Last updated: 09:00 PM ET, Mon October 17 2016

Things To Know Before You Go To The Palio in Siena, Italy

Things To Know Before You Go To The Palio in Siena, Italy

 Photo by A Cruising Couple

Combine the elegance of the Kentucky Derby with the raw carnage and enthusiasm of NHL hockey and you get what is essentially Siena's most highly esteemed sport. The Palio is a horse race like none we have ever witnessed before. 

If your travel dates happen to line up with this enthusiastic event, then you are in for a treat.


Siena Tuscany

 Photo by A Cruising Couple

The first modern day Palio was held all the way back in 1633 in the Piazza del Campo where it is still held today. When the Grand Duke of Tuscany outlawed bullfighting in 1590, the residents turned to organized racing instead, first on buffalo back, then donkey, and eventually horseback.

Four days of festivaties lead up to the race days which are held on July 2nd and August 16th of every year. Only 10 of the 17 contrade, districts or neighborhoods of the city, qualify to participate in each race. The seven contrades which did not compete in the previous year's Palio are automatically entered, and the three others are chosen by drawing lots.

Watching the Race

Palio Parade Siena Tuscany

 Photo by A Cruising Couple

Before the race begins, the contrades parade around the city in full medieval armor, banners waving as they chant their neighborhood anthems.

Once the parade has concluded, spectators make their way to the grand Piazza del Campo. Seats are costly and sell out far in advance so you'll likely make your way into the center of the plaza where the race will circle around you. The center of the town square is packed to capacity, and local police seal the entrances for the festivities to begin.

How The Race Works

Palio Horse Race Siena Tuscany

 Photo by A Cruising Couple

You'll know the race is about to start as there will be a massive explosion signaling the horses to the starting line. Nine of the ten horses, enter a space between 2 ropes. The tenth horse waits outside. When the last horse finally enters the space between the ropes, the starter drops the front rope, and the race has begun.

This process, however, can take a very long time and is prone to multiple restarts, as deals are usually made between various contrade and jockeys that affect when the last horse moves. For example, the last jockey may wait for a particular contrade's horse to be well- or badly-placed to gain an edge.

Deals between contrade's are very common in the Palio. Rules allow riders to use their whips not only for their own horses but also for disturbing other horses and riders. It's common for a contrade to make a deal with another to distract the horse or jockey of a rival neighborhood. With such a long history, many rivalries have built up over the years and in the Palio, it is just as much cause for celebration to see your rival contrade loose as it is for yours to win.

Palio Siena Tuscany

 Photo by A Cruising Couple

Four days of horse selection, trials, parades, and feasts all come down to less than 90 seconds of actual racing. The participants race around the track just three times. With steep banked turns and only bareback riding permitted, it's common for jockeys to tumble off their horses midrace. Fortunately for them, they don't have to be on the horse in order to win. It is actually the horse who wins the Palio, not the rider, so a horse that finishes first without a jockey is still crowned champion.

Once the race is finished, the riders and horses exit the stadium though it is not uncommon for fights to break out between rival districts before the stadium doors are opened — especially if a jockey chose to race dirty by distracting another's horse or rider. Once the stadium is emptied, the winning contrade is paraded around the city and preparations for the next Palio begin.

Are you planning to see a Palio in Siena or have you already been? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!