From windmills and wooden clogs to LED and firecrackers, the Netherlands embraces its history and welcomes the future in festivals that attract people of all ages and interests.
Light Festival, Amsterdam
The seventh annual Light Festival will transform the historical city center into an open-air light museum this November. The festival issues a worldwide call for concepts and works with the 35 or so selected creators on their exhibits. Designed to showcase the abstract and figurative power of light as a visual art, the festival showcases a young art form boosted by the LED revolution.
The 2017/2018 exhibit included a huge digital clock that sped up, slowed down, and disappeared; a wave of light that illustrates the consequences of rising sea levels; an illusion of traveling through time; and purple slime mold overtaking a large building.
The best way to see the exhibition is by boat as the exhibits are designed to be reflected in Amsterdam’s many waterways. Winter visitors also enjoy ice skating in Dam Square and special Dutch treats such as stroopwafels (delicious chewy cookies), bitterballen (deep-fried, crunchy meatballs), patatje oorlong (numerous Dutch fires in a hot paper cone served with peanut satay sauce, mayo and onions), and their vast variety of cheeses.
The history of Keukenhof dates back to the 15th century when a countess used the castle grounds for her kitchen garden. It was redesigned in 1857 in the English landscape style. In 1949, a group of leading flower bulb growers was inspired to use the estate to exhibit their spring-flowering bulbs. Since then, the garden has become a world-famous attraction and a celebration of spring flowers, particularly tulips, and one of the world’s largest flower gardens.
Here, more than 7 million flower bulbs are planted every year. Gardens and four pavilions burst with a fantastic collection of tulips, hyacinths, daffodils, orchids, roses, carnations, irises, lilies and more. The range of colors and aromas is overwhelming.
The flower parade typically includes 50 floats and lavishly decorated cars. Huge blossoms and traditional windmills are popular themes. This parade in full spring bloom follows a 26-mile route from Noordwijk to Haarlem and passes the Keukenhof. Women like to wear hats decked with fresh flowers.
The Garden is easily accessible from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Plaza. Take the Keukenhof Express (Bus 858).
New Herring Celebration, Scheveningen Harbor
This festival celebrates the arrival of the New Herring in the Netherlands the second week of June. Fishermen in traditional costume board two ships, and wives in traditional dresses and headscarves wave goodbye from the quay. The ladies enjoy a high tea that afternoon. When the ships return, the largest herring party of the Netherlands begins with feasts of raw herring followed by a sing-along. About 200,000 people celebrate the arrival of the New Herring and most eat it raw.
Along the docks of the Scheveningen Harbours, the celebrations involve about 30 activities including shanty choirs, traditional clothing, traditional crafts, Old Dutch children’s games, a naval review, and more. Food revolves around raw herring. Herring are harvested year-round in the North Sea. The older the fish get, the fishier they taste, so they’re typically harvested further into fall and winter. The June “new herring” has a fresher, much less fishy taste than herring harvested later in the year. New Herring is celebrated all over the Netherlands, but the epicenter of the festivities is Scheveningen Harbor, The Hague.
Zomer Carnaval, Rotterdam
For the largest street party in the Netherlands, head to Rotterdam for the Zomer Carnaval. More than 2,500 dancers, 25 carnival groups, and 30 spectacular floats take to the streets in an explosion of joy, color, music, and creativity. Its mission is to make everyone dance, and it rivals Rio in costumes and revelry. A queen is elected and feted. The Queen has to look good, but above all, she must be a great Latin dancer! After the parade, bands battle it out on stage for the title of the Best Brass Band of the Netherlands. They can be heard from miles away. Carnaval participants are a melting pot of various cultures, but especially from the Netherlands Antilles and Cape Verde.
Besides dance and music, the carnival is all about tropical food and drinks. All kinds of exotic foods and beverages are sold from hundreds of food stalls. Go Latin and try a roti (flatbread sandwich) or bara (lentil dumpling.) The city hosts many other events, such as music and dance performances and poetry readings, during the week before the carnival. Festival highlights are the free concerts at Hofplein Square on Friday and Saturday evening.
Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) is welcomed to Amsterdam with more than a half mile of boats and floats. It is the largest St. Nicholas parade in the world and one of the few on the water. He sails into Amsterdam with 600 black-painted assistants, holding his white horse and sacks full of pepernoten, small, spiced biscuits. More than 400,000 people line the canals to welcome him. He tours the town on his horse Amerigo and stays in town until St. Nicholas Day, flying over rooftops to deliver gifts to good children and coal to naughty ones. He frequently appears at schools, shopping centers, and parties. Families celebrate Sinterklaas’ Feast by singing songs and filling up on sweets like marzipan, chocolate initials, ginger biscuits, and hot chocolate with whipped cream. He departs for Spain with little fanfare.
Chinese New Year, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, The Hauge
The Netherlands has one of the largest Chinese communities in Europe, and most live in large cities. In Amsterdam, there are dragon parades, lion dances, and fireworks in Dam Square and Nieuwmarkt. De Bijenkorf department store hosts calligraphy workshops, music performances, and tea ceremonies. Also in Amsterdam, street markets serve Chinese foods. Europe’s first floating Chinese restaurant, the Sea Palace, is festive for the season as are the many Chinese restaurants along the Stormsteeg and Geldersekade.
In the Hague, Chinese festivals are held in the city hall atrium and Chinatown. Events in Rotterdam leading up to the event are topped by a day of celebrations around Wijkpark het Oude Westen and West-Kruiskade Chinatown. It is tradition to eat yu sheng, raw fish salad, for good luck and fai-hai, seaweed, for financial good fortune.
Who knew that “going Dutch” could be so much fun!