If there is one thing the Dutch love to do, that’s getting together, partying with friends and drinking a large amount of beer. Dutch Carnival is one massive excuse to make this all happen for a week of straight fun. Prepare yourself and you too can get in on the action.
This blog post aims to focus on tips for international visitors that wish to take part in this traditional Dutch event.
Maybe you’re an expat who lives in Amsterdam or an exchange student in Utrecht, I hope that you take part in the Carnaval and find this Ultimate guide to celebrating Dutch Carnival in the Netherlands useful and informative.
What makes the Dutch Carnival so special?
Whilst on study exchange at Tilburg University I stumbled across this traditional event that I never quite understood at first.
I had never heard about this incredible celebration of Dutch Carnaval until I moved to The Netherlands. After three years of taking part I can happily say its been one of the craziest weeks of my Dutch exchange experience in the Netherlands, and if you can be sure to take part.
The Dutch in the south has grown up with being around Carnaval all their life and embrace it without question each year.
If you don’t get invited along with a group of Dutchies you can easily be left out of the action.
Not that it’s a hidden secret or anything its just a way of life and the locals seem to miss out on the fact that Internationals have completely no clue about what’s going on.
If you happen to be an international in The Netherlands you might have seen carnaval promotions and wondered what it is all about and dare to get involved.
I remember when I first asked a Dutch friend if I could join him to his local village to celebrate carnival.
At first he was kind of surprised I wanted to join, but in the end, he comes around to the idea and thought it was great that I wanted to join him.
After a few phone calls I was in and we had an incredibly awesome time.
Don’t be afraid to ask your local Dutch friends from the south if you can join them for carnaval celebrations. See if they will be up for adopting you and showing you the ropes of the event.
And a message to all the Dutchies: If you know a fun international friend living in the Netherlands, be sure to take them on board and introduce them to the Dutch Carnaval way of life.
Dutch Carnaval can be confusing for International students on exchange in the south of the Netherlands.
It’s up to you to make this week incredible, by stepping up, committing to the Carnaval spirit and going all out with embracing the celebration.
By wanting to make it the best carnival of your life you will easily find other Dutchies also wanting to do the same.
You can decide to remain clueless and remain in your home city, from the outside, you won’t “get it or “understand it”, but don’t be this person, jump in and embrace it!
Buy a costume, get ready for some beers and crazy Dutch music. Prepare to travel around the South of The the Netherlands and fully enjoy the crazy world that is the Dutch Carnaval.
Make sure you have a loaded OV-chipkaart travel card to pay for your train tickets well in advance.
What is Dutch Carnaval?
Carnival in the Netherlands is called Carnaval and it’s traditionally celebrated in the Catholic region of the Netherlands in the south around the provinces of North Brabant and Limburg.
Carnival starts on Sunday and follows through to Ash Wednesday. Although many students use the Carnaval to party for a whole week and will often start from the Thursday through to the Wednesday.
Dates each year change depending on ash Wednesday, here are the upcoming dates each year:
2019: 3 to 5 March
2020: 23 to 25 February
2021: 14 to 16 February
2022: 27 February to 1 March
2023: 19 to 21 February
2024: 11 to 13 February
2025: 2 to 4 March
2026: 15 to 17 February
2027: 7 to 9 February
2028: 27 to 29 February
2029: 11 to 13 February
2030: 3 to 5 March
Travel advice and hotel information for Dutch Carnaval
This section is for those wishing to travel to the Netherlands to experience Dutch carnaval.
Locals from Holland will say that Carnaval only happens in the South of The Netherlands and this is true. Carnaval is traditionally celebrated in Brabant or Limburg.
I would recommend using the city of Eindhoven as a base for Dutch Carnaval.
Eindhoven has an international airport with access to affordable budget airlines, making it easy to reach the city.
Eindhoven also has a big central train station which offers easy train connections around the Netherlands from Amsterdam Central or Schipol Airport. Also, the train station will help to transport you to the other Carnaval cities during the week such as Den Bosch and Tilburg.
Eindhoven has the most hotel options to offer and I would recommend staying at The Student Hotel Eindhoven which is close to Eindhoven Central train station.
Eindhoven is located in the heart of the carnaval action and with short travelling time between the other towns and cities, this is a perfect spot to be for Dutch Carnaval.
Prince of Carnaval
During the Dutch carnival, each major city in the Netherlands will adopt a Prince of the Carnaval.
This means that the current mayor of each participating carnaval city will hand over the key to the city to the new mayor, the prince of carnaval for the duration of the carnival period.
He acts as a sort of Joker to the whole celebration and walks around the city pumping up the Carnaval spirit.
He is normally a successful businessman or has some sort of importance within the city. Many use the prince of carnaval position to promote themselves as you become a mini celebrating in the city that you represent.
It’s a great honour to be selected as the prince of Carnaval and they often wear tuxedos and wear a hat with an expensive rare bird feather attached to the top (Don’t attempt to touch the feather, you could get in trouble, don’t ask me how I know this).
The Carnaval is traditionally opened and closed by the Prince of carnaval, you can watch both ceremonies in your city.
Once the Prince has officially opened the carnival the cities around the south of the Netherlands will change their names to their Carnaval names. For example, Tilburg is changed to kruikenstad during Carnaval. (The English translation of kruikenstad is “piss collector” which dates back to Tilburg past as a textile city)
Dutch Carnaval Floats
Another popular Dutch carnaval tradition is carnaval floats. Each city will have a group of friends that form a carnaval club to create floats to be used at the carnaval parades. They often wear the same shirt and scarf and have worked on the float throughout the year.
It’s a lot of work and a great honour to host a float in a city parade. As the Dutch say “Work hard, play hard” and they are the definition of that.
The floats themselves are wonderful to watch throughout the carnival period as a lot of effort is put into creating the best float to win the Carnaval parade. They can get very large, creative and competitive, worth checking out for sure. Keep a lookout for the parade day and time in each city as they rotate.
Dutch Carnaval Brass bands
Brass bands around Brabant often form groups and perform and go around bars in the city during carnival too, you can spot them as they often wear the same costume and perform traditional old Dutch classics, great fun to watch.
The ultimate day to day plan for Dutch Carnaval
After being introduced to the Dutch carnaval by my local Dutch friends I want to share with you all the useful tips that I picked up throughout the years of attending the event so you can join in on the fun as well.
Here I will explain how to get the most out of the whole Dutch Carnaval as an International in The Netherlands and where you should visit around the Netherlands throughout the week.
Friday – Carnaval Volleyball tournament with FOSST in Tilburg University Sports centre
Celebrations start early for students wanting to make the most out of the carnival, FOSST a student sports association in Tilburg holds an annual volleyball competition and this kicks off the Carnaval celebrations. Sign up a volleyball team with 6-12 of your mates at €30 per team (register online).
This can be an easy way to sort out your Carnaval costume as your team needs to go as a theme.
After you have had some student priced beers in the sports bar (yes, Dutch gyms have bars serving beer!) head on over to the volleyball tournament after party at cafe Boukener in the city centre.
Make sure you purchase tickets in advance if you wish to participate at all events during Carnaval sell out fast.
Saturday – Maastricht or Tilburg
Depending on where you are in the Netherlands be sure to spend Saturday in either Tilburg (Brabant) or Maastricht (Limburg).
Each city has a different way of celebrating carnaval. Personally, I loved Tilburg as I’m biased and studied in the city.
I have heard that Maastricht also puts on a good show.
Saturday is the day to experience the opening ceremony when the prince of Carnaval gets the key to the city in the morning at the central train station.
The parade floats during the day are worth checking out.
Then you can attempt to visit as many bars as possible into the early hours of the morning.
If you spend your Saturday in Tilburg you can get a free tie to stamp off each bar you visit and follow a route, sort of like a pub crawl.
Both cities have a different style of doing Carnaval, so it’s up to you where you choose to party.
In my opinion, Tilburg is the best out of the two.
You can find a Bar called Carpe Noctem that will be hosting a Carnaval party for international students (I*ESN) on Saturday, worth checking out if you’re in town and want some cheap student beers.
Mostly all the bars (Even ones that remain closed throughout the year) will open up.
They will be playing crazy Dutch music and the party transforms and takes over the whole city. Many party tents around the city pop up and beer are endlessly flowing from keg taps non-stop on almost every corner.
The city will never look the same again and it’s a unique experience to be a part of this event.
Sunday – Eindhoven – Lampegat bar crawl
Every Sunday of Carnaval, Eindhoven plays host to the longest bar crawl along Europes longest bar street Stratumseind.
All you have to do is ensure that you purchase your pub crawl tie (ticket) well in advance online.
Then for one low price, you can visit 15 bars that are named on your tie and each bar you can get a beer or shot and one free snack at the end.
Each bar on your tie (ticket) will be struck off and the aim is to start at around Lunch time and finish visiting them all by the end of the day.
Great fun, a lot of beers and a lot of bars to explore around Eindhoven.
Be sure to gather a fun group of friends, grab the train in your fancy dress and have a cracking time.
Monday – Den Bosch float parade and street party
On Monday, travel to Den Bosch (capital of Brabant) which plays host to a wonderful float parade throughout the day. You will want to arrive here around lunchtime.
If you’re brave enough, you can try a “haring happen” which is raw herring a traditional Dutch delicacy along with onions (good luck!).
The float parade which is held on Monday is one of my favourite of the carnaval. The event is both traditional and well put together by the organisers.
After the parade, head to the main square. all the streets and bars quickly fill up with locals. It’s great fun and a perfect party atmosphere to spend for your Sunday antics.
Tuesday – Cuijk Kuukse Kroegetocht – The ultimate end party!
By this stage of the Dutch Carnaval week, you must have consumed a large quantity of beer.
At this point, you must have been forcing yourself awake each morning to get onto the next day of carnaval.
Your costume must smell like a Bar floor.
But get up, and jump on a train to Cuijk.
Trust me, just do it, you’re almost at the end.
You will have no energy remaining, but force yourself to get onto that train.
make sure you plan to go with some Dutch friends who will encourage you to be on time in the morning at the central train station. You can sleep the next day or on the train! get up and go!
First of all (just like all the other days) Please buy your ticket in advance online, this event always sells out and without a ticket, you can’t get into the village.
Yes, I said that right.
The village has a population of less than 25,000 and during Dutch Carnaval, the whole city is surrounded by a large metal cage.
Everyone that enters the town is locked in until home time.
Without a ticket you simply can not enter, you have been warned.
The city also has a maximum capacity and they will turn latecomers away if the town gets too full. Be sure to arrive early so you get in and then the fun can begin.
The whole town of Cuijk turns into a massive party, it’s like walking around a zombie movie or film set and feels surreal that a whole city is surrounded by a walled cage and taken over by people dressed up in funny costumes.
The aim of Cuijk is to visit all the bars on your ticket as quickly as possible to win a prize (notice a carnival theme here).
Once you have finished collecting all the stamps from each bar you have completed Carnaval! Congratulations!
Some brave party animals aim to always be the first to complete the bar crawl and every morning once the gates of the village of Cuijk open, ambitious groups aim to be the first to complete the crawl, wearing roller blades and attached together with rope.
They rollerblade to each bar, take a beer and shot before quickly racing to the next point.
It’s crazy, fun and exciting all at the same time and visiting this random enclosed town of Cuijk is the perfect way to end your week-long carnaval adventure.
Once you’ve had enough beers in Cuijk try to head home before the rush at the end.
Cuijk is connected to the major cities by a smaller sub commuter train that connects to the larger rail network.
Make sure you tap out your OV Chip card and tap into the different commuter train system to avoid paying a fine.
The only way out of the city is by the gate at the train station so you don’t want to get stuck here!
When your back in Tilburg you might be able to catch the closing ceremony in the city centre. To see if you can make it back in time as this would be a great way to end your week.
Extra bonus tips about Dutch Carnaval
Dutch Carnaval Music
Get used to hearing the same Dutch music on repeat in each bar you visit.
This is not any old music either this is Dutch Carnaval music.
It’s sort of like Christmas music, it’s fun to listen to at the start, but once you’ve heard the same song on repeat you will start to sing along and learn the words even though you have no idea how to speak Dutch. It’s rather fun to sing along and join in with this special carnaval music.
(An example, its like this on repeat, good luck!)
If you haven’t been able to learn Dutch yet this is this a fun time to learn some of the lyrics, the locals will happily translate them for you.
They might go something like: “make love with a bald guy” or “There is a horse in the hallway”. Really random lyrics that are either dubbed over a recent chart song or a rip off of a German Slager classic with an added Dutch twist.
All the locals know the words so be sure to join in!
You Have to dress up
Don’t even think about not dressing up, you would look out of place!
The whole point of Dutch carnival is to transform and become someone else for the week.
Let yourself go and have a great time.
This is why all Dutch people during carnival will dress up in crazy costumes, the more creative the better.
You simply can’t get away with it and you have to dress up, so don’t hide, be creative and come up with something fun to be for the week.
Many Fancy dress shops will pop up around the time of Dutch carnival to supply costumes, no point in renting as it will get damaged.
The cheapest place to buy a costume will be a Dutch shop called Action that sells a variety of costumes for cheap prices. You could also check out Primark that has a few options.
Just remember you will be wearing it for a whole week, so make sure it can stand the test of time. Best to purchase a couple of costumes to play around with during the week.
Prepare to drink a lot of beer and schrobbeler
If you think you have a drunk beer before in large amounts, wait until you survive a carnival.
Beer prices in the Netherlands are the same price as Coca Cola, you can pretty much be able to locate beer anywhere you go.
Beer taps seem to pop up magically all around the Netherlands during carnival in bizarre places.
Anyone who is willing to make money suddenly has a tap and offering beer for sale, even outside sushi restaurants, rather bizarre!
Just know your limits, Dutch people drink a lot of these small 0,2L beer cups, don’t try and keep up with them, you will fail.
Be sure to never drink alone, join in with a group money pot and offer to collect the beers from time to time.
another Dutch sport is attempting to balance 12 beers on a cardboard holder through a crowd of tipsy Dutchies, good luck!
Schrobbeler is a local liquor from Tilburg, it’s very common to drink during Dutch Carnaval and its sort of like a sweeter Jagermeister.
Worth trying, I’m sure you will. They even have a Dutch Carnaval Song for this drink: “Drink schrobbeler lah lah lah lah”
Buy A local Dutch Carnaval scarf
This helps in busy situations. Many bars become packed during carnaval and its hard to move around.
For this reason, bars may start to restrict entry.
I found one bar in Den Bosch only allowing customers in if they were wearing a local carnaval scarf to control the numbers.
You can buy a local scarf at a number of local bars in each city. Just ask around with the locals. I would recommend buying one on the first Saturday in Tilburg as they will be more in stock at the start of Carnaval.
Each City around the south of the Netherlands has its own colours and design.
In Tilburg, the scarf is orange and Green. A wonderful gift to remember your time at Dutch carnival and will keep you warm during the cold nights.
Dutch carnaval fried snacks
You will find it hard to stop and eat most of the time because you will be too busy partying.
Dutch snacks are quick, cheap and easy during Dutch Carnaval and will mostly be your staple throughout the week.
Enjoy your Frikandel XXL special, Kaassoufflé, krokets and if you’re lucky you might spot a loempia van for some authentic tasty spring rolls, yummy!
Thank you for reading my Dutch Carnaval guide
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my post all about the Dutch Carnaval in the South of The Netherlands.
Wishing you an incredible time and all the best with your Dutch Carnaval adventure! Feel free to send me an email if you have anything to add or want to share your personal experience.