Here’s what you probably know about Amsterdam: beautiful canals boast lights that twinkle at night. The city is home to an abundance of “coffee shops” with names like Smoke Palace and Grey Area. And, no matter which way you look, you can spot residents whizzing around on bikes, living on houseboats, and munching on raw herring. What you probably don’t know is that the Amsterdam hosts the world’s biggest birthday bash, King’s Day — or Koningsdag— an enochlophob’s worst nightmare and a day for the Dutch to seriously cut loose.
This annual public holiday takes place on the 27th of April, but is by no means a day of rest. The festivities kick off the evening before and you can see locals and visitors whoop it up until sunrise. Just as impressive are the fun-loving crowds that flock to the city for the main event. Wigged and flaunting novelty hats, they’ve come to revel in open-air concerts, performances, pop-up bars, and an enormous, unregulated flea market. Everyone’s invited to join in, as long as you adhere to the dress code: orange.
The history of King’s Day in Holland
The world’s noisiest birthday bash was inaugurated on the 31st of August, 1891 on Queen Wilhelmina’s birth date. In later years it was held on April 30th in honor of former monarchs Queen Juliana and her daughter Beatrix. It wasn’t until 2013, the year of King Willem Alexander’s succession to the throne, that Queens Day became King’s Day and was celebrated on the 27th. Although the exact dates to celebrate King/Queens Day have changed, one thing has remained the same: the enormity of this thumping street party is nothing short of sensational.
The party starts the night before with Koningsnacht
The fun starts the evening before —a night known as Koningsnacht— with clubs and live music venues hosting large-scale parties and events. While many clubbers will carry on partying throughout the night, some head home for a few hours’ kip to recharge their batteries for the main event. It’s a case of “you snooze, you lose” on King’s Night, so make sure you get your tickets in advance. In fact, many early bird tickets sell out as soon as February.
Europe’s biggest street party
From open-air DJ performances that attract thousands to acoustic sessions in intimate cafes, there’s bound to be an event going on somewhere with your name on it. In fact, it’s hard to not be in the right place at the right time, as you’ll find sound systems and beer vendors on every corner. Even bars outside of the centre will see revellers spilling out onto the streets, spreading their happy vibes all over the city.
Putting the rest of Europe’s festivals to shame, between 600,000 and a million people flock to Amsterdam each year to celebrate King’s Day (a whopping 250,0000 people arrive by train alone). The answer to the question where a diminutive city like Amsterdam puts these swarms of orange-clad party-heads is simple: everywhere. Tens of thousands of face-painted locals and visitors take over the streets, squares, canals, balconies, and terraces to dance, wave flags, and drink beer from plastic cups.
If streets are too crowded, take it to the water
While bagging a spot on a barge is of course awesome, taking in the fist-pumping masses from dry land is just as entertaining. The corner of the Prinsengracht and Amstelveld is a prime spot to watch King’s Day boats go by, as are any one of Amsterdam’s 1,200 bridges.
Dig into traditional Dutch cuisine
Waving a can of beer around while wedged between a hundred other people or dancing your socks off in the middle of Amsterdam’s iconic Dam Square is hungry work. Luckily, finding something to snack on will be as easy as, well, Dutch apple pie. Hundreds of street food vendors line the city’s streets and squares selling everything from juicy hamburgers to the quintessential ‘broodjes kaas’ (cheese sandwiches). Those with a sweet tooth should definitely sample a ‘tompouce,’ a typical Dutch pastry stuffed with yellow cream (which inevitably ends up on the tip of your nose) and decorated with orange icing.
Hit up the vrijmarkt: King’s Day unruly flea market
Bargain hunt your way across Amsterdam as the city turns into a mega flea market as part of the festivities. The ‘vrijmarkt’ (free market) is a deliciously rustic affair with some sellers working off stalls but most displaying their treasures on a tarp on the pavement. In fact, people reserve ‘their’ patch days before by chalking up the word BEZET (occupied) in the middle of their self-appointed rectangle. Hawkers range from kids selling wild-haired Barbie dolls to grown-ups touting antiques and sixties fashion. Whether you’re on the lookout for something particular or just browsing, I dare anyone to come away empty handed.
Wear a sh*t ton of orange
‘Oranjegekte’ is an actual expression and translates to ‘orange madness.’ Anything orange is worn on King’s Day as a show of pride for the House of Orange-Nassau, the Dutch royal family. Party animals turn their closets upside down or raid local charity shops for clothes and accessories. Score extra Kings Day points by wearing tangerine coloured wigs and/or face paint. Let’s put it this way: the wackier the result, the better. And if you’re worried you’ll look like a clown (or clown fish) don’t be, so will over a million other people.