The horse race that stops Siena

The centre of the Italian city of Siena is normally a peaceful place, popular with tourists and locals. But when horses are let loose, everything changes.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. He has been a journalist for more than 20 years and has travelled the world full time since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


Palio di Siena horse race, Italy

Standing here, you can imagine the thundering of hooves and the roaring of the spectators.

The energy must be incredible, thousands of people crammed together in the centre of the square as the horses race around them. Encircled and squashed, there would be nothing to do but shout with the crowd.

Il Palio, Siena horse race, siena, tuscany, italy

Twice a year, here in Siena’s Piazza del Campo, one of the world’s most famous horses races takes over the city. The Palio di Siena is no ordinary race… but more on that shortly.

Today, things are much more sedate. It’s a warm and sunny spring afternoon and the piazza is full of people sitting on the ground, catching some rays, eating a snack or talking with their friends.

The shadow of the tower from the imposing Palazzo Pubblico casts a shadow over the ground and moves like a sundial. The people who end up in its darkness shuffle back into the light… the whole process continues slowly as the shadow marks the passage of the day.

Il Palio, Siena horse race, siena, tuscany, italy

On the days of the Palio di Siena (or Il Palio as it’s generally known) there is no such calm. Nor is there room to sit on the ground.

The outside of the piazza becomes a racetrack and is covered with turf. The inside becomes the main spectator area and thousands of people are squeezed in and then locked into the area just before the race starts.

Il Palio, Siena horse race, siena, tuscany, italy

Ten horses compete. I say ‘horses’ rather than ‘jockeys’ because the rules clearly state it’s the first horse across the line that wins, regardless of whether the rider is still attached.

The race is run bareback and, with some tough corners, the jockey doesn’t always make it to the end. It’s also a rough race where the riders are allowed to use their whips on the other competitors, so that doesn’t help their chances.

Il Palio, Siena horse race, siena, tuscany, italy

One of the reasons Il Palio is so rough is tradition. The race was first run in 1656. In that day – and still to this day, as a matter of fact – it is a competition between the different districts of Siena.

Much like any football league around the world, the crowd is often just as happy if their archrivals don’t win than if they do themselves. There are apparently even some dirty tactics that go on sometimes, with two or more districts secretly agreeing to gang up on another.

Historic centre of Siena

You wouldn’t know there was such a simmering hostility beneath the surface from walking around the city. The historic centre of Siena is as beautiful and charming as I’ve come to expect from the old cities of Tuscany.

For instance, the Duomo, with a similar Tuscan Gothic style as the one in Florence, is considered one of the finest in the whole country. The streets of the old city are full of pedestrians (most tourists) and mainly without cars in the historic parts.

Il Palio, Siena horse race, siena, tuscany, italy
Il Palio, Siena horse race, siena, tuscany, italy
Il Palio, Siena horse race, siena, tuscany, italy
Il Palio, Siena horse race, siena, tuscany, italy

It’s one of those places that is a pleasure to walk around, to peek into the stores selling crafts, stop for a coffee in one of the bars or sit for a while in the squares and watch life go by.

Il Palio, Siena horse race, siena, tuscany, italy

I can imagine what Siena is like when the Il Palio roadshow comes to town. I’m sure it’s a lot of fun. I do like city like this, though.


This site is on the UNESCO World Heritage List!
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19 thoughts on “The horse race that stops Siena”

  1. Glorious photos, Michael! I’ve been in Siena twice and love the city very much. I like best of all your panoramas of Siena. I’d like to visit the Paio, some day.

    • I know, right? I love that because there is such rivalry between the districts, they let it be such a free-for-all because everyone wants to see the other guy come off his horse!

  2. Siena and actually Tuscany in general is pretty high on my Italy list. Though that list is also pretty long. I definitely know that I would avoid the time of the horse race though. We did Tomatina last year and Carnivale this February and I am really done with crowded places. Beautiful town though.

    Did you go after TBU?

  3. I learned about the Palio while in Florence a few years ago, and my friend was at the same time spending a month in Siena. I was sad to learn we were heading to Rome before the Palio. My friend said though, for a young Canadian girl in Siena during the Palio…it was actually kind of scary what with the crowds, the intense rivalries, and the young Italian men looking for summer flings. I think it was quite the experience, but one she recommends witnessing from a balcony instead of down in the crowds (though apparently, these are ridiculously expensive to get a hold of during the race).

    I loved the comparatively quiet day I spent in Siena though. A lovely town.

    • That doesn’t surprise me at all. I guess it’s like any big event with crowds (Carnivale, etc) – you’re always going to have a bit of trouble with that many people in that kind of situation.

  4. I love festivals, races, and events in a foriegn city/country. They totally add to the experience and make the overall culture more evident. I always try to plan our travel clubs trips during festivals and events like this! I’ll have to add Siena to the bucket list!

  5. Siena is one of my favorite towns in Tuscany. I love it’s narrow pathways and small town feel even though it has a major university. I have to give props to Rick Steves for turning me onto this little gem so many years ago. One day, I would love to go back to see the horse race.

  6. Went to see the Palio a few years ago. Stood in the middle of the Piazza and watched the horses go by – it lasted all of two laps (approx 1 minute).

    Make sure you’re there for the whole festival – then you can see more than one race (there are several qualifiers). I think there are 17 ‘contrade’ (the districts that Michael mentions) in Siena, and only about 6-7 race in the final.

    It really is an amazing experience – like Turtle says, there are two events each year, and it costs nothing to stand in the centre of the Piazza. My tip would be to get there early so you can bag a spot by the railings and get as close to the action as possible.


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