Experiencing the Palio di Siena: 10 things you need to know
Oh my word, you guys! I don’t really have an actual bucket list, but if I did, attending the Palio of Siena would definitely be on it. After years of reading about, researching and dreaming about the Palio, we finally made our plans and included it in our “last hurrah” trip before moving back to America. What a hurrah it was!
The Palio di Siena is the infamous exciting and brutal 90 second bareback horse race with nearly no rules in Siena, Tuscany. However, its so much more than that and is a medieval event like none other. The first modern Palio started in 1656, but before that was held in other forms (at one point they rode buffalo outside the city walls!) it dates back to 1100.
The race revolves around the city’s 17 neighborhoods (contrade) competing against each other with a lightening fast bareback race 3 times around the main town square (Piazza del Campo). Most often you are born into a contrada and stay faithful your whole life- there’s no switching around!
10 contrade out of the 17 are chosen for each race and the fantino (rider) of each contrada meets his horse the first day when horses are assigned. Throughout the 4 day event, there are prova (trials) held on the campo so the horses and riders can get used to the track and each other. There are also parades, and feasts and other events held all week that add to the festive medieval atmosphere.
The Sienese are very passionate people and see anyone outside of their city and even outside their contrada as foreigners. That being said, if you respect them and this special time and tradition, they will go out of their way to share their history and passion for Il Palio with you.
For a visitor like myself, the Palio is not an event- it is an experience. We had been to Siena many times, and loved it- but there is something electric about being in Siena the week of the Palio. Our experience blew my mind, and shattered many pre-concieved ideas I had about the event and the Sienese people in general.
The locals don’t just celebrate the Palio- they live, eat & breathe it.
The Palio is in their blood.
I was so overwhelmed gathering and sorting through information when I was dreaming and planning our trip. I am no expert, but our experience turned out better than I could have ever dreamed, and I’d love to share some tips to help guide you as you do your own research and preparations to attend.
1 | Plan Ahead.
This race is a BIG deal. Things can book up a year or more in advance. If you want to fully immerse yourself in the experience and enjoy every second- you must plan ahead. Book your lodging, buy your tickets, plan where you will be viewing the race & other events from. These are the most important decisions to do ahead of time. Later, you can talk about meals and book dinner reservations, when the time gets closer.
2| Stay in the Center.
Pick your lodging carefully. Trust me when I say that this will make or break your Palio experience. I fully understand the romantic notion of staying in the Tuscan countryside- and driving in to Siena each day. However, I do not recommend it for this event. (A perfect compromise would be 4-5 nights in Siena, followed by 4 in the countryside or at the sea to relax and recover from all the excitement of the Palio!)
We stayed in the center of Siena and it was perfect. You park once, walk everywhere and can easily be a part of the crowds of passionate locals when you are staying in the center of the excitement. Finding a lodging with great A/C is also key to this event if you aren’t used to living with out it. It was super hot while we were there, and our A/C at Il Battistero was heavenly. I think we heard the angels singing when we walked into the room to relax in between exploring and those hot events outside! (see #7)
3 | Embrace the WHOLE event.
Many people miss out by just coming for the day of the race. The actual race of Il Palio is very short, just 90 seconds give or take. There is a lot to see & do that day, but the pageantry and events that lead up to that moment are so important and very special to be a part of. You can feel the excitement and passion building all week, and that inside look is priceless. If your schedule allows, stay for all 4 days (ideally 5 nights)
The Prova (trial races) are very exciting to watch and be part of. If you have reserved seating on a balcony or in an apartment for the actual race, it’s fun to experience at least 1 of the Prova down at Campo level, when it’s less crowded than Palio day.
4 | Book Seats for the Race.
Unless you want to stand in the center of the campo crushed together with thousands of people and no bathrooms or shade, I advise you to bite the bullet and reserve seats. There are many varying seat options & prices, and your hotel can help you ahead of time in determining your choices, or talk to Jacopo della Torre, known as the palio expert.
We worked directly with our B&B (Il Battistero) and had a wonderful time seeing the race (and prova) from their apartment overlooking the square. It was worth every penny to have drinks, snacks, bathrooms, fans circulating the air and the best part was the knowledge our host, Giovanni shared throughout the entire week. His passion was contagious and we experienced the Palio at a whole other level than many who come for just the day.
5 | Pick a contrada to root for & celebrate with all week.
This just adds to the experience and festive atmosphere. Our kids had great fun buying the fazzoletto (scarves) which have the coat of arms for each contrada on them but proudly wore their Torre throughout the week, since we were going for our host’s contrada.
With special arrangements, you might even be able to attend the blessing of the horse held in each contrada’s church the afternoon of the race. Our host arranged for us to attend while we were there, and it was one of the most emotional times of the whole week. Standing shoulder to shoulder among hundreds of silent contradaioli as the priest blessed the horse- I swear you could hear a pin drop. Followed by the most heart thumping emotional sing a long of their song, and the blessing from the priest, “Go out and return Victorious!”
6 | Attend a contrada feast.
If your host can arrange this for you- this is a must do event! Our first visit to Siena years ago was a few weeks after the Palio and the streets were still lined with long tables for celebratory feasts. I dreamed of being able to join in on one of these events when we planned our Palio week. Luckily, our host arranged tickets for all the B&B guests to attend with him.
Each of the 17 contrade have many dinners during the weeks before and after the race- but the special one is the night before Il Palio. Each contrade serves between 800-1500 people that night and my mind was spinning all night trying to imagine what organization it would take to prepare and serve that many people.
The atmosphere was lively and although we were definitely outsiders, we loved being surrounded by the passionate neighbors who are literally like family. Their passion was contagious as they sang songs and celebrated their horse and fantino (rider).
It’s 1 am and we’ve just returned from the Pantera contrada dinner. Ours was the smallest with “only” around 850 people. Love this town, the people and their passion for tradition + their beloved Palio. Tomorrow (July 2) is the big day! The Selva contrada party outside my window is still going strong. Goodnight all! (I hope…) #paliopassion
7 | H.P.R (Hydrate, Pace yourself, Rest).
Whether you attend the July or August Palio, it’s bound to be brutally hot during your stay. All of the events are outside, so hydrating is a MUST. If you are there for the whole week like we were, it’s important to rest and cool off in between events. There was plenty of time for us to explore the streets of Siena, visit some spots we hadn’t been to before, and return to some of our favorites (the crypt!)
8 | Enjoy the celebrations after the race.
After the race is done, the celebrating will continue into the wee hours of the night. Enjoying the celebrations by sitting in or around the Piazza is a great way to enjoy the end of the day. My son wanted to go lay in the middle of the campo and we all joined him and looked at the stars, the campanile and listened to the drums and singing all around us. It was a truly wonderful moment.
9| Explore the streets of the winning contrada.
Our week was busy enough that we never made it to the Torre neighborhood before the race. Because they won the Palio, it was a fun time to go the next day and see the continued revelry and excitement and get some photos of their streets decked out with the Torre flags.
We also went to the newstand and purchased the special edition paper with all the photos and information about the palio- the perfect keepsake for your Palio Adventure! You will see members of the victorious contrada (contradaioli) wearing and sucking on pacifiers. This signifies the victory being like the birth of a baby.
10 | Be respectful.
Out of all of these tips, Most of all be respectful & remember you are a visitor. This is definitely a local affair, not put on for tourism.
The Palio is a longstanding historic part of the people & culture of Siena. They take it very seriously and you will get a taste of how serious they are about it but will never fully know the significance of what it means to each of them. Their passion is amazing and will take your breath away at times.
- Try to be invisible and enjoy the celebration without making it about you. It is not.
- Speak quietly- especially at key points of the race.
- When walking in the streets, stay to the side out of the way of the horses & jockeys, or groups of contrada members celebrating.
- Be respectful when taking photos, don’t be pushy, again- be as invisible as possible!
The Palio of Siena is an incredible thing to experience. I hope you can go sometime. Pinch yourself and soak it all in.
Enjoy enjoy enjoy!
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