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Travel bucket list idea:

Last updated: 18 March, 2024
Expert travel writer: Nicky Swallow

The most famous bareback horserace in the world, Il Palio sees horses and riders galloping three times round Siena’s glorious, medieval Piazza del Campo.

Palio is a centuries-old settling of neighbourhood scores for the Sienese, and it defines the social, cultural and political fabric of the city each year. Each of the 17 contrade (neighbourhoods) enters a horse and jockey (although only 10 compete in each race) with the single objective to win by fair means or – occasionally – foul.

The race itself is over in a flash (an average of 75 seconds), but it’s preceded by several hours of processions and three days of pre-race trials and festivities. Each contrada holds its own festivities (al fresco dinners, the blessing of the horses in the contrada churches) in the three days leading up to the races.

Logistics

Price: Free
Minimum age: Any
Age suitable: 18+
Frequency: annually
When: 2 July & August 16
Duration: 3 hours

Getting there & doing it

The race and preceding procession are held in the Piazza del Campo. Three days of trials for the horses are also held here.

Spectators arrive in the morning for the best places in the piazza. Standing room in the piazza is free, but it can get extremely hot under the high summer sun, and also, with up to 60,000 people, claustrophobic. There are no bathrooms. No one under 12 years old is allowed to stand in the piazza for the race.

Private stands and balconies overlooking the Campo offer a more comfortable experience (albeit less authentic and pricey). However, all are privately owned, so either you are lucky enough to know the right people, or you need to book through a local operator that has insider contacts. This needs to be done months or even a year ahead.

The action begins in the late afternoon with a two-hour procession of drummers and flag-throwers.

When to do it

The Palio is held bi-annually, on July 2nd and August 16th.

Destination guides

2

Destination guides including or relevant to this experience

Siena

Tuscany, Italy

Beautiful view of Dome and campanile of Siena Cathedral, Duomo di Siena, and Old Town of medieval city of Siena in the sunny day, Tuscany, Italy

Arguably the most perfect medieval city in the world, Siena is a glorious ensemble of red brick buildings and exquisite monuments, famous for its fan-shaped Campo and Il Palio horse race.

Tuscany

Tuscany, Italy

Tuscany

The astonishingly beautiful region of Tuscany has it all: art cities and ancient hill towns, high mountains and long sandy beaches, alongside luxurious hotels and some of Italy’s best food and wine.