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Spanish Hours & Culture Survival Guide

Your Guide: M.S.G. Quixo
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Besides the whole siesta thing, which completely disrupts the Spanish work day and may confuse you, there are a few customs you may want to know about.

Smoking
Honestly the one thing about Spanish culture that makes me want to plan a vacation elsewhere is smoking. Many strides have been made in recent years: kids are no longer allowed to buy cigarettes, there are campaigns against smoking and you are not allowed to smoke in restaurants. Except almost every restaurant has obtained a permit to disregard the law. They just have to warn visitors with a big sticker on the door. And in the smoke free restaurants, people smoke anyway. I sometimes wonder if Spanish food tastes so good because it is infused with a special smoky flavor.

If you hate smoke, you are gonna have to get over it. Or luckily with the Internet it is possible for you to carefully research your eating destinations. Heath food and vegetarian restaurants are a good bet. Just wait till you smell the Ducados, a popular brand of black tobacco cigarettes. Nasty.

Air Kissing
If you are really pretentious and from LA, you are all set. If not, read on. When you greet friends in an informal setting, you will likely be called on to provide an air kiss – one on each cheek. Someone will approach and quickly graze each of your cheeks with his or her cheeks. The first time you experience this, you will undoubtedly get confused and lay a big juicy kiss on them. Don’t do that.

Throwing trash on the floor of a tapas bar
It is kinda cool. In many bars people throw their napkins and toothpicks on the floor. Stray dogs may wander in and nibble on the refuse. But in some bars this is frowned upon. So look for a wastebasket take note of the local custom.

Spanish Hours
While Spain seems to be adopting some unseemly practices, like 9-5 work days and 24 hour markets, there is a basic schedule that visitors should be aware of lest they get stuck desperately searching for open restaurants or stores.

Life in Spain runs on a schedule that can be hard to get used to for visitors from the US and even other European countries.  In fact, Spanish hours have become a big discussion and the government is working to change what some see as bad habits that result in economic problems, long work days and sleep deficits among Spaniards.  You can also check our eating guide, but here are some basics.

The basic schedule: You can generally find café / bars open by 7 am for breakfast. Breakfast is small and you can return for a snack later in the morning. At mid-day cafes, restaurants and bars often close and prepare for the big meal of the day at 1:30 PM. Then most shops and businesses close at 1:30 PM or 2 PM.  If you try to eat much earlier you’ll be the only one in the restaurant and you might get some funny looks from waiters. By 3:30 or 4 PM restaurants stop serving and if you haven’t eaten, you may be stranded! (If you get desperate, in big cities, you can try El Corte Inglés cafeteria or an American style diner like VIPS or Nebraska. But don't go to McDonalds. Please.). Stores start to open at 3:30 and they generally stay open until 8:30 or 9 PM. On Sunday and holidays most shops are closed, so plan ahead with purchases. You’ll still find restaurants and supermarkets open, but don’t count on it!

To review:

7 AM - 11 AM: Eat breakfast, have a mid morning snack. Shop till you drop.

11 AM - 1:30 PM: Cafes and restaurants may be closed, you might as well shop.

1:30 PM - 3:30 PM: Stores and businesses close and you better eat.

3:30 PM - 5:30 PM: Too late, if you want to eat, go to some American style chain. You can't shop so you might as well go to a museum or take a nap.

5:30 PM- 8:30 PM: Nice time for a stroll. And you can shop again! But sorry, it is too early for dinner.

8:30 PM - ? Stores start to close. Eat, drink and attend a cultural event (or go home and watch US TV shows dubbed in Spanish).

On Sundays and holidays everything may be closed.

When planning trips to museums and landmarks, check the schedule; often they are closed on a certain day of the week. For instance, most museums in Madrid are closed Mondays, but Reina Sophia is open and closed on Tuesdays. The Prado is free on Sundays!

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