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Palio di Siena

If you are planning on going on a tour of Italy sometime in early July or mid-August, then you are in luck! Twice a year, on the 2nd of July and 16th of August to be exact, the Tuscan city of Siena has this traditional medieval horse race that is held in honor of the Virgin Mary. If you love tradition, pageantry, and watching men riding on horses without saddles, then you will want to consider adding this to your tour.


Some of the more popular cities that people go to when they embark on a trip to Tuscany include Florence, Pisa, and Cortona. One of the cities that is not as popular as these three, but is well worth a visit, is Siena. Located roughly an hour outside of Florence, Siena is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Siena is a city that is actually a popular tourist destination, although the general populace outside of the country would not know about it unless they are told why it is a must-see destination. This is because the other cities in the area, namely the three mentioned earlier, get more “air time” in movies and TV shows than this historically significant city.

If you are into gothic architecture and medieval towns, Siena is where you should go. This historical city is said to be the medieval heart of the country, and this you can see from the many age-old structures within its borders as well as some of the traditions that have stayed with the city through the centuries.

Don’t expect to see that many vehicles here either since cars are barred from much of the city. This means you can meander down ancient brick alleyways below towering wall-to-wall residences safely and quietly, without honking horns and rumbling engines in the background.

The best way to experience Siena is to simply stay there. Like wine, Siena improves over time. The longer you stay, the more it grows on you. Your daily explorations will lead you to surprising little shops, incredibly friendly people and a general feeling of peacefulness.

Palio di Siena

One of the most awaited events in Siena, and one of the reasons why people gravitate towards this part of Tuscany every July and August, is the Palio di Siena. This is a traditional horse race that is one of the region’s most awaited summer events. This horse race happens in the Piazza del Campo, which is a shell-shaped square that is considered one of Siena’s main historical landmarks.

The tradition of the Palio has been around since 1633, and is a competition that pits the city’s 17 districts, or “contrade”, against one another in a race to win the prize, which is a Drapellone, or large drape that has a stylized painting that is designed by a different artist every year. The 17 districts that compete in this race come with animal names like Aguila (Eagle), Civetta (Little Owl), Giraffa (Giraffe), and Leocorno (Unicorn), to name but a few.

While there are 17 contrade competing in these bareback horse races, not all 17 can participate all at once. Only ten at a time can join each race. In July, ten of these contrade compete while the rest are spectators. In August, the remaining 7 then compete, with the last three slots being filled by contrade from the previous batch who get picked by drawing lots.

The fun of the Palio di Siena starts well before either race, when citizens of the seventeen contrade, or city wards, challenge each other. This challenge comes in the form of bands walking through ‘enemy’ neighborhoods in the middle of the night and making the Palio – an unholy racket. The ten neighborhoods that are to race that month earn the right to produce a horse and rider for the day of the race.

If you visit Florence while in Italy, and you want to experience this spectacular event in Siena, we can help you. One of our many escorted tours, which is our Absolute Tuscany Tour, takes you to some of the most popular tourist destinations in Tuscany, and included in this is the medieval city of Siena. If your trip is timed just right, you might be lucky enough to witness and experience the grandeur that is the Palio di Siena.