the hay for “four or five hours” after a big lunch. During the 34 years I’ve lived in Spain, I’ve often seen Spaniards check out the siesta possibilities of a given situation—a nice shady spot under a fig tree, a mattress on the floor of the wine cellar—well before the big lunch begins.

The historic origins of the siesta

When and how the siesta first took root as a custom is unclear. One commonly cited historical reference is the Rule of Saint Benedict of Nursia (480–543 B.C.E.), whose instructions for monastic life include mandatory silence during the hour between 2 and 3 p.m. The tradition seems to have stuck here in Spain, a Catholic country, and was adapted to the rhythm of local life. Before the tourist boom of the 1960s, when Spain was a mainly agricultural economy, it made sense for country people to rest during the central hours of the day, especially if they’d been up with the lark to attend to their rural tasks. The commercial timetable, which ran from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. (it’s still observed in the retail sector), reflected the routine of people who worked in towns but tended to go home for lunch and an afternoon rest before returning to the workplace.

The tradition is fading

Today, you can forget the three-course lunch with wine in the big air-conditioned offices of Madrid and Barcelona. Instead, it’s a sandwich at your desk and a coffee from the machine, because you’ve got a Zoom call with New York at 3 p.m. The traditional catnap has no place in the life of a professional working a nine-to-five day. Jesús Egea, an executive at the Madrid branch of German engineering firm Siemens, says, “The idea of anyone dozing off during our lunch break, which only lasts 45 minutes, would be unthinkable—though I did once see someone asleep on the floor of the company archive.”

There’s no doubt the siesta is less and less prevalent. A 2016 survey by research company Simple Lógica found that 57.9 percent of Spaniards “never” sleep the siesta, and a mere 17.6 percent do so more than four times a week. Physiologist Maria Ángeles Bonmatí, a researcher at the Carlos III Health Institute in Madrid, recently co-authored a study showing that 70 percent of Spaniards aged 18 to 34 do not observe the custom and that only 10 percent take a siesta on both work and leisure days. “So it seems this is a habit that is decreasing among the younger generation,” she reflects.

The irony is that, like those species that are discovered just as they’re about to become extinct, the benefits of a postprandial nap are now widely supported by science. Bonmatí notes its positive effects on metabolism and blood pressure, while a 2023 study by scientists at the University of London points to increased brain volume (an important factor in mental well-being, as well as a brake on dementia) and improved learning capacity.

Traditional wisdom in Spain puts the length of the ideal siesta at 20 minutes. A recent online post by the Sleep Foundation (an educational arm of the sleep wellness product company Sleep Doctor) agrees, stating that 10 to 30 minutes is the optimal length—and that even a 10-minute power nap can help “boost alertness, mood, memory, and reduce stress.”

“A teacher once told me that the more he slept, the less he lived. That view is totally wrong,” says Bonmatí, whose title of her recent book, Que Nada Te Quite el Sueño: Por Qué Dormir Es Fundamental Para Tu Salud (Let Nothing Keep You Awake: Why Sleep Is Basic to Your Health) (Editorial Crítica, 2023), pretty much tells it like it is.

What travelers should know about the siesta before going to Spain

Though the siesta is less strictly observed than ever, it’s still true that Spanish life tends to grind to a halt just after midday. Most retail establishments remain firmly closed from 2 to 5 p.m. and sometimes later. (A great exception is the El Corte Inglés department stores, found in all major cities, which stay open all day, have AC throughout, and are practically deserted during the broiling heats of high summer.) Interestingly, it’s still thought rude to make personal phone calls at “siesta time,” whether or not the recipient is known to favor a spot of shut-eye in the afternoon.

For me, a resident of three decades’ standing, la siesta is not just a boon but a luxury. It seems to me one of Europe’s great civilizing inventions, militating against the capitalist push for ever greater productivity. As the big Spanish lunch winds gently to a close, I can already feel my eyelids heavy, my limbs enfeebled. That’s when I’ll totter toward my favorite couch and blanket, read a few pages, and sink deliciously into full-on REM sleep. Outside the sun is blazing; in here, it’s cool and dark. Often I’ll ignore the 20-minute rule and emerge refreshed after an hour or two in slumberland. The after-lunch sleep might be a dying art, but I say “¡Viva la siesta!”

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