Our Attempt to Experience the Famous Palio di Siena Horse Race

Thrifty Travel Mama | Siena with KidsOutside of Tuscany aficionados or Italy insiders, few people have heard of the Palio di Siena.  I first read about it in my trusty Frommers family guidebook, and instantly thought it could be a fabulous, insane but authentic Sienese experience.  So, what the heck is it?

In a nutshell, the Palio di Siena is a horse race, held twice per year in the summer.  The bareback riders dash around the main square in Siena, the Piazza del Campo.  The contestants are decked out in colors and patterns representing one of the city’s seventeen districts.  Though I didn’t know it at the time, the Palio is a really big deal in Siena.Thrifty Travel Mama | Siena with Kids

Two of the seventeen district flags.

Two of the seventeen district flags.

Though I paid attention when the guidebook mentioned that taking small children is problematic in that crowds top 50,000 and getting to a toilet is nearly impossible.

But, a side note encouraged me in this crazy plan: “To experience the event for free, aim for the trial races, also held in the Campo.  It’s still busy but it’s bearable, at least for the morning sessions.”  Perfect.  We aimed to attend the 9am trial race on the 13th of August.

To get a feel for the city, I thought we might just want to visit Siena the day before the race and check things out.  You know, just in case…

As we approached the Campo, the first thing we noticed was that every entryway that led into the piazza from the surrounding streets was closed.  What the?!Thrifty Travel Mama | Siena with KidsAfter what seemed like at least a half an hour of searching, we stumbled upon the only open entrance which just happened to be right next to our first destination of the day – the iconic Torre del Mangia.  We noticed that the square was already set up for the race: bleachers erected, dirt track laid, metal barricades entrenched.

Lines for the tower can be incredibly long since only 25 people are allowed up at one time.   Lucky for us, we were definitely within the first group of 25.  Unlucky for us, we found ourselves standing around with the early birds for forty five minutes past the opening time of 10am.

Ready for the Palio di Siena

Ready for the Palio di Siena

When the boys went from restless to obnoxious, we started asking around.  The word on the street was that the horses had already practiced that morning, and the contenders had used the base of the tower as a stable.  Since tourists would hardly be impressed by the unsightly gifts left by the horses, someone had to sanitize the place.. and on Italian time.

No official explanation or apology, no “poop clearance in progress” sign on the door, no estimated time of completion.  When we had wasted an hour of our day in Siena, we finally gave up.

Next stop – a snack and then swings & a slide at the Orto Botanico.  Only it wasn’t open.  Chiuso per ferie.  Closed for the holidays.

Boo.  Hiss.

Determined to keep our chins up, we quickly popped in to the neighboring Museo di Storia Naturale to have a free look at a gigantic whale skeleton and make a pit stop.  Though seeing the big bones like that was totally rad, you have to admit that it’s rather pathetic when the best thing about your morning is a dead whale.

Museo di Storia Naturale

Museo di Storia Naturale

After a sandwich and a bit of gelato lifted our spirits, we took a deep breath and trudged on to face the crowds in the Piazza del Duomo.  The facade of the church is incredible.  I desperately wanted to see the inside, but I had to make a choice.

My boys weren’t going to put up with hours of art, and previous research told me that the Santa Maria della Scala was the more kid-friendly attraction.. Church or old-hospital-turned-museum?  The guidebook insisted on the latter, but my gut wanted to go with the former.

Research trumped momentary desire, and we shelled out 12 euros to enter the Santa Maria della Scala.  As promised in the promotional literature, there’s loads to see in this museum – art, science, religion, archeology, history – and it’s quiet.  The cycle of frescoes depicting medieval medical care is not to be missed, though my boys would argue the best part of the museum was the graffiti wall in the children’s area.

Santa Maria Della Scala

Santa Maria della Scala

Santa Maria Della Scala

Santa Maria Della Scala

The Duomo

The Duomo

But just between you and me, I would’ve rather seen the inside of the Duomo.  Zebra stripes are intertwined with delicate pink marble to decorate a most stunning facade second only to the Duomo in Firenze.  Sigh.  If its this exquisite from the outside, I can only imagine the interior.

At this point, Big Foot decided to give up the fight and fall asleep (the poor kid still has not learned how to nap on the go) which meant we had to keep walking or risk waking him up.  Our route took us by the best gelateria in Siena, the Kopa Kabana.  I’m still dreaming about the Coca Cola gelato!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Siena with KidsBut even the awesome ice cream could not revive our spirits.  The heat bordered on unbearable, the narrow streets were clogged with fellow tourists, our feet ached, our boys whined, and we couldn’t shake our feelings of discouragement.  We had spent nearly an entire day in the city, and yet we had virtually no authentic Sienese experiences to show for it.

The great divide - sun and shade.

The great divide – sun and shade.

To make matters worse, my heart sank when I realized that the next day, the first day of the trial races, would only intensify our frustrations.  We’d have to endure swarming crowds and scorching sun while waiting hours for a 90-second thrill.

Sounds a bit like Disney, doesn’t it?

Dejected, we did what we could to salvage the day.  We sampled pizza and schiacciata and let the boys roam around a few playgrounds as well as the Fortezza.Thrifty Travel Mama | Siena with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Siena with Kids

But try as we may, we couldn’t catch a break.  At the very end of the day, we forced our tired legs down the stairs of the Fortezza in the direction of our car.  T-Rex stumbled, tripped, and fell face down on the stone steps.  The poor guy landed – smack – on his face.  Blood everywhere.  Three loose teeth.  Massive freak out.

Thank God, he’s fine.  The teeth weren’t broken, and they’ve been hanging on for over six weeks now.

Oh, Siena, I desperately wanted to like you.  But the stars were stacked against you, my friend, and things just did. not. work. out.  I hope we’ll meet again another time, in another season, and things will be different.

If you’re just joining us now for Our Tuscan Family Adventure: Two Weeks of History, Culture, Food, and Fun in Italy series, you might think we had a really awful time in Tuscany.  No, no, no!  Click on the link to read some of our other (awesome) adventures.

Okay, your turn!  Have you been to Siena?  Did you have a beautiful experience, or a rough go like we did? Signature-Marigold

10 thoughts on “Our Attempt to Experience the Famous Palio di Siena Horse Race

  1. Aw, man, sorry it was a bummer. Guess you can’t win ’em all. You certainly made a valiant effort!

    We were in Siena in the summer of ’05, and it was all set up for the races, but they weren’t on that day – we just sat on the bleachers and ate gelato, people-watched, and “imagined” what the race must be like, which was actually quite nice. I do remember it being very crowded and hot. We climbed the tower, which was cool. We had the opposite experience as you at the Duomo – the facade was completely covered in scaffolding so there was nothing to see there, but we saw the the inside which was was lovely.

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  4. Currently halfway through a 2 week break with the husbsnd and kids in Tuscany. We’re 20 minutes outside of Siena, so as well as doing many of the things you’ve blogged about (loved reading it all, btw!) we’ve visited Siena 3 times so far. Because we’re currently in between the two Palios, we’ve had the good fortune to spot guys rehearsing their flag waving routines near castles, been treated to a huge drumming/fanfares/flag procession/march in the Piazza del Campo, which lasted around 20 minutes

    • (Sorry, hit return!)…

      And generally have had a magical time there. My tip is to hit the place around 6pm and enjoy the contrast between the peace of the Duomo, as everyone sits against the back wall enjoying the views (virtually none of the selfie brigade are there at this hour!) then head to the Piazza where everyone is sitting on the floor in the “square” watching the sunset, with all the little ones running around. I hope you get the chance to do it again someday, as it really has a lot to offer, and it little or no cost, refreshingly – but later in the day🙂 x

    • Hi Linz, Wow – that is amazing that you have been able to watch rehearsals! I think I would have preferred that to the actual race. Great tip to enjoy it later in the day. I will definitely keep this in mind for a future trip (and when I don’t have little ones that have early bedtimes). Thanks!

      • No problems! Your posts have been really helpful, despite my children being slightly older (9 and 12). Tomorrow we are going to Siena – in the evening of course – for our final meal and a fond farewell to the city before flying home to the UK. *sobs*

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