The Siena Horse Race – Palio di Siena

Horses racing in the Palio di Siena
The Siena Horse Race

The Siena horse race, Italy’s most celebrated horse race dates back to 1633. The Palio di Siena is not a typical race, the rules are few, the traditions are involved, the rituals are divine, and the fanaticism is nothing short of fabulous.

The Contrade

So, how do you explain such a perplexing race? Let me start with who competes in it. There are 17 neighborhoods in Siena that have a mascot, as well as colors and emblems. The neighborhoods, or “contrade” are:

  • Caterpillar
  • Dragon
  • Eagle
  • Forest
  • Giraffe
  • Goose
  • Owl
  • Panther
  • Porcupine
  • Ram
  • She-Wolf
  • Seashell
  • Snail
  • Tortoise
  • Tower
  • Unicorn
  • Wave

We have chosen to root for Onda, which is the wave! They warmly invited us into their contrada on our cooking vacations: Wine and Cooking in the Hearth of Chianti and Florence, Tuscany. If you are looking for other culinary vacations in Italy, here is a list of our top 10 cooking vacations in Italy.

Every Contrada for the siena horse race has a Church, museum and mascot
The Statue outside the Onda Church

How do you become part of a contrada?

So the neighborhood you live in is your contrada right? Nope. What happens if you move? What about if you marry out of your contrada? or worse, have a child with someone of another contrada, what contrada would the child be?

Well, if you move, you stay loyal to your original contrada. You wouldn’t stop being a New England Patriots fan just because you moved away from the North East, right? If you marry someone of another contrada, you each keep your lives divided during the weeks leading up to the Palio. You scarcely speak to one another, you might even sleep in different beds.

The customs of the Palio di Siena are as important as the race itself
People dress in medieval costumes for the Palio

What about the kids?

What about your children? You may assume it’s not that important, the child will be what the child will be. But the Sienese take this very seriously. They told us on one of our Tuscan cooking tours, during which they invite us for an insider’s experience, that when a child is born to two parents that come from different contrade, the grandparents take the responsibility of determining the contrada that child will belong to. On the baby’s birthday, both sets of grandparents race to the hospital with a flag donning their contrada’s emblem. Whoever can get to the hospital and get the flag under the baby first, wins. That baby is baptized at that contrada’s church in their very own fountain. Sounds make believe, doesn’t it? It’s THAT important.

The bleacher seats for the race are owned by local restaurants and bars
Children in the bleacher seats waiting for the Palio

Contrada Customs

Each Contrada is very exclusive, They all have their own churches and museums. On our Cooking and Wine Vacation in Tuscany, we are often invited into of one contrada’s museums. Contrada Onda brings our group into their underground museum, where tourists never step foot. On this Tuscan cooking vacation, we get to look at their charming costumes they would wear, see all the prizes they have displayed from their past victories, and learn about their history. And we make some great new friends, too. In fact, Onda has become the Contrada CDV roots for!

It is not easy to be let into the palio Museums
The museums are very exclusive but they invited us in

When is the Siena Horse Race?

The Palio di Siena (Siena Horse Race), takes place twice every year, once on July 2 and once on August 16. The Palio isn’t a one day event though, it lasts four days. It all starts with the tratta, which is the drawing of the lots. Each Contrada that is participating hires a jockey (which is the only paid position in the entire event) but the horses get assigned  from a lot. Then the jockeys practice on their horses twice a day until the actual event, taking care to not over tire or injure the horses before the big day.

One of my favorite parts of the festival is the day before the big race, when they do the “Provaccia”, which is basically the trial race the evening before. It is less crowded, and no less exciting. After the Provaccia, each Contrada has a mega-dinner for its members. All of the streets in the neighborhood are lined with tables, and they celebrate in advance (good call!). Again, you need to know someone or be part of a Contrada to attend this, but when we are there, we are absolutely hanging out in the Onda Zone.

Who Races in the Siena Horse Race?

Of the seventeen contrade, only ten race at a time. So, the seven that didn’t race in the prior Siena horse race will automatically take part in the next one. Just a few days before the race, the remaining spots are picked from a lottery.

How to Watch the Siena Horse Race?

There are a few options for watching the Siena horse race. They really depend on how much money you want to spend, and how often you need to use a restroom.

The Piazza

Access to watch the Siena horse race from the piazza is free, however I wouldn’t suggest bringing children in to watch here. If you want to have a good view of the race, you’ll have to come claim your spot early in the day. There are thousands of people in this small space. You are packed tight like sardines, and there is no way to exit and use a restroom, grab food, or sit down (think New York Times Square on New Years Eve).

Arrive early for the siena horse race if you plan to watch from the Piazza
The Piazza gets completely packed as the day goes on

Stands around the Piazza

The stands around the piazza are owned by local restaurants and bars. You cannot just go to a ticket office to buy your ticket for the stands. If you know someone in Siena, have them ask around and reserve your ticket directly from the bars that own the stands. Be prepared to pay, this is a big sporting event. Premium seats are costly, as they would be at a football game.

Balconies and Rooftops

The Piazza in Siena, like most piazzas in Italy, is surrounded by homes. The people who live here often rent out their balconies, windows, and rooftops for marvelous views, optimal comfort and premium prices. On our Wine and Cooking in the Heart of Chianti and Florence, Tuscany tour, we have gone so far to rent a rooftop to watch the Palio event comfortably, with snacks on hand, and a restroom close by. But if you are looking to do this on your own, you really need to know someone, and be ready to fork over $10,000 or more for the kind of rooftop view we had.

These seats for the Palio di Siena must be purchased
CDV Watching From a Rooftop

About the Siena Horse Race

The Siena horse race consists of ten horses making three laps around the ring. The ring is set up in the center piazza of Siena. They block off the center for viewers to stand and watch for free. The jockey’s, who have no true allegiance to any contrada are often bribing, harassing, and whipping one another.

The horses must all stand in their assigned place, if anybody moves too soon, they begin again. This can take a very long time, its not easy keeping all these horses in an assigned space. Once the race begins, it is over within 90 seconds and if you blink, you might miss it. The first horse to cross the finish line wins, with or without his jockey. The horse crossing without a jockey retain these small feathers on his head. The small feathers indicate which contrada he is racing for.

Tips for the Siena Horse Race

The main tourist office in Siena is in Santa Maria della Scala in Piazza del Duomo. The phone number is+39 0577 280551.

Our Chianti vacation visits Siena, and during the Palio period, we usually attend the Palio itself, or the Provaccia and dinner. Either way, you can walk the beautiful streets and learn about the history of the Siena firsthand.

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