Orange wigs, congested canals, live music everywhere and lots of beer. Queen’s Day is most definitely the Netherlands’ most exuberant festival. It’s celebrated nationwide, but if you’re around during Queen’s Day, make sure you head to Amsterdam, capital of the Netherlands and host to the country’s wildest parties.
Although many Dutch residents couldn’t care less about the monarchy, they wouldn’t miss this national holiday for the world. Every year on 30 April more than 700,000 people converge on the capital for 24 hours of fun and frivolity. While the queen and her royal entourage engage in traditional folkish activity in some idyllic village somewhere in the provinces, the real hardcore partying is done in Amsterdam, queen or no queen.
“Do you know what is going on?” a baffled Japanese tourist asks me on the train to Amsterdam, via the airport. Judging by his suitcase he’s just arrived and apparently hasn’t got a clue what he’s stumbled upon. The train is jam-packed with people dressed in ridiculous orange outfits, the Dutch national colour. Orange wigs, big plastic crowns and flags complete the madness. So either the Dutch national soccer team has won the European final, which grips the country with similar revelry, or something else is going on. Yes, something else is most definitely going on. It’s Queen’s Day – the day the Dutch celebrate the birthday of Queen Beatrix. Well, actually her late mother’s birthday, as Queen Beatrix’s birthday is in January and temperatures below zero would seriously spoil the outdoor fun.
My attempt to explain the chaos is drowned out by a group of loudly singing young men. Some have bloodshot eyes – Queen’s Night on 29 April has become a big event in the past decade, especially in The Hague, and, although drinking on the train is forbidden on this day, the pungent smell of alcohol is everywhere. And it’s only 11 o’clock in the morning.
Once we arrive outside Amsterdam central station thirst takes over. “Wanna beer?” my companion asks. I’m sure it’s five o’clock somewhere in the world so I cave. I must admit that, despite the early hour, the cold fluid is magnificently refreshing. As the orange-coloured mass slowly moves straight onto the Damrak, we decide to turn right into the Jordaan area, arguably the most picturesque part of the city. Grab a random postcard and you’ll see the picture-perfect canals lined with stately mansions, Amsterdam’s pride and a striking backdrop for the colourful festivities.
By midday the streets are filled with people dancing to ear-splitting music pumping from large ghetto blasters carefully balanced on window panes. Holland isn’t known for its great climate and April can be chilly, but today the sun is blazing and everyone is peeling off layers of clothing and slopping on sunscreen. Overlooking the water you truly grasp the scale of the festivities. The canals are congested with dozens of boats trying to pass the narrow bridges, but no one seems to care as they cheerfully dance and sing along to the music. We’re probably safer on shore – the wobbly boats are so jammed with people it’s a miracle they still float.
Our first stop is cosy Café Thijssen, an Amsterdam institution located on the corner of Lindengracht and Brouwersgracht. You won’t find many tourists in this part of town and, although it’s crowded, it’s pleasant enough to linger for an hour or so. On a small stage just in front of the cafe, a klezmer band is playing traditional Jewish tunes. It’s impossible to stand still listening to these rousing melodies.
Queen’s Day is the only day of the year when people can get rid of unwanted stuff on the streets. Everything from clothing to old records, rickety furniture to trinkets is sold at bargain prices. “How much for the boots?” I ask a girl with pink hair. “For five euro they’re yours,” she replies. I gratefully swap my heels for the comfortable-looking boots. Heels are no match for Amsterdam’s cobbled streets.
“Beer for only one euro,” a boy no older than 10 yells from behind his home bar, installed on front of his porch. I wonder if it’s legal, but order two anyway. With great effort he carefully pours our beers, leaving more froth than liquid, but the sight is so endearing we instantly forgive him.
Taking advantage of my new comfy boots, we head for the Vondelpark – Amsterdam’s green lungs – a 30-minute walk from the Jordaan. Vondelpark is reserved exclusively for children on Queen’s Day and turns into a kiddies’ Valhalla. The Dutch merchant spirit reigns, with thousands of kids selling their old toys at the city’s largest street market. Being consciously childless – my interaction with kids is limited to the occasional children’s birthday bash with friends – even I can see that these kids deserve an A+ for effort. Don’t even think about bargaining; they know the value of their goods! No ghetto blasters are in this part of town. Instead, you’ll be treated to children showing off their skills on the violin, trumpet or flute; the off notes give away the fact they only started lessons recently. Enough children’s activities. It’s time to head back to where the grown-up partying is going on.
From Vondelpark it’s only a short stroll to the Leidseplein, one of the city’s major squares, lined with watering holes and the famous Bulldog coffee shop, frequented more by tourists looking for an instant high than locals. The name coffee shop is deceiving as its main purpose is selling cannabis, although most also serve a strong cuppa, sandwiches and sweet pastry. “Come on and join us,” a guy in a group of hippie-like Italians yells from the crowded terrace. It’s tempting, but we decide to leave the psychedelic produce alone. The city is dizzying enough, and in these dense crowds you could easily become claustrophobic on dope. We make our way towards the main stage where an unknown DJ is spinning groovy tunes. Let’s test these boots for their dancing skills.
Mission accomplished, we head back through the narrow alleys towards an area known as the The Nine Streets, one of the hippest parts of town with plenty of boutiques, bars, restaurants and vintage stores. Away from the major squares, this is where the true spirit of Queen’s Day is best felt, with people of all ages merging into one happy crowd.
At about eight o’clock the streets slowly empty out, and what’s left is a crackling carpet of plastic beer cups. There are numerous Queen’s Day afterparties in town – hosting the best DJs – but as the diehards have been partying and drinking for the past 24 hours, many choose the enticing option of a refreshing shower and a comfortable bed.
Despite having new shoes my feet hurt, so we decide to grab a quick bite before heading back to the train station. Apparently we’re not the only ones craving a grease fix. The queue in the vegetarian falafel joint is long but the crispy pita bread with deep-fried chickpea balls drowned in garlic sauce is worth the wait. No need to grab a map to find your way back to the train station; just follow the stream of drunken people and you’ll get there eventually. With a little detour maybe…
Queen’s Day 2013 entered the record books as a historical date. In January Queen Beatrix announced her resignation after 33 years on the throne, passing the crown to her son, Crown Prince Willem-Alexander. The Netherlands got its first king in more than a century, and Queen’s Day became King’s Day in 2014. To accommodate his birthday, there was also a slight change of date to 27 April.
Did the date change alter the festivities? Not much. The fun-loving Dutch are known for their propensity to seize any occasion as an excuse for some serious partying. Whether in honour of the Queen or King, the beer tastes the same.
KLM flies from Sydney to Amsterdam several times weekly.
Only open since 2010, CocoMama is Amsterdam’s first boutique hotel. Run by the very hospitable Anika and Lotje (ably assisted by Joop the cat), it’s located in a former brothel and one of the dorms is themed as a Red Light District. The vibe is extremely fun, funky and friendly.
Queen’s Day changed to King’s Day in 2014, after Queen Beatrix stood down and the new monarch Willem-Alexander ascended to the Dutch throne.