Perhaps the biggest party of the year for the Netherlands is Koningsdag (King's Day), previously called Queen's Day. Now celebrated on April 27 (unless a Sunday, and then it's April 26), the entire country shuts down to celebrate the birthday of King Willem-Alexander. Make sure if you are coming to celebrate this holiday that you confirm the date! Tourists misinformed by out-of-date travel guides stick out like sore orange thumbs on a regular day in the Netherlands.
There are two major hallmarks of this day. One is wearing orange, of course. The second is something really quite neat, the "vrijmarkt" which means "free market." Everybody is free to mark out a spot where they can put out a blanket and sell their used stuff. The night before in Haarlem, we noticed squares marked out in chalk along the streets, and we weren't quite sure what to make of it. But in the morning, our street was lined with people and families selling their stuff in a huge community "garage sale." We decided to walk around Haarlem for the morning and make our way into Amsterdam later on.
We asked quite a few locals what they do on Koningsdag, expecting them to direct us to a particular event or party. We were surprised to learn that many enjoy just walking around their city, checking out the vrijmarkt deals and seeing what else is going on. The Royal Family visits a different town each year, but the consensus is that the biggest party in the country consistently happens in Amsterdam. This year however, the City of Amsterdam issued fewer licenses for Koningsdag and places that we expected large amounts of activity, such as the Museumplein, were strangely devoid of people and things to do. That didn't mean we were bored, far from it.
What is amazing about Koningsdag is that the city literally shuts down to give the people free reign. On this day, pedestrians, not bikes, rule the streets. The party spans the the whole city and everything goes. You want to drink beer in the middle of the street (normally illegal), go ahead! Want to set up a BBQ on the sidewalk and sell kababs, go ahead! Want to walk along the tram tracks, go ahead, the tram's not running today! Want to bring your boom box on the train and blast your favourite tunes in the "silent" car, go right on ahead! It's pretty cool to experience. We can see how it would be difficult to make plans as the best party might be just down the street from where you expect it, and the best moments are things you can't possibly expect.
It was unmistakably Koningsdag everywhere we walked in Amsterdam. People were decked out in their finest orange and you could buy food and cold beer everywhere (even from a four year old's lemonade stand). Random streets and canals were taken over by street or boat parties with thumping beats, orange confetti and solid masses of dancing bodies.
We finally made it to Vondelpark, which we hadn't been to before, to find more vrijmarkt activity and DIY games like "smash the tomato" and "egg the face" set up all over the place. And as our Lonely Planet mentioned, many children playing instruments (sometimes) badly, all for a bit of change. A very quintessentially Dutch day.
Our favourite moments of the day were walking through the vrijmarkt along our street in Haarlem, cheering on the boat partiers from the canal edges, getting quite literally stuck in the middle of a street party and eating random street bruchetta near the Rijksmuseum.
Around the time the sun started to go down and we got a bit cold, we decided to head back home to warm up, and by the time we ventured out into Haarlem again hoping to catch the last of the celebration, the parties were closing for the night and volunteer street cleaners were in full force sweeping up broken glass, leftover vrijmarkt items that never sold and tonnes and tonnes of garbage. Amazingly, the next day there was not a piece of garbage to be found and the only evidence of the party the day before was some smashed bottle glass here and there.
Our impression of Koningsdag is that it's more than the party you expect it to be. More than anything, I was surprised by how community-minded and community-led it was. In Canada, I feel like events of this scale are painstakingly organized and programmed, and individual parties are for the most part private. Here, on Koningsdag, everyone is really in control of their own party and everyone's invited. It's a kind of reckless freedom that is unique to Koningsdag, and obviously appreciated by the people. Even though people were drinking in the street, peeing in the canals and blasting music from their open windows, everyone seemed to be having a great time whether they were sunning in a quiet park or screaming to 90's pop hits on a barge.
Reccommend! Koningsdag 2016 is Wednesday, April 27, 2016. Mark your calendars (but double check before you don your orange!) and come party the Dutch way!
~ Erica ~ Brian