Il Palio is Italy’s most famous sporting event and considered one of the craziest festivals in Italy whose roots date back to medieval times. It’s held on two separate days, where 10 horse riders, representing 10 out of Siena’s 17 neighborhoods (known as contrada) race 1,000 meters in under two minutes to compete for the Palio, which is the victory flag.
Race day starts with a mass, train runs conducted by the jockeys, then a blessing of the horses. The afternoons fill the gorgeous medieval streets of Siena with processions from the participants dressed in elaborate costumes, plus performance from the flag throwers. Even though the race lasts for less than two minutes, it’s hard not to feel the pulsating energy course through your veins as the crowds cheer on and the horses’ footsteps echo through the piazza! The horses circle the track thrice all in all. The second race day is consisted of the other 7 contrada who weren’t able to compete during the first race, as well as three riders from the first race, which are drawn by lottery.
‘This is not your average horse race. In fact, Il Palio is actually more about Sienese pride and civic identity.’
Even though Il Palio has been held every year since 1644, it’s still common for Italian husband and wives to separate for the dates before and during the race if their contradas are competing.
On the days leading up to the race, keep your eyes peeled for la tratta, which is the traditional method of choosing the horses; as well as the 6 horse trials held on the evening of la tratta up to race day. Before race day, make sure you’ve chosen a contrada whom you can root for because it will make the entire experience way more fun. After deciding on one, buy the appropriate scarf which can easily be found for cheap at souvenir shops around the city. If your contrada wins, you might get lucky enough to attend the prestigious victory dinner!
For the Italians, this is a highly regarded festival and so winning the palio is a massive honor. For tourists, you’re guaranteed a truly thrilling experience with an electric atmosphere that no other event in Italy can match.
Il Palio is held on the Piazza del Campo, and it’s worth traveling to Siena, Italy at least three days before the race. You’ll see that the Piazza del Campo has already been transformed into a race track, as the entire neighborhood prepares for the annual race.
The Il Palio races have a standing place for around 28,000 people (first come, first served basis) and 33,000 reserved seats, which are usually booked far in advance. The easiest way to see the race is to check out the cordoned-off section at the piazza’s center, which the locals call ‘il palco dei cani’, meaning, ‘the dogs’ stand’. It’s completely free but if you want to secure a seat here, you should come early in the morning and be prepared to wait. The historic flag twirling can be watched from several viewpoints in the stunning town of Siena, although if you can snag a seat at the Duomo this will give you world-class views of the race.
For exploring Siena’s historic center, you can only go by foot, bike, or scooter since vehicles aren’t allowed. But for traveling further distances, your options are taxis, buses, and car rental.
The centro storico of Siena has several great hotel choices, but do remember that they do get fully booked many months before Il Palio. If you aren’t able to get hotel rooms here, check out the hotels and Airbnb’s right outside the center. As long as you base yourself close by a train station that heads east for Chiusi, you’ll be good.
Siena is one of Italy’s most famous cities, for good reason! Its rich history is very much alive in its brick buildings, medieval architecture, and the charming streets.
There’s tons of cultural and historical attractions to fill up your days here. But make sure you pack your appetite: Siena’s traditional dishes are mouthwatering! Grilled meat, pappardelle pasta, wild boar, and so much more. Oh, and all the best Italian wine you can handle. Seriously.
Il Palio will take place on June 29th – July 2nd and the second Palio is from August 13th – 16th, 2019.
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