When it comes to wearing orange and consuming copious quantities of beer, the Dutch don’t usually need much convincing. Orange is their national colour, after all, and beer is… well, beer.
When it comes to having a good time, the Dutch are rather unique in how they instituted a bank holiday almost exclusively for those two activities, and then dedicated it to their monarch.To the untrained eye, King’s Day may seem like a respectable holiday, a chance for the reigning monarch to visit a random Dutch city or village, for the police turn a blind eye to minor infractions, and for Dutch people to turn every street of every city into a giant street market of all the stuff that was clogging up their storage.
Don’t be fooled, however: this day is all about having a good time, and no city in the Netherlands understands that like Amsterdam.
Quieter parts of the country carry out their drinking and face-painting, orange-girding and street-marketing with gusto. Youngsters ride their scooters without helmets on because there’s an unspoken rule that the police won’t bother you too much if you don’t get into serious trouble, and families pour into the streets for a day of merriment. Amsterdam starts from the night before.
Arriving in Dam square on King’s day morning is like stepping into a battle zone. Improvised raves and street dancing ruled the night, and you can find many of the revelers still sleeping it off in the quieter bits of the square. If you arrive early enough, you have until 10 am before tourists and residents take to the streets again, to paint the town with discarded Heineken beer cans.
Nothing can prepare you for the moment when, in a ritual that stretches back a couple of decades, the population of Amsterdam temporarily triples. You’ve been to public events, and you’ve handled your share of crowds you think. Those were pale shadows of the madness ahead.
By 11, the streets are packed side to side with people looking for a drink, or another drink, or something to eat so they can keep drinking. The city becomes a temporary annex of the kingdom of beer, and Heineken seems to rule supreme for some reason. You won’t walk, you’ll be shuffled along with the crows that never ends, and fills every nook and cranny, every single corner of the city with an endless crush of bodies.
The city is transformed, and takes on a strange quality as you wade through this sea of people. It’s like being at a concert, except there is no quiet area at the back, you’re constantly stuck under the stage with people jostling you for space and passage, and the city is headlining for 24 hours straight.
There is no guide here. Get there before the crush starts, and make sure you try to get off the main roads, to the areas of Amsterdam you wouldn’t usually even think of visiting: the residential canals, that in honour of the Dutch monarchy have become kilometre-long street markets.
In case you haven’t been paying attention to all the free booze, and somehow retain your mental faculties still, you can engage in a bit of bargain-hunting. From books to furniture, to old game consoles and antique electronics that look like they belonged to the dinosaurs but only really come from the nineties, there is a lot to peruse here.
As a word of warning, though: don’t buy anything you can’t carry in your pocket. The mass of people pressing, pushing, passing, copping a feel and just plain staring at their own hands in amazement will make it hard to take anything out of Amsterdam, especially when the city gridlocks with pedestrians, and you’re stuck until the police can clear out the stations.
If you’re lucky, you’ll come across one of the many live music acts, on stages built just for the occasion, scattered around the city. There are simple, amusing souls who’ll track who’s playing where, and who make plans to go to this place or other. They have never experienced King’s Day, and you haven’t either, if you think they make sense.
King’s Day is an adventure through humanity itself, set in an urban planner’s nightmare. You don’t make plans on King’s Day. You don’t have a goal on King’s Day. You are excused for wearing inflatable orange crowns to take selfies with complete strangers, on King’s Day.
If you have plans, you won’t get anything done. If you’re open for an adventure, you’ll collect unique memories, such as trying to call your friends from a phone booth, while a blonde stands next to you because she lost a bet with her boyfriend, and has to spend five minutes in there without kissing you.
There are some simple rules to survive King’s Day in Amsterdam. Get there early, so you get to see parts of the city before they become covered in humanity. Leave before 5pm, because by 6 the train stations will shut down, and mounted policemen will be controlling the entrance to Central Station to keep the surging masses from storming the place.
Bring nothing but a little money and your determination to have a great time, because while the word ‘unique’ is bandied about in a way that loses all meaning, King’s Day in Amsterdam is unlike anything else you’ve seen in your life, and you should witness it at least once.