Neutral silicon vacancy (Si–V_0) centers in diamond are promising candidates for quantum networks because of their excellent optical properties and long spin coherence times. However, spin-dependent fluorescence in such defects has been elusive due to poor understanding of the excited state fine structure and limited off-resonant spin polarization. Here we report the realization of optically detected magnetic resonance and coherent control of Si–V_0 centers at cryogenic temperatures, enabled by efficient optical spin polarization via previously unreported higher-lying excited states. We assign these states as bound exciton states using group theory and density functional theory. These bound exciton states enable new control schemes for Si–V_0 as well as other emerging defect systems.