Getting started with the Palio di Siena
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The Palio of Siena: much more than a horse race

The Palio di Siena is probably the most famous tradition of this kind in Italy. Even if many tourists come to see the race, the Palio is not organized with tourist purposes or as a simple reenactment. The Palio in Siena is an actual and very serious thing, for the sienesi the two palio are the most important events of the year and that’s why they gather two times every summer in Piazza del Campo.

How was born the Palio di Siena

The origins of the Palio are to be found in those horse races documented since 1200 and in the ancient Palio of San Bonifacio. During the Middle Age the Palio became part of the celebrations for the Assumption of Mary. In the beginning the nobles could run in the Palio; at that time it was a linear race ending in Piazza del Duomo. It was the so called Palio alla lunga. The Palio as we know it, was created in the 17th century, when it was moved to the Piazza del Campo (Palio alla tonda).

When is the Palio di Siena?

As we said, there’s not a unique Palio but two. The first horse race, the “carriera”, takes place on 2 July in honor of the Madonna di Provenzano and the second one the 16 of august for the Assumption. But the Palio is not only a race, every palio is preceded by many events taking place over 4 days and starting with the assignment of the horses at the contrade. When there are special events or exceptional events can be organized also a third “extraordinary” Palio.

The race starts at the 19.30 in July and at 19.00 in August. Very often the ride starts late due to the difficulties of the Mossa (the start of the race).

Siena contrade's flags
Contrade’s flags

Contrade of the Palio di Siena

We can consider the contrade as the districts of the town. Actually ther are 17 contrade but in the past it were 23, the 6 deleted contrade are called the “contrade soppresse” (soppressed).
The contrade are: Aquila (Eagle), Bruco (Caterpillar), Chiocciola (Snail), Civetta (Little Owl), Drago (Dragon), Giraffa (Giraffe), Istrice (Crested Porcupine), Leocorno (Unicorn), Lupa (She-Wolf), Nicchio (Seashell), Oca (Goose), Onda (Wave), Pantera (Panther), Selva (Forest), Tartuca (Tortoise), Torre (Tower) e Valdimontone (Valley of the Ram).
The contrade soppresse were: Gallo (Cock), Leone (Lion), Orso (Bear), Quercia (Oak), Spadaforte (Strong Sword) e Vipera (Viper).

Chianine cows pulling the carroccio on which the Palio is hoisted

Only 10 contrade participate to a Palio. There is a regulation that guarantees the 7 contrade who skipped a palio to participate in the one of the following year. The remaining 3 are drawn.

The count of the victories in the Palio goes on from 1600 and now, after 657 races, the most winning contrada is the Oca with 63 victories.

The Palio di Siena
Onda, Oca and Chiocciola

The regulation of the Palio di Siena

The regulation, as the Palio, was created a long time ago and still apply some rules that date back to 1644. Let’s try to explain some of the most important of these rules.

How are the horses assigned?

The horses assignment to the contrade (called Tratta) takes place during the morning of the third day preceding that of the Palio. This process has three phases: presentation, choice and assignment.
Presentation: The first phase consists in the presentation of the horses. Owners of eligible horses for the Palio can propose them for the race. When there aren’t enough horses, the municipality find the others needed.
Choice: After some tests and veterinary visits are chosen the 10 runners who are assigned a number. The chosen horses are then accompanied in an enclosure near the Palazzo Comunale.
Assignment: The assignment takes place in public on a stage set up by the municipality. There are two urns: the first one contains the numbers that identify the horses, the second one contains the name of the participating contrade. Then are matched horses amd contrade by extraction.

Starting positions:

Even the starting positions are the result of a draw which is revealed only when the horses enter in the square. The first 9 horses are arranged in a row between two ropes that mark the starting point of the race (the“mossa”); the tenth horse start in a run-up position behind the others. When this horse get into the area between the two ropes, the race begin.

Palio di Siena Istrice
Istrice, Chicciola, Lupa… (Photo by Janus Kinase / CC BY)

The race!

Once the first nine horses are placed along the departure in the order which was raffled and the tenth get into the starting grid, the starter (called “Mossiere“) activates a mechanism that drops the front rope and the race begin.

The race consists of 3 full laps of the square. The first horse to complete these 3 laps wins. Essential to emphasize that it is the horse that wins, in fact if the rider falls down, the horse could continue and win as has already happened in the past!




The Palio di Siena the race
Palio di Siena the race – Aquila and Selva

The race track

Everyone knows that the Palio takes place in Piazza del Campo, in particular along the external part of the square beyond the columns, which is paved with stone slabs that for the occasion are covered with a layer of earth composed of tuff, clay and sand. The square has a peculiar “shell” shape in which there are two very challenging curves, the curve of San Martino and the curve of the Casato. These two curves represent the most dangerous points of the route. In particular, the Curva di San Martino, which has a downward trend, has often been the protagonist of clashes and accidents. The course measures 339 meters in total, which multiplied by 3 makes 1017 meters, which is the total distance of the race. Generally the Palio lasts a little over a minute, with an average of about one minute and 15 seconds.

What wins the winner of the Palio di Siena?

The main prize for the winner is a Palio (a silk banner painted). In addition to the Palio, the municipality gives to the winning contrade a prize of 70 silver coins for the Palio of the 2 July, and 50 silver coins for that on in 16 August. These coins reproduce those of the ancient Republic of Siena.

Now, you might be wondering: “How to see the Palio?”
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