The King's Birthday

An international’s guide to Koningsdag

If you’ve never seen 17 million people dress up in bright orange for a birthday party, you’re in for a big, orange treat. Here’s a quick roundup of everything you need to know about Koningsdag, the biggest celebration in the Netherlands. This year, the King is coming to Groningen!
By Megan Embry

Koningsdag is the King’s birthday party. The tradition began in 1885 as Prinsessedag, a celebration of Princess Wilhelmina’s fifth birthday. Wilhelmina’s father, King William III, was widely disliked – but his young daughter was widely beloved. So in a clever PR move, William III threw a massive party in her honour.

Wee Wilhelmina paraded through the streets of Utrecht, waving and bowing to the charmed crowds from her royal carriage while people took the day off to cheer the procession and rekindle their love for the monarchy. When Wilhelmina ascended the throne in 1890, her birthday celebration became known as Koninginnedag, or ‘Queen’s Day’.

Queen’s Day was temporarily banned during WWII after Queen Wilhelmina exiled to London. From there she sent regular radio broadcasts into the occupied Netherlands, staunchly supporting the Dutch resistance and becoming a symbol of resistance herself. As ‘mother of the nation’, Wilhelmina earned popular support for the monarchy that continues today. The Queen’s Day tradition ultimately survived the war and became more generally a celebration of Dutch unity.

A Queen’s Day tragedy

In recent decades, Queen’s Day is marked by a goodly dose of national pride, an excess of bright-orange-everything, city-wide flea markets, live music, a royal procession, packed canals, and lots of Heineken. It’s always very merry – except in 2009, when 38-year-old Dutch national Karst Roeland Tates drove through an Apeldoorn crowd in a failed attempt to attack the Royal family, killing seven people and himself. That year, the shock of tragedy cast a dark shadow over the holiday. But the Dutch rallied, and the celebration has only gotten more orange and more exuberant ever since.

When Queen Beatrix abdicated in 2013, Willem-Alexander, Prince of Orange, ascended the throne to become the youngest monarch in Europe and the first king ever to celebrate Koningsdag, which was moved to his birthday. On April 27, King Willem-Alexander and his family will celebrate in Groningen.

Top shelf royals

Most of the year, the Dutch royal family doesn’t enjoy the same celebré that, say, the British monarchy does. Curious about every pair of shoes Kate Middleton has ever worn? The internet is here for you. Obsessive about British royal children? You’re not the only one. Hoping for an invite to the next royal wedding? Good luck. Need some ‘Markle Sparkle’ in your life? This guy has you covered.

But what does anyone really know about the lives of the Dutch royal family?

A reported 50 percent of Dutch citizens couldn’t care less about the trappings of royal life. Thanks to their inherent egalitarianism, it’s basically a cultural imperative for the Dutch to shrug off the glamour of the ruling class. What they do like about their royals, says RUG PhD student Laura Nederveen, is that ‘the King and Queen behave quite normally.’ King Willem-Alexander and his wife, Máxima, don’t put on a show; they are only ever photographed performing official duties. Their princess daughters, including The Princess of Orange and heir to the throne Catharina-Amalia Beatrix Carmen Victoria, ride their bicycles to public school just like everyone else. Heel gewoon.

But did you know that the Dutch royal family is more expensive than the British royal family? It’s true.  So now that you’re in the Netherlands, go ahead: be smug. We’ve only got top shelf royals here!

What to do: King’s Night

King’s Day festivities kick off the night of April 26 – Koningsnacht – with fun activities and live music all over the city. On the main stage at the Vismarkt, performances start at 19:00.

There will be a food festival near the Vissersbrug in the city centre, complete with specialty food trucks and outdoor bars: a Groningen King’s Day first!

The international Student Hotel will host a game-night from 21:00 – 23:30. ‘Crazy Kingsday Games: The Real Dutch Experience.’ Entry for non-residents is €5,00.

For a real Netherlands party experience, get tickets for the patriotic sing-along at the Stadspark racecourse with ‘the Heroes of Orange’. Whatever you do, make sure you are dressed to impress.

What to do: King’s Day

This year’s main attraction is, of course, the Royal family procession. The walking tour will start at 11:00 at the gate of the Prinsenhof and wind through city centre, ending at the Vismarkt, where the King and his family will enjoy a rendition of the national anthem before they take their leave of Groningen. Check here for a procession map and description of the events at each stop along the way.

In the afternoon, there will be a fun two hour sailing parade: cheerful orange boats packed with tipsy merry-makers will make their lazy way through the city canals, starting at the Ludina-terrace near the Ebbingebrug and ending at the Vissersbrug. If you want to relax and enjoy all the action from the water, sign up here.

There will be live music performances on the main stage at the Vismarkt, and at several bars along the Zuiderdiep. There will also be a TOP 40 party at King’s Live Square at the Poeleplein.

If you love to dance and sing, head over to the Ubbo Emmiussingel for some fun. And if you really want to let loose, don’t miss the the Kingsland Dance Festival in the stadspark, a student favourite. Find more information and tickets here.

Flea Markets

King’s Day is famous for outdoor flea markets. Buy, barter, sell, and trade: put all your crap on a blanket and make some pocket money. Meet your neighbours; meet your neighbour’s neighbours; meet everybody. Thanks to the royal visit and the larger-than-usual influx of visitors this year, the flea market has moved from the city streets into the lovely Noorderplantsoen. Park your blankets anywhere along the Leliesingel and Kruissingel, or on the path along the basketball court near the Oranjesingel. And this year, no reserving spots! If you want to snag a good location, show up when the park opens at 7:00.

There will also be a special children’s flea market on the Westerhaven.

Family and Food

More for kids: the Young Academy Groningen is throwing a King’s Day Science fair on the Harmonieplein called ‘Knowledge is King!’, where curious kiddos can enjoy science workshops hosted by researchers from the RUG and UMCG. The Family Square at the Ossenmarkt will also have lots of fun activities for kids.

The food festival near the Vissersbrug will continue through King’s Day. But when your stomach starts to protest all the fried food, sugar, and booze, walk over to the Ubbo Emmiussingel to explore ‘Groningen: healthiest city of the Netherlands’. Treat yourself to some healthy eats and visit a pop-up clinic to make sure your body will survive the rest of the holiday.

Everything else you need to know

Check here for a full King’s Night and King’s Day programme.

Check here for a list of local clubs and parties.

Check here for more even more events.

Don’t get your bike confiscated! Here are all the places you can’t leave your bike during the festivities.

And here are the essential Dutch phrases you’ll need for Koningsdag.

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