Across the Netherlands, most annual festivals are arts- or music-based affairs, confined to a particular town or city, though there is also a liberal sprinkling of folkloric events celebrating one local event or another – the Alkmaar cheese market being a case in point. Most festivals take place during the summer and the local tourist office can be guaranteed to have all the latest details.
Elfstedentocht (Eleven Cities’ Journey) Friesland w elfstedentocht.nl. Annual ice-skating marathon along the frozen rivers of Friesland, starting and finishing in Leeuwarden. Weather permitting.
Holland Flowers Festival Enkhuizen w hollandflowersfestival.nl. The world’s largest covered flower show held over five days in late February.
Lent carnivals All sorts of shenanigans at the beginning of Lent in Breda, ’s Hertogenbosch, Maastricht and other southern towns. Late Feb to early March.
Keukenhof Gardens Lisse w keukenhof.nl. World-renowned floral displays in the bulbfields and hothouses of this large, sprawling park. Late March to late May.
Alkmaar Cheese Market Alkmaar w www.kaasmarkt.nl. Held every Friday (10am–12.30pm), from the first Friday in April to the first Friday in September.
ABN AMRO Marathon Rotterdam w rotterdammarathon.nl. Popular long-distance run beginning in the city centre. Held on a Sunday in April.
King’s Day (Koningsdag) Nationwide (April 27). This is one of the most popular dates in the Dutch diary, a street event par excellence. Celebrations in honour of the king take place throughout the Netherlands, but festivities in Amsterdam tend to be the wildest of the lot, with the city’s streets and canals lined with people dressed in ridiculous costumes. Anything goes, especially if it’s orange – the Dutch national colour. This is also the one day of the year when goods can be bought and sold tax-free to anyone on the streets, and numerous stalls are set up in front of people’s houses.
Scheveningen Sand Sculpture Festival Scheveningen w sandsculptures.nl. Hard-working teams descend on the resort from all over Europe to create amazing sand sculptures, which are left for three weeks for visitors to admire. May to mid-June.
Herdenkingsdag (Remembrance Day) There’s wreath-laying all over the country and a two-minute silence is widely observed in honour of the Dutch dead of World War II. May 4.
Bevrijdingsdag (Liberation Day) The country celebrates the 1945 liberation from German occupation with music, outdoor festivals and processions. May 5.
Breda Jazz Festival Breda w bredajazzfestival.nl. Has open-air concerts and street parades over four days in late May.
Pinkpop festival Landgraaf, near Maastricht w pinkpop.nl. A top-ranking, three-day open-air rock festival held at the end of May.
Holland Festival Amsterdam w hollandfestival.nl. This month-long performing arts festival covers all aspects of both national and international music, theatre, dance and the contemporary arts. Throughout June.
Oerol Festival Terschelling w oerol.nl. A ten-day event featuring theatre and stand-up comedy; mid- to late June.
North Sea Jazz Festival Rotterdam w northseajazz.com. Outstanding three-day jazz festival showcasing international names as well as local talent. Multiple stages and a thousand musicians. Mid-July.
Woodstock69 Bloemendaal aan Zee w woodstock69.nl. Festival held on Bloemendaal beach and featuring live percussion, dance acts and plenty of revelry. Begins in April and runs through to September, but July and August are the busiest – and best – months. There are daily shows in high season, weekend shows in the shoulder season.
Internationale Vierdaagse Afstandmarsen Nijmegen w 4daagse.nl. One of the world’s largest walking events, with over 30,000 participants walking 30–50km per day over four days. Late July.
Sneek Week Sneek w sneekweek.nl. International sailing event in Sneek, with around 1000 boats competing in over thirty classes. Early Aug.
Amsterdam Gay Pride Amsterdam w amsterdamgaypride.nl. The city’s gay community celebrates with street parties and performances, as well as a “Canal Pride” flotilla of boats parading along the Prinsengracht. First or second weekend.
Grachtenfestival Amsterdam w grachtenfestival.nl. For nine days, international musicians perform classical music at historic locations in the city centre. Includes the Prinsengrachtconcert, one of the world’s most prestigious open-air concerts, featuring a stage over the canal and a promenading audience. Mid-August.
Open Monumentendag (Open Monument Day) w openmonumentendag.nl. For two days in September, monuments and historical attractions that are normally closed or have restricted opening times throw open their doors to the public for free. Second weekend.
Amsterdam Marathon Amsterdam w amsterdammarathon.nl. Popular city marathon starting and finishing inside the Olympic Stadium and passing through the city centre along the way. Held in early/mid-Oct.
Crossing Border The Hague w crossingborder.nl. Four-day festival that aims to cross artistic boundaries with performances by over a hundred international acts presenting the spoken word in various forms, from rap to poetry. Second or third week.
Parade of Sint Nicolaas Amsterdam. The traditional parade of Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) through the city on his white horse, starting from behind Centraal Station where he arrives by steamboat, before proceeding down the Damrak towards Rembrandtplein accompanied by his helpers, the Zwarte Pieten (“Black Peters”) – so called because of their blackened faces – who hand out sweets and little presents. It all finishes on the Leidseplein. Second or third Sunday.
International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam w idfa.nl. Arguably the world’s largest documentary film festival, held over ten days in Amsterdam and showing around 250 domestic and international documentaries. Mid- to late November.
Pakjesavond (Present Evening) Nationwide. Pakjesavond, rather than Christmas Day, is when Dutch kids receive their Christmas presents. If you’re in the Netherlands on that day and have Dutch friends, it’s worth knowing that it’s traditional to give a present together with an amusing poem you have written caricaturing the recipient. For the children, legend asserts that presents are dropped down the chimney by Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) as Sinterklaas rides across the rooftops on his white horse. Traditionally, kids sing songs to make Sinterklaas happy in the weeks before Pakjesavond as there is always the chance of being caught by Zwarte Piet (if you haven’t been good) and sent to Spain – where Sinterklaas lives – in a brown bag. December 5.