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A quick guide to understand Spain’s peculiar hours

When visiting Spain, you will undoubtedly notice that time operates differently here as if we were out of sync with the rest of mankind. Well, actually, we are.

If you don’t do your homework prior to traveling you might quickly find yourself in a totally different time zone, constantly looking down at your watch to see if something’s wrong. You might end up having lunch at 13:00 and dinner at 19:00 in totally empty restaurants, try to do a little shopping only to find all the shops closed. You will soon realize that you are always two hours off from any “normal” schedule you are used to. ¡Welcome to Spain!

A bit of history

Firstly, our country is in the wrong time zone. We are geographically so far West that we should share time zone with London or Lisbon (Greenwich Mean Time) when we are currently on Central European Time, sharing time with Budapest, located over 2,500 km East of Madrid! This oddity dates back to the 1940’s when dictator Franco decided to move the clocks one hour forward to be in line with Nazi Germany. Because we Spaniards are firm in our ways and had other things to worry about such as a major Civil War, we never changed our old habits so our 13:00 lunch was simply pushed forward to 14:00 in line with the time zone change and same goes for our dinner time. This change, made purely for strategic convenience, was never reverted after the war so in essence, our official time does no coincide with solar time.

Moreover, during those times of hardship, most men, being the primary providers, had to work several jobs, one in the morning and a second one in the afternoon/evening. And of course, the family waited until Daddy came back home to have dinner, which was often not before 21:00.

To complicate the matter, it can get very hot in this part of the continent, therefore it is not practical or healthy to be working during the hottest hours of the day, hence this long break from 14:00 to 17:00.

A typical Spaniard’s day

From the chart below, you can clearly see the two-hour shift in every aspect of Spanish life compared to our European counterparts:

Source: El País, based on data from Eurostat

From a late breakfast following a short night, we essentially begin on the wrong foot and it all goes downhill from that point forward. Since we do not eat lunch until late, we tend to have a second breakfast mid-morning and an afternoon snack to hold ourselves over until dinner. At 17:00 we force ourselves back into the work groove until 20:00 or 21:00; this means that we do not start to watch our favorite series or movie until 22:30, which does not end until midnight or later. Then back to the vicious cycle. So if anyone is out of sync, don’t worry, it’s not you!

Lunch, dinner and everything in between

Lunch in Spain normally takes place between 14:30 and 15:30 and dinner between 21:00 and 22:00 during weekdays but often later during weekends. Don’t be surprised if you walk by cafes and eateries at 22:30 and find them packed with families and young children that have just sat down to eat.

It is not unusual either to see a Spanish family finishing a late lunch on a weekend at the same time as a British family arrives for their early dinner, everyone looking at each other like they’re out of place!

In the summer, this is even more exacerbated when families take advantage of the long days to stay on the beach until past 21:00 when the sun goes down making for an even later dinner.

Business hours

Our peculiar lifestyle impacts every aspect of life including business hours which splits the workday in two. With a very long midday break, often misunderstood as a “siesta” or nap time (which sound great in theory but in reality is not practical), it is difficult to be productive during so many hours.
Figures speak for themselves: nearly half of the country is still at work past 18:00 and 10% is still working past 21:00.

But we Spaniards always find ways to work around the system, that’s in our DNA. This can be quite frustrating though when you walk into an administrative office at 09:30 and half the staff has “gone out for breakfast” when the office literally just opened a half hour before! That hour wasted on a second breakfast surely could be better spent going home an hour earlier.

Negative effects

The current business practices show that we Spaniards suffer negative health and economic effects due to this outdated tradition. In comparison to the rest of Europe, we sleep an average of one hour less and work longer hours which, naturally, has a direct impact on our health, productivity, social and family lives. In short, we live in a permanent state of jetlag.

Back to the future

When asked, most Spaniards would actually prefer to switch to a more standard European “9 to 5” format. Every year, numerous proposals are put on the table to either ignore the daylight savings or to change Spain’s clocks back to its natural GMT hour. However, it is easier to change the clock than people’s habits so it does not look like anything is going to change anytime soon. When visiting our country, we suggest you keep this in mind to avoid feeling as jet-lagged as we do!

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