Most countries with royalty celebrate their monarch’s birthday with pomp and ceremony. The Dutch, in contrast, hold a giant open-air market and paint the town orange to celebrate ‘Koningsdag’.
Besides landing in the middle of a nation-wide block party, international visitors arriving in the Netherlands on Koningsdag (King’s Day) may feel as if they have taken a wrong turn and ended up at a riotous bazaar: up to a million visitors descend upon Amsterdam on 27 April every year to celebrate the birthday of the reigning Dutch monarch, Willem Alexander.
King’s Day is a national holiday in the Netherlands, during which everything possible is covered in orange, from flags, wigs and clothing to revellers’ faces: this colour honours the royal family, the House of Orange-Nassau. The celebrations begin on King’s Day eve (King’s Night), and the alcohol and music don’t stop flowing for 24 hours. King’s Day starts at 06:00 with a huge vrijmarkt (flea market) invading the country’s sidewalks. With street-corner musicians, DJ booths, and huge, popular parties organized in many cities and towns’ concert venues, the party only stops when the king’s birthday is over.
From Queen’s Day to King’s Day
2018 will be King Willem-Alexander’s fourth successive year on the throne since his mother Beatrix’s abdication in 2013. King’s Day was previously celebrated as ‘Queen’s Day’, in honour of the successive female 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 Willem-Alexander in 2013, the first Dutch king in 123 years.
Queen’s Day was formally held on 30 April, which honoured the birthdate of Queen Juliana from 1949 up until the abdication of her daughter Queen Beatrix. Queen Beatrix never changed the date to her own birthday (31 January) as it fell during the winter. But now King’s Day honours the birthday of King Willem-Alexander, who was born on 27 April.
Spotting royals on King’s Day
Royal-spotting is an important element of King’s Day, and each year they visit a certain part of the Netherlands. This year Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima will visit Groningen, and you can follow the entire route through the city. Each year, the chosen city hosts an action-packed day of events for the royals and the public. The people of Groningen will see them enjoy a two-hour walk, taking in sights such as Prinsenhof, Martinikerkhof, Martinikerk, Grote Markt, Waagplein, Broerplein and Stoeldraaierstraat, ending with a grand finale on the Vismarkt.
Free trading: King’s Day flea market
Koningsdag is the one day per year that the public can set up shop on the streets without a trading licence. Traditionally in the days running up to King’s Day, areas on pavements are sectioned off with chalk or tape 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 – but in fact, these are needed if you want to sell items on King’s Day, as you must mark out your territory well in advance! Note that the Amsterdam City Council, however, has banned locals from reserving a patch of pavement, 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 a first come, first sell basis.
Selling is permitted from 06:00 until 20:00. Areas in some cities may be classified as no-sell zones; check your local municipality’s website to see where you can sell.
If you’re not interested in hocking your goods in public spaces (and cashing in the reported average street-seller earning of €90!), then browsing and buying things you never knew you needed (and probably don’t) while wearing an orange wig is the main activity of the day. You can find well-used children’s toys, clothing, chipped china crockery, fish tanks, and much more, all offered at very low prices. The best items are often to be found early, such as kids’ prams and cribs. Haggling over goods is all part of the day’s fun, and the selling frenzy is usually in full swing between 7:00 and 11:00.
Where to celebrate King’s Day
Most towns and cities have fairground attractions and music events lined up, with many kicking off on King’s day eve, or King’s Night (Koningsnacht), on 26 April. You will find an array of DJ events and parties held around the Netherlands. Kingsland Festival Amsterdam and Kingsland Festival Den Bosch will feature some top Dutch and international DJs this year. You generally need to buy tickets ahead of time to enter these events;be aware that tickets typically sell out early.
Koningsdag is also the one day of the year that singers and bands are actively encouraged to set up on each street corner to give the public their all by singing ‘traditional’ Dutch ballads.
In recent years, there have been some complaints that festivities are being marred by increased commercialization 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 (maybe one you have never heard of before). This is a great way to sample the gezelligheid (cosiness) of King’s Day, as pretty much every town has a range of events for all ages.
Alternatively, you could hit the streets of one of the King’s Day big four (Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht) and dive right into the hedonistic indulgence of drink, music, 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 King’s Day scene.
King’s Day in Amsterdam
Amsterdam is the busiest city on King’s Day, as up to a million visitors join the residents in street haggling, partying and dressing in orange. Amsterdam’s King’s Day is also one of the best for setting 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. Find more child-friendly areas during King’s Day in Amsterdam.
Some other popular areas for markets and street performers are in the 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 the Jordaan and Rembrandtplein areas being among the most popular. Find a list of the top Koningsnacht events in Amsterdam, as well as the parties on King’s Day in Amsterdam.
You’ll also see Amsterdam’s canals packed with King’s Day revellers on boats. If you aren’t yet a guest on a boat, you can maximize your chances by hanging out canal side in the hope of being invited aboard!
No public transport, cars or taxis are allowed through the centre of Amsterdam on King’s Day, and you will find outside the city centre 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 evening.
King’s Day in The Hague
King’s Night in Den Haag (The Hague) is one of the biggest Dutch parties, having a large music festival called The Life I Live Festival. It’s a free, huge open-air music event, which brings local and international bands to perform on stages in different squares around the city, e.g. Kerkplein, Grote Markt and Plaats, to name a few. Join revellers on both Koningsnacht and Koningsdag wandering the streets from stage to stage to hear everything from rock, indie pop, garage and punk to electronic, hip hop, and funk. On King’s Day in The Hague, 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, running from 13 April 2018.
Attractive areas on King’s Day 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 Den Haag’s King’s Day programme at King’s Day The Hague.
King’s Day in Rotterdam
Rotterdam’s official King’s Day celebrations happen at various locations across the city. You can relax on a terrace at Rotown, dance on Stadhuisplein or visit one of the many flea markets that are located from the Coolsingel to the market on the Binnenrotte.
King’s Day in Utrecht
King’s Day in Utrecht (30 minutes from Amsterdam) is serious about the flea market (vrijmarkt), which begins at 18:00 on 26 April and runs for the next 24 hours in Utrecht’s main areas. Children’s markets and performances typically happen around Park Lepelenburg and Miffy’s Square (Nijntje Pleintje). Expect a jam-packed programme for King’s Day Utrecht.
You’ll also find the typical, (but slightly lesser than neighbouring Amsterdam), ‘orange madness’ around Utrecht on King’s Day, with boats on the canals and the city’s squares – particularly around Domplein, Lucasbolwerk, Mariaplaats, Neude and Janskerkhof.
Top tips for King’s Day
- Don’t make the mistake of celebrating it on 30 April – the previous date of Queen’s Day!
- Wear anything and everything you own that is orange.
- Check in advance which transport routes are open and be prepared to walk to reach the attractions in the centre; comfortable shoes are a must.
- Bring lots of small change – this is not only good for buying bric-a-brac but is essential for paying to use the toilets in bars and restaurants (normally €1).
- Get in the Dutch spirit of things by sampling the tompouce, a sweet Dutch pastry filled with cream that is made especially orange for the King’s Day festival. Wash it down with an oranjebitter – check out how to make your own oranjebitter.
- Officially, you are only allowed to carry one alcoholic drink with you. Officially.
- Look after your belongings – pickpockets are rife in the large crowds on King’s Day.
- Choose your party location wisely. If you aren’t fond of large crowds, stick to the areas further out of the city centre that are a little calmer – or celebrate in a small town or village.