Okay, I was a little nervous.
This time one year ago, I was on the verge of attending my first King’s Day, Day 2 of Holland’s multi-day national bacchanal.
I’d been out the night before at Eindhoven Expat Center‘s the pre-King’s Day celebration, and what I heard about King’s Day itself was astounding.
Amsterdam was so crowded last year that the mayor declared the city closed, and people could only get trains out of town, not in. The canals are so choked on King’s Day that you can walk across them boat-to-boat. True? It’s true ….
And it’s not just Amsterdam. In Eindhoven where Dispatches is based, the main bar street Stratumseind was so packed with morning-to-midnight madness last year, you couldn’t move. And King’s Day 2016 was cold, rainy and blustery.
My friend Sam, who runs a small restaurant on the edge of downtown was working late King’s Day eve with his wife and son, getting ready. Chopping veggies for salads. Preparing to get slammed with business. “Tomorrow,” said Sam, ” it will be so crowded you might not be able to get into town. No, seriously.” His imbiss is on a major retail corridor, right across from one of the big downtown events spaces, where there are always famous DJs for King’s Day. (He got me in!)
So, what exactly is King’s Day?
King’s Day, or Koningsdag, literally is the king’s (or queen’s) birthday, and the Dutch 4th of July. The biggest public, non-religious holiday of the year. So big that an estimated 1 million revelers, all wearing the Dutch national color orange, descended on Amsterdam’s 1 million residents in 2015, doubling the population.
Currently, the king is Willem-Alexander, who is a youngish king at 50. Must be fun to be him today.
Here in Eindhoven, there were multiple stages going up all over the center of the city, which has five distinct districts.
There was every flavor of music from oldies cover bands playing Van Halen (the brothers were born in Nijmegen, Netherlands) to top DJs playing trance and EDM.
King’s Day actually starts the night before, with King’s Night, or Koningsnacht, with – you guessed it – partying, drinking and dancing. Bars in Amsterdam usually schedule special concerts and events.
Oh, did I mention I was invited to a post-King’s Day party on Thursday? So, technically, this is a three-day deal.
King’s Day has evolved, said Paul, an American expat with a Dutch heritage. It started out 100 years ago being a celebration mainly for kids.
It was also the one day of the year the Dutch were allowed to have free sales, or what Americans call “yard sales,” selling their cast offs. The king (or queen, as the case might be) visited two or three villages. All in all, pretty sedate.
Somewhere along the line, according to Paul, King’s Day turned into “one big dance festival,” with top DJs playing to crowds dancing and drinking beer in squares all over the Netherlands. “All the kid events are gone,” he said.
So, how does King’s Day compare with some of Europe’s other national days of communal partying?
I’ve been to many Quatorze Julliets, the French national day, in Paris and in the south of France. My experience: Quatorze Julliet (14 July) is pretty mellow. In Paris, it starts off in the mornings with a noisy display of French air power over the L’Arch de Triomphe, then a huge military parade down the Champs-Élysées. Then party, party, party, capped by huge fireworks show at the Eiffel Tower.
In the south of France, it was all about food, friends and fireworks.
German Reunification Day was a non-event where we lived.
In the U.S., there’s really nothing to compare to King’s Day because the Fourth of July has devolved into just another bland holiday, and big parties such as Mardi Gras and the Kentucky Derby are fairly regional in scope.
King’s Day was a magnitude more uninhibited! Dancing, partying and drinking on a scale no Americans can match.
For 2017, it’s going to be wilder because the weather forecast is for mostly clear with highs in the 50s.
As Eddie Van Halen once said, get ready to rock.
Here are helpful tips from Amsterdam’s official tourism website:
Wear some orange – There are no rules set in stone that you have to wear orange on King’s Day in Amsterdam but a bit of orange in your outfit may help you get in the celebratory spirit! So don’t forget your orange t-shirt when you join the Dutch in the Orange Craze on King’s Day in Amsterdam.
Money – prepare some money change, you are going to need coins to buy drinks or some object on the market. Most ATM are very busy on that day or out of order.
Start at end Time – The free market starts around 10am, but most events begin at midday. The street market and nearly all outdoor events & festivals finish at 20:00.
Public Transport in Amsterdam – Public transport routes are adapted on Kingsday itself, with the buses and trams only running up to the outskirts of the city center.
Walking – You are going to walk a lot. Comfy shoes are needed.
Car travel on King’s Day – Traffic in the city center is limited on the day itself with the entire city center closed for cars from 07:30 onwards.
Taxis – The majority of the standard taxi stands in the city center are out of action on King’s Day.
Are the shops open? – Shops are allowed to open on King’s Day in Amsterdam, but the majority of the stores are closed for the day.
Alcohol on the streets – Officially you are allowed to carry one unit of regular alcoholic drink (under 15% alcohol) for your own consumption, but police won’t act if you take a bit more with you… To sell alcohol as part of the street market is not permitted. Beer and other drinks are usually easy to get on the streets. You can buy drinks at outside bars or from people who are (illegally) selling cans of beer and soda (prices between EUR 1.50 – EUR 2.50).
Alright … time to par-tay!
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.