If you’re in Siena on the day of the Palio, you should absolutely make every effort to attend the race and see the proceedings up close. Here are a few tips for what to bring, when to go, and what to expect.
1. Get there early (and bring plenty of water). Attending the Palio means you’ll be spending quite a bit of time in the center of Il Campo under a lot of sun and not a lot of shade (unless you’re lucky and the race happens to fall on a cloudy day). If you plan to camp out for a spot, bring a hat, several bottles of water, snacks, and a sun-brella. While the die-hards will be staked out along the rails of the race track all day long, you can still get a fairly good spot second row deep if you arrive between 3-3:30pm (arriving around 4pm is also safe, although the crowds really start to flood into Il Campo starting after 5pm). Know that while there are bathrooms that you can use for €0.50 on a few of the streets just off V. di Citta, once you enter the Campo there are no public restrooms (although there is a fountain where you can wait in a long line to refill your water bottle). Fortunately, if it’s a hot day, you’ll likely be sweating out pretty much everything you drink in, so proper hydration will probably be of greater concern than the state of your bladder. The parade of the contrada begins shortly after 5pm, although spectators can continue to enter Il Campo through V. Giovanni Dupre until 6:45pm.
2. You are a tourist. Plenty of foreigners flock to Siena for the horse race, but it is very much a local affair. Know that the Sienese take the race very seriously and be respectful of the locals around you who are trying to watch the race. Try to keep track of what’s going on, but also know that you will never truly understand or grasp the full significance of what the race means for the people of Siena (as on Italian put it, “You must live here a lifetime to understand it”). And while you can certainly embrace the spirit of the day and buy a banner or flag of one of the contrada (they’re available for sale at most shops for €6-8), a giant group of tourists each wearing a different scarf will only mark themselves as even more obvious foreign voyeurs. Our advice: if you want to buy a scarf, maybe wait to see which contrade wins the race and then buy their banner as a souvenir to commemorate the day.
3. The race is moderated by a mossiere. The mossiere is the starter of the race who addresses the ten jockeys and reveals the starting order when they approach the ropes after entering the Campo from Palazzo Pubblico. Jockeys are instructed to respect the order, with the tenth jockey sent to stand behind the other nine and attempt to run in and start the race. A period of literal jockeying for position then follows and can last upwards of an hour, until the tenth horse runs in from behind, the starting ropes are dropped, and the race begins.
4. The race itself is only about 90 seconds long. Despite the long build-up, the actual race happens incredibly fast. Don’t take your eyes off the horses or waste time searching for your camera: just be present and try to take it all in as the horses thunder around the turns.
5. People take this shit seriously. The second the winning horse crosses the finish line and the celebratory cannons erupt, the crowd floods the race track, with crazed fans running for the winning horse and jockey and the winning banner (the titular “Palio”). Make way and take in the spectacle while Siena celebrates, and don’t forget to have some sympathy for members of the losing contrada, many of whom will be left in tears as they attempt to grapple with their grief.