The Palio Di Siena is one of Italy’s most famous sporting events and one that attracts significant tourists to the region. However, while people flock to Siena to witness this bareback horse race, it is perhaps the pomp and ceremony that surrounds the event that is the main draw, with the race itself lasting just 75 seconds on average.
The Palio Di Siena is held twice a year, on the 2nd of July and 16th of August, to honour the Virgin Mary. The centrepiece of the event is a horserace in which 10 of the city’s seventeen local districts, or contrade, participate. The remaining seven automatically qualify for the next race, while the other 10 are entered into a lot by which the three additional districts are selected.
Unlike many of Italy’s events, joists and historical pageants, the Palio Di Siena was not conceived with the main intention of attracting tourists. It is an ingrained tradition that has been held since 1644, and it has deep local significance. On race day, the 60,000-strong crowds that flock to Piazza del Campo to watch the race consist of around two-thirds local Sienese and one-third Italians and guests from further afield. In fact, the Sienese take the event so seriously that locals who are in mixed marriages, i.e., marriages with people from different districts to their own, will traditionally separate for the few days running up to the race day if both the husband and wife’s native contrades are participating in the race.
This all means that visitors to the city during race day are met with an electrifying atmosphere the likes of which very few of the world’s sporting events can compete. However, the sheer popularity of the event also means that you need to plan your visit well in advance, because tickets are certainly not easy to come by.
Siena Palio: Frequently Asked Questions
On what dates is the Siena Palio?
The race is held twice a year, on July the 2nd and August the 16th. However, many of the events surrounding the race commence three to four days in advance, so it is worth booking a visit of around five days.
The race commences at dusk (much to the dismay of photographers who are hoping to get a great shot of the action).
What events outside the race are of interest?
Two events that are definitely worth attending are the la tratta, which takes place a couple of days before the event on June 29 and August 13, and the six horse trials, which commence on the evening of la tratta and run through to Palio day. If you are interested in viewing the latter, you will need to ensure you have bagged a spot in the central area of the Piazza del Campo, which is cordoned off for spectators by 8.40 am for the morning trials and 7.15pm for the evening trials.
Another major Palio tradition that is not to be missed is the pre-race dinner celebrations that each district hold in their respective main streets the night before the main event on the 1st of July and 15th of August. Communal tables are erected in each contrada’s main street or piazza, and thousands of people flock to the celebrations. Unfortunately, these are ticket-only events that are typically reserved for the local residents. However, if you have a connection on the inside, you may be able to secure a seat. Alternatively, it is worth turning up at the HQ of one of the districts a day or two before the dinner to enquire as to whether any tickets are remaining. If you do manage to get hold of one, you can expect to pay around €50 per person.
On race day itself, don’t miss the two-hour long historical procession in which residents dress in the costumes of the Sienese Republic of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, a time when Siena was the financial capital of Italy with a population as large as that of Paris.
How can I watch the Palio?
You have three options.
The only free place from which to watch the race is in the cordoned-off area in the centre of the piazza. The biggest advantage of this viewing area is that you can simply show up on race day without having to book tickets in advance. However, it is not without its disadvantages; the locals call it il palco dei cani, or ‘the dogs’ stand’, for a reason!
You will have to arrive early (around five hours before the race) and will have a long, uncomfortable wait. It gets very busy in this viewing area, and there are no toilet facilities available. Make sure you bring hats, refreshment, and sun block. It is most certainly not a suitable place for children!
The second place from which you can watch the race is from the relative luxury of the grandstands (palchi) that are erected around the racetrack. Unfortunately, tickets for these seats are not freely available. The Palchi are owned and operated by the restaurants and shops that they are erected in front of, and these venues sell tickets many months in advance of the race. Your best bet is to try and buy one a year in advance if you really have your heart set on seeing the race from a good vantage point. The seats closest to the start and finish line (the mossa) are the most expensive and you can expect to pay anywhere between €160 and €350 per seat.
The third alternative, and the priciest, is from the windows and balconies of the houses overlooking the central square. The aristocratic owners of these properties charge extremely high prices to visitors who seek a privileged vantage point: you can expect to pay at least €350.
Making the Most of the Race
Regardless where you choose to watch the race, select a district to support in advance. Donning the scarf of your chosen contrada (readily available at the local gift shops) and shouting the horse on from the sidelines majorly enhances the experience. It you want to go the whole hog, make sure you catch the horse and jockey blessing ceremony at the official contrada church on the day of the Palio. Don’t be surprised if the locals erupt into mad cheers in response to the horse leaving a calling card on the church floor; it’s considered to be a good omen.
If the horse you are supporting wins, you can even try showing up at the victory dinner at the fortunate district that evening. Your adoptive contradaioli will be either too elated or intoxicated to resent your appearance.
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