Turning Orange in Amsterdam

When I booked to go on a 3-day city break to Amsterdam, I had in mind images of giant pancakes heaped with apple and bacon and peaceful strolls along the canals. Unfortunately, I accidentally booked my stay during the week of the largest public holiday in The Netherlands – Konegsdag (King’s Day).  

Unless what you want is a rave on an overcrowded barge, there isn’t a lot to do in Amsterdam on King’s Day, the day in Holland that celebrates the birth of King Willem-Alexander (before he was on the throne, the day was called Queen’s Day). You can’t get anywhere because no trams are running, and walking anywhere in a throng of people, all of whom are painted orange, is nigh-on impossible.

If you do make it to the shops and restaurants, most of them are shut, which at first seems crazy when you think of the commercial opportunities they’d have if they stayed open to serve all these millions of orange people, and then on reflection feels sort of quaint and appropriate. I was turned away from a café who had closed their entire indoor seating area so they could stand outside on the street, soaking up the celebratory atmosphere.

And drinking. It turns out, drinking is the main draw of King’s Day.

The Tango cowboy

The Tango cowboy

I had checked in to my hotel the previous evening. The man at the desk reminded me of the ‘big party’ that would be happening the following day. ‘I hope you’ve brought your orange clothing with you!’ he said, wagging his finger at me, as if scolding. I immediately began to panic. My overwhelming need to blend in with the locals took over, and within 5 minutes I was back out on the streets, looking for a gift shop that was open at 8pm and would sell me something – anything – orange. 20 minutes later I was the owner of a lurid cowboy hat. I was ecstatic. It is the only time in my life I have bought a neon orange accessory in order to ‘blend in’.

It was only later, when I arrived at Anne Frank House, that I realised wearing an orange cowboy hat might not be appropriate in every circumstance.

The rest of King’s Day was a challenge. I wandered the streets for a while, trying to enjoy the flea markets, and the novelty of over-excited people with the day off work dragging fold up tables outside so they could sell their old shoes and homemade jam. These flea markets are the other big draw of King’s Day, and have become tradition. Anything can be sold, except alcohol.

King's Day in Amsterdam

I wondered how the King was enjoying the celebrations, so walked up to his palace. In the square outside, a large and tacky funfair was in progress, with people shrieking and whooping as large mechanical rides whizzed them round and round and turned them upside down. I found out later that the King had gone off to visit another part of his Great Land, and I couldn’t blame him. I was starting to suspect that King’s Day wasn’t really about the King at all.

Get off the streets

Later on I found another museum that was open – The House of Bols. This teaches you the history of alcohol in Amsterdam, and then tries to sell you a lot of cocktail mixing equipment. The lady at the desk asked me if I was enjoying King’s Day and I gave her a weak smile.

House of Bols cocktail

‘The city really goes crazy on this day. Amsterdam is liberal with sex and drugs, and that is all out in the open,’ she told me. ‘But the rules about alcohol are very strict. This is the one day of the year where people can drink on the streets, and they make the most of that.’ Then she advised me to get indoors by 10pm, and stay there. I laughed, but her smile had disappeared.

‘No, really,’ she said, somewhat darkly. ‘Get back to your hotel early. Don’t go out again.’ Knowing what chaos alcohol is capable of inspiring, I took her seriously.

I emerged from the House of Bols in the late afternoon, to find that the celebrations had been stepped up a notch. Museum Square was a thick sea of whooping orange people, singing, revelling and taking photos of each other. Despite the ominous warnings from the lady at the museum, it all seemed like very good natured fun.  Everywhere I walked, not just on that public holiday but on the days that followed, the heady smell of cannabis tinged the air, so much so that after a while it became part of the backdrop of the city and seemed normal.

Spreading the joy

King's Day in Amsterdam

As King’s Day went on, I kept waiting for people to have one too many beers and turn ugly. It never happened. Later, as I stood outside my hotel at 10pm, I heard distant bangs. They seemed more firework than gunshot. I sat in the hotel bar and watched people drift back from the day’s celebrations – clearly in high spirits but not ready to rampage through the corridors until 4am. All was quiet by midnight.

The next day, everything was open again and there was no visible carnage whatsoever. Everyone had clearly picked up their litter, packed up their folding tables and gone home in orderly fashion. The only tiny tell-tale sign that anything had occurred at all was the orange feather boa attached to the backpack of a girl waving goodbye to her friends and boarding a bus bound for the central station. And my orange hat, which I dutifully took home to London with me, ready for next year, when I will attempt to make King’s Day catch on in the UK.

The thing is, whereas in The Netherlands they seem to know how to have a good time without getting roaring drunk and rowdy, I’m not sure the same mellow vibe would exist in Britain. Still, I can try.