Palio of Siena Festival

Horse Race and Festival in the Piazza of Siena, Italy

Photo of a siena palio
A palio from Siena, showing the symbols for the 10 contrade in the July race, 1989. by Martha Bakerjian

The Palio of Siena

The exciting horse race for the Palio of Siena is one of the most popular and well-known historic festivals in Italy. The contest to win the palio is a horse race run in Siena's fan-shaped main square, Piazza del Campo or Il Campo.

Siena is divided into 17 neighborhoods, or contrade, each with a rider. Ten contrade take part in the first race, July 2, chosen by a draw 20 days before the race. The other seven plus three from the July race compete August 16. Horses are assigned to the riders by a draw three days before the race. There are other events around the days of the palio, too, starting June 29 and August 13.

What is a Palio?

People often mistakenly believe that a palio is a horse race or that the only palio is held in Siena. In fact there are many palio contests in Italy. The palio itself is the banner won in the contest. Find out more with our palio definition.

Siena's Palio Race

Race day starts with a special mass, trial runs by the jockeys, and blessing of the horses. In the afternoon starting around 3pm there's a procession through the historic center of Siena with costumed participants from each contrada and performances by flag throwers. The historic parade ends at Piazza del Campo.

Before the race the starting line-up is decided by lottery and horses are lined up behind a rope, the traditional starting gate. The race is about 1000 meters total, with horses circling the track three times, taking less than two minutes. The contrada of the winning horse is awarded the palio, or victory flag. Winning the palio is a huge honor and the race is highly competitive.

How to See the Siena Palio Race

The palio races are very crowded - you might be able to snag a standing place (there's standing room for about 28,000), but reserved seats (33,000) are usually sold out in advance. You can watch the flag twirling from several places in town; one of the best but most crowded places is by the Duomo. Be sure to book a hotel well in advance - here are Top Rated Siena Hotels.

Buy reserved seat Palio tickets from Select Italy.

Visiting the Tuscany Hill Town of Siena

See our Siena Travel Guide for visitor information, including what to see and do, and check our Tuscany Transportation Map for Siena's location and how to get there by train. For a good overview of the town's highlights, book the half-day guided tour, Discovering Siena's Masterpieces from Select Italy.