How to celebrate King's Day in the Netherlands
Most countries with royalty celebrate their monarch's birthday with pomp and ceremony. The Dutch, in contrast, hold a giant open-air market to celebrate 'Koningsdag' and paint the town orange.
Guidebooks constantly marvel at the quaint Koningsdag (King's Day) – previously Koninginnedag (Queen's Day) – customs, when the supposedly reserved Dutch let their hair down and celebrate the monarch and the Royal House by covering everything in orange, buying and selling as if it was still the 1600s, drinking lots of alcohol, and dancing to wide varities of music with intriguing street performances.
This year is no different, as the Netherlands gets ready to celebrate King's Day on Wednesday 27 April 2016, and let the oranjegekte (orange madness) take over. Orange is the colour of choice in tribute to the Royal family, the House of Orange-Nassau.
Besides landing in the middle of a huge street party, international visitors arriving in the Netherlands on Koningsdag may feel as if they have taken a wrong turn and ended up at a riotous bazaar.
This national Dutch holiday is largely known for its nationwide vrijmarkt ('free market'). Every inch of the pavement in every city, town and village in the Netherlands is taken up with people squatting on rugs and plastic selling off mostly useless but strangely intriguing bric-a-brac for bargain prices. Among the mayhem, semi-professional and amateur bands blast out beats from just about every street corner, while revellers wander the streets with drinks in hand.
Oranje bitter – a bright orange liqueur – is the drink for making a toast to the king. The colour comes from soaking orange peels in jenever (a type of gin), originally created in the 1620s to celebrate the Dutch Prince Fredrick Henry’s victory over Spanish rule and has increasingly become associated with the royal family since William of Orange became the first king. You'll hear crowds singing the anthem of the day, Het Wilhelmus, a poem about the life of William of Orange and his fight for the Dutch nation, written in 1574.
From Queen's Day to King's Day
This national Dutch holiday was generally celebrated as 'Queen's Day', in honour of successive female royal monarchs since the national holiday began in the late 1880s. However, 2014 was the first year to celebrate the famous national holiday as King's Day, following the coronation of King Willem-Alexander in 2013, the first Dutch King in 123 years.
Queen's Day used to be held on 30 April, which honoured the birth date of Queen Juliana from 1949 up until the abdication of her daughter Queen Beatrix in 2013. The former monarch Queen Beatrix never changed the date to her own birthday as it fell in the winter, on 31 January. But now King's Day honours the birthday of the King Willem-Alexander, who was born on 27 April, a much warmer date than his mother's birthday.
Royal-spotting is an important element of King's Day and each year certain royals bestow an official visit on one or more parts of their realm to meet and greet their subjects. This year the royal family will be visiting Hanzestad, Zwolle. Here's a link to the events and route for their visit.
Marking territory: free trading
Traditionally in the days running up to King's Day, strange boxes are sectioned off on pavements around the country and marked with the word bezet, or occupied.
To the uninitiated, these markings in chalk or tape may appear to be some kind of bizarre crop circles. They are not, they are just an example of the assertiveness of the Dutch – if you want to sell items on Queen's or King's Day, you have to mark out your territory well in advance.
Amsterdam City Council, however, has banned locals since 2004 from reserving their patch, and several other cities also don't allow it. Anyone caught marking the pavement in these cities can be fined. In such places, it's first come gets a place, and selliing is permitted from 6am until 8pm.
King's Day market
Koningsdag – or King's Day – is the one day a year that ordinary folk are allowed to set up shop on the sidewalk without a trading licence. A good thing too, as most of the bargains bought on King's Day will either end up in the garbage by 1 May, or be stashed away in an attic or garage until next year's festivities.
You will find well-used children's toys, clothing, chipped china crockery, fish tanks, dated – and state-of-art – tech gadgets and much more offered at low prices. The best items are often to be found early, such as kids' prams and cribs. Haggling over goods is part of the day's fun, and the selling frenzy is usually in swing by 7am–11am.
How to survive King's Day
If you prefer watching rather than participating, the events are also broadcast on television. From the comfort of your couch, you can avoid the screaming public and large crowds.
There have long been complaints that the festivities are being marred by increased commercialisation and that the crowds in the big cities are unbearable. To avoid this, you might consider getting out your map of the Netherlands and picking a small town (one you have never heard of before) and going there. This is a great way to sample the gezelligheid (pleasantness) inherent in the festivities, as pretty much every town has a range of events for all ages.
Alternatively, you could hit the streets of one of the big four (Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht) and dive right into the hedonistic indulgence of drink, music, fairs with stomach-churning rides and the search for a bargain you never really wanted. If you feel really brave you could have your face painted orange to help blend into the local scene.
Most towns and cities have fairground attractions and music events lined up, many kicking off on King's day eve (Koningsnacht) on 26 April. You will find an array of DJ events and parties held around the Netherlands; 538 (Breda) and SLAM!FM (Alkmaar) are two popular ones, although there are many more. You generally need to pre-buy tickets to enter these events, and tickets typically sell out early.
Koningsdag is also the one day of the year that singers and garage bands are actively encouraged to set up on each street corner to give passersby their all and 'traditional' Dutch ballads. Although the public doesn't seem to mind, people fill up the streets and get jammed together. So you can't escape Koningsdag even if you wanted.
Events in Amsterdam
Amsterdam is the busiest city on King's Day as more than half a million visitors join the local residents in street haggling, partying and dressing up in orange. Amsterdam is also one of the top cities to set aside certain areas for children to lay out their stalls. The Vondelpark is exclusively for children under 16 to set up stalls, which opens its gates at 9am. For more child-friendly areas, see here.
Some other popular areas for markets and street performers are in Jordaan and in Amsterdam Zuid around Beethovenstraat, Stadionweg and Apollolaan.
You will find plenty of partying on the streets the night before for King's Night, with Jordaan and Nieuwmarkt areas being among the most popular areas. Find a list of Koningsnacht events in Amsterdam here, plus parties happening throughout King's Day.
You'll also see Amsterdam's canals packed with party-goers on boats. Take your chances by hanging out on a canal bank and you might just get an invite onto a boat.
No public transport, cars nor taxis are allowed through the centre of Amsterdam on King's Day, and you will find most buses and trams are rerouted, although you can expect later operating times. Ferries between Amsterdam Noord and the rest of the city stay in operation. Cars are normally blocked from entering Prins Hendrikkade, Damrak, Muntplein and Rokin, although restrictions are typically lifted in the night.
Events in The Hague
Den Haag's King's Night celebration is one of the biggest Dutch parties, even taking on its on name: Life I Live Festival. It's a free, huge open-air music event, which brings more than 30 local and international bands to perform on stages in different squares around the city, for example Kerkplein, Grote Markt and Plaats to name a few. Join revellers from 7pm–2am wandering the streets from stage to stage to hear everything from indie, pop and rock to jazz and blues.
On King's Day you'll find plenty of hustle and bustle concentrated around the canals, Statenkwartier and Noordeinde. There's also a funfair in Den Haag filled with lots of fun rides and open everyday until the first week of May. Attractive areas in the Hague are Lange Voorhout, Frederik Hendrikplein and the free market at Maliefeld, which is just across the street from the main train station. See the King's day programme at www.haagsekoningsdag.nl.
Events in Rotterdam
Rotterdam's official celebrations are focused on King's Day, with the Koningsdag Festival held at Willemsplein. Witte de Withstraat and the New Binnenweg host children's free markets, while the largest free markets are centred around Coolsingel, Hoogstraat and Blaak. Another popular family hotspot is the funfair held near the Euromast. On 26 April between 10pm and 11pm, there are fireworks over the Maas river. Check out Rotterdam's agenda and events.
Events in Utrecht
Utrecht (30 minutes from Amsterdam) is serious about the free market (vrijmarkt), which begins at 6pm on 26 April and runs until King's Day. Children's markets and performances typically centre around Park Lepelenburg and Miffy’s Square (Nijntje Pleintje).
You'll also find the typical 'orange madness' around town, with boats on the canals and the city's squares – particularly Domplein, Lucasbolwerk, Mariaplaats, Neude and Janskerkhof – filled with revellers and live music.
- Wear anything you own that is orange.
- Check which transport routes are open, and be prepared to walk far to reach the popular centre areas; comfortable shoes are recommended.
- Take lots of small change – many vendors won't have large bills.
- Look after your belongings and watch your pockets.
Alissa Reinach / Expatica
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