Events Live like a local TooMuchSiena

Practical Guide to the Palio of Siena

Waiting for Palio trials in Piazza del Campo, Siena

For the first time in my life, I had the great opportunity to experience the Palio of Siena this Summer. Actually I was reporting it live for the American company Vacations Abroad. I spent the entire week end of the Palio trying to live it like a local, and you know what? You can’t live it like a local, if you are not a Sienese. However there are quite a few things you can do like Sienese people.

The Palio of Siena is not a tourist attraction

Palio of Siena is one of the oldest traditions in Italy and dates back to 1100. It is strongly related to the city’s history and in the beginning it was run outside the city center and called Palio alla lunga. In the 17th century it was transferred within the city center, more exactly in Piazza del Campo, becoming a palio alla tonda. Races were originally on buffalo-back, definitively replaced by horse-back races in 1656, when the first modern Palio took place.

During the 18th century the Palio of Siena took the modern look: at the beginning of the century a second date for the palio was introduced, in 1721 the current regulation was introduced defining all the palio’s aspects, while in 1729 Violante di Baviera, city’s governor, defined the new borders of contrade reducing them in number to 17 and declared that only 10 contrade out of 17 could participate to each Palio.

Piazza del Campo during Palio

Piazza del Campo in Palio days

Waiting for the Palio in Piazza del Campo, Siena

Waiting for the Palio in Piazza del Campo, Siena

Waiting for Palio trials in Piazza del Campo, Siena

Piazza del Campo crowded for the Palio, Siena

Since then, not much has changed over the centuries and this should tell you perfectly how strong and well-established it is the relationship between the Palio, the contrade, the city and its people. Because of this is strong relationship Sienese people can be rude to foreign people and when I say foreign I mean to every single person that don’t belong to a contrada and not actively participate to its daily life.

Therefore I suggest you have an “invisible” approach: don’t be pushy to take pictures, don’t go where you can’t and above all respect this tradition. Palio is a religion in a certain way and this is not an exaggeration.

Palio and its glossary

When I asked to Sienese people which is the most annoying thing foreign people do, they all answered: they call things with the wrong name. The glossary of Palio is something really important because related to the history of the race, and this is why something so annoying for Sienese people. If you don’t know the correct terms, this means you’re not interested into their traditions (therefore you’re not respecting it).

So here the MUST-TO-KNOW TERMS of the Palio of Siena:

  • CONTRADA – the district of Siena identify by a specific coat of arms. There are 17 contrade in Siena. People belonging to a contrada are called CONTRADAIOLI;
  • CONTRADA RIVALE – contrade are not enemies but rivals. This is a ground rule;
  • FAZZOLETTO – it’s the scarf with the coat of arms of each contrada that every contradaiolo should wear during the Palio if his contrada runs. Therefore don’t use the Italian word “foulard”;
  • PALCO (PALCHI is plural) – the wooden platforms in Piazza del Campo placed along the track. Most of them are assigned to contrade, that pay for them. Therefore don’t use the Italian word “tribuna”;


Horses entering in Piazza del Campo

Horses entering in Piazza del Campo

Valmontone's Contradaioli

Valdimontone’s Contradaioli

  • BRACCIALETTO – are the particula street lamps inside contrada, identifying also its borders. Therefore don’t call it “Lampada” or worst “lampadario”;
  • ALFIERE – the flag-throwers of each contrada;
  • CANAPO – the large rope used to hold the horses behind the start;
  • MOSSA – the start of the race;
  • BARBERO – horses but also the beautiful marbles to play the Palio game;
  • ZUCCHINO – the jockey’s helmet;
  • PALIO – the race but also the precious handmade prize;

These are the words you really must know if you want to experience the Palio like a local. Of course there are some other special terms, like ‘spennacchiera‘ (the contrada’s cockade on the front of horses), ‘cappotto‘ (when a contrada wins two palio races in one year), ‘brenna‘ and ‘bombolone‘ (respectively scanty and strong horse). In addition learn the names of the contrade, at least the ones who’re actually racing.

The city of Siena during the Palio

As I told you before, the Palio is well-established and is all about Sienese people care during Palio’s time. This means that shops, restaurants, museums and other local activities could be close or have funny hours in order to take part to Palio’s appointments. So don’t get mad, but be patient and enjoy the atmosphere.

The atmosphere of Siena is incredible, almost unreal. During the Palio the city center is extremely lively, colorful and intense. All the contrade, that are taking part to the Palio, are dressed up with their flags, whose exposure is strictly regulated by Palio’s rules, and are also furbished with long tables and lots of chairs for the traditional dinners in contrada.

Contrada Leocorno during Palio

Contrada Leocorno

Contradaioli in Piazza del Campo

Contradaioli in Piazza del Campo

Contradaioli are all wearing their fazzoletto. Actually even wearing the fazzoletto has strict rules and this is also another annoying thing for Sienese people. The fazzoletto is the symbol of each contrada and should be worn with respect. For this reason you should not tie it to your bag, backpack or wherever place that is not your neck/shoulders. Another important thing is that the knot of your fazzoletto should be forever and this should not be washed.

TooMuchShopping for the Palio

I think the game of Palio needs a special mention. Since ancient times children used to play with special marbles and simulate the real race. Nowadays you can still see children play with it inside the contrada and there are many shops selling the originals. As well as the Palio, also this is not something for tourists but something really Sienese.

The game is called Pista dei Barberi and is formed by marbles and a special circuit. The marbles are called Barberi and represent the horses. They’re made out of wood and colored accordingly to the contrade and can have different sizes. The barberi have a special circuit, whose design can vary in size and shape.

Reading about the Palio

Reading about the Palio


  • Be respectful – Palio is not made up for you, but it’s a real and well-established tradition of Siena and its people. So don’t enter in Contrada when they’re busy or in a meeting.
  • Take it easy – you can be part of the Palio, but you’re not the Palio. So don’t get over excited and try not to be in the middle of the fights.
  • Best place to see the Palio – at home in front of the TV with a glass of wine. Yes, that’s the best way to see the Palio. Actually the best moment to see the race are the practices, held the days before and that are not so crowded.
  • The Palio of Siena a colorful journey – get this children book by Daniela Pedretti to know all the basics of the Palio. It’s simple and concise, as well as a nice book even though for children!

Consorzio per la Tutela del Palio

Consorzio per la Tutela del PalioI’m really honored to say that this article has been approved by the Consorzio per la Tutela del Palio. It’s the official authority of Palio of Siena and aims to the protection of its image and representation. So I want to personally thank them to take the time to talk to me, read my article and above all say yes to it!

1 Comment

  • Reply
    Claire O'Brien
    May 4, 2017 at 8:39 pm

    Loved your Palio history lesson – have attended 3 rehearsal dinners so far and hope to attend another next year in August. Fantastic experience being with the “contradaioli!

  • What do You think? Have got a question?

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.