A Guide to Celebrating Carnival in the Netherlands

March 21, 2017

If you’ve never heard of the Dutch Carnival, just imagine a huge street party that everyone’s invited to and you’ve pretty much got it. Also called vastenavond, this once pagan festival occurs on the three days before the Christian holidays of Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent.

It’s a great excuse for a trip to the Netherlands, and it’s easy to get there from the UK, with a direct ferry from Newcastle to Amsterdam, or from Dover to Dunkirk in the south for fast motorway links via Belgium.

What is Carnival?

It’s all about turning social norms on their head and turning the everyday into the unexpected. It’s generally celebrated more in the south of the country, in the traditionally Catholic areas, but most people get involved in one way or another. People dress up, cities change their names, and the streets fill with colourful parades

Every city chooses a Prince of the Carnival to be master of ceremonies and open and close the festivities, at which point the city temporarily changes its name. Officially Carnival takes place over three days, but in many cities (usually if they have a lot of students) the celebrations tend to spill into the whole week.

What happens?

Generally a great deal of drinking, but things rarely get out of control or overly rowdy. There’s even an epic bar crawl on Stratumseind in Eindhoven, said to be the longest bar street in Europe. There’s also plenty of feasting, with street food and markets in city squares to keep the revellers happy.

The parade is a big feature of Carnival, with wild and wacky floats designed and created by clubs formed especially for the purpose. A lot of effort goes into creating these floats, they’re always very quirky, and there’s often some friendly competition to make the best one. Usually marching alongside the floats are one or more brass bands, dressed in matching traditional Dutch attire (though usually with a twist, like everything else at Carnival).

Where to go?

Carnival celebrations predominantly take place in the southern cities of the Netherlands, and people from the north often travel down to take part. Northern cities might have smaller parades, but the south is where you’ll find the most of the festivities.

The biggest Carnival celebrations usually take place in Maastricht, with the Prince of the Carnival leading a grand parade through the streets, and the focal point of the festivities in Vrijthof Square. As well as the main parade, there’s also a children’s parade aimed at families, and a brass band competition.

Tilburg holds the Opstoet, its Carnival parade, every year on the Sunday of the festival period, with a grand opening ceremony starting at the central station where the Prince is given the key to the city. Later on there’s also a pub crawl and a special concert.

In most cities, including Tilburg and Eindhoven, you can purchase a pub crawl tie in advance that entitles you to a free beer at each bar on the list, making it definitely worth getting. They’re usually available online.

Have fun!

This is really the best tip for enjoying Carnival. It might seem like a slightly bewildering event to any visitor at first, but you just have to let go and get stuck in. Throw your best fancy dress on, leave convention at the door, and have fun!


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