The Palio di Siena is no ordinary horse race. For more than 500 years, it's been a spirited celebration of community.
Siena, one of Tuscany’s beautiful medieval cities, looks like a movie set. Its perfectly preserved brown brick rooftops, cobblestoned streets, and clocktower transport you back in time—just wandering the city is a true slice of history.
As you meander from street to street, you may glimpse flags and emblems hung from windows and street signs representing each of Siena’s 17 contrade (districts). Each district has its own mascot (including a caterpillar, dragon, eagle, and she-wolf) and colors, as well as its own flag.
A citizen of Siena is a member of a contrada from birth and participates in events with their community throughout the year. Twice a year, on July 2 (the Palio della Madonna di Provenzano) and August 16 (the Palio dell'Assunta), the contrade compete for victory in the Palio di Siena, a tradition that has taken place for more than 500 years.
The Palio di Siena is a horse race that takes place in Siena’s central piazza, Piazza del Campo, which has a uniquely circular shape. In each race, horses (and riders) representing 10 of the 17 contrade face off against each other decked out in their neighborhood’s colors and emblems.
Spectators come dressed in color-coordinated outfits to show their loyalty, too! The race lasts for about 90 seconds as horses and jockeys complete 3 laps around Piazza del Campo amongst an array of cheering fans. The sharp corners of the track can be dangerous, but riders race on, hoping to cross the finish line first and win their contrada the coveted Palio banner.
In the four days leading up to the race, locals prepare with parades, mass, and late-night celebrations. While this might remind you of horse races in the U.S., like the Kentucky Derby, the Palio di Siena is much more similar to the chariot racing of ancient Rome in that there are very few rules! Expect bribery, trickery, and major risk-taking throughout the race, as jockeys ride their horses bareback across the finish line.
Going to Italy next summer? If you find yourself in Tuscany in the summertime, make your way to Siena for this one-of-a-kind cultural experience. Attending the Palio is free, but we recommend getting to Piazza del Campo early and bringing plenty of water, as the area will fill up quickly under the hot Tuscan sun.