Palio di Siena: The Great Italian Horse Race

Rocco Forte Hotels

When summer arrives in Siena, so does the highly-anticipated Palio di Siena, where the 17 districts of the city, also known as contrade, compete in Italy’s most famous horse race. Dating back to 1633, the festival is not only a competitive derby but also an unmissable celebration of the city’s culture, history and tradition.

Just an hour’s drive away from Hotel Savoy, Siena is a beautiful destination for a day trip from Florence, and the Palio is a unique opportunity to see the colours and customs of each contrada burst to life. 

The Day of the Palio

While the racing doesn’t begin until the evening, the Palio is actually a whole-day affair, beginning with an 8am mass, called Messa del Fantino, or Mass for the Jockeys, in the chapel next to the Palazzo Comunale. After this, at around 3pm, each of the horses is individually blessed and the jockeys are officially signed in for racing in front of the Mayor of Siena.  

Later, beginning at around 5pm, the Corteo Storico begins – a historic procession of over 600 participants around the piazza. Spectators can marvel at the crowd clad in mediaeval costumes parading to the sound of the march of the Palio and a squad of sword-wielding carabinieri, the city’s police force, galloping around the track.

After the sound of a firecracker rings through the square, the race, consisting of three laps around the piazza, begins. The horse that crosses the finish line first wins the race for their contrada, even if the jockey is no longer astride. The winning contrada is presented with the Drappellone, a silk canvas, intricately designed and painted each year by a different artist, to be hung in their district museum. 

How to See the Palio di Siena

The Palio occurs twice a year at 7.30pm on the 2nd July and 7pm on the 16th August in Il Campo, the mediaeval, fan-shaped piazza in the heart of Siena, where a ring of tuff clay is placed around the edge to create the racing track. 

Anyone can spectate the race from the piazza for free, but it is important to arrive a couple of hours before the racing begins, to ensure a space. Otherwise, for a more comfortable spectator experience, it is possible to get seats in the grandstands or the surrounding properties on the piazza.

Book your stay at Hotel Savoy in Florence and our concierges can help you plan the perfect day trip to Siena, including tickets for Palio.