Museums After Hours: D.C.’s Best Kept Secret

If you like visiting the capital’s museums by day, you’ll love what they offer after five

Bollywood Asia After Dark

Washington, D.C. is home to over 50 museums, making it the perfect destination for visitors looking to soak up history, science and culture. The Smithsonian museums alone draw over 30 million visitors each year. But many out-of-towners don't know that some of the area's best museum offerings happen after regular hours. Over the last few years, more and more D.C. museums have begun opening their doors after five for thematic events, musical performances, special curator-led tours and, of course, cocktails and mingling.

National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden: Jazz in the Garden

By Day: A part of the National Gallery of Art, the National Sculpture Garden, located on the National Mall, includes world-class works by sculptors like Claes OldenburgLouise Bourgeois and Joan Miró.

By Night: Each Friday evening during the summer months, visitors to the National Sculpture Garden are treated with one of the best free jazz concerts in the city. Jazz in the Garden, now in its 14th season, runs from 5:00-8:30 p.m. and features all styles of jazz, from blues fusion to Afrofunk. Arrive early to stake out a picnic spot on the grass or dip your feet in the circular fountain at the garden's center. Snacks are welcome and refreshments, including pitchers of sangria, are sold at stands around the garden.

The Phillips Collection: Phillips After 5

By Day: Situated near Dupont Circle, away from the hustle and bustle of the National Mall, the Phillips Collection, an intimate museum founded by Duncan Phillips and Marjorie Acker Phillips in 1921. The collection is considered to be America's first museum of modern art, and features works from artists such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Mark Rothko, Vincent Van Gogh and Georgia O'Keeffe. Be sure to check out Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, the best known and most popular work in the permanent collection. Tickets to the museum are $12 for adults; students and seniors can get in for $10.

By Night: For a completely unique experience, visit the museum after hours on the first Thursday of each month. From 5 to 8:30 p.m, the space comes alive with music, food and cocktails. Phillips After 5 features a different theme each month: the next event, on July 3, will celebrate America's birthday, while the August 7 program will focus on art and American cuisine and include a "moveable feast of food trucks." Ticket prices are the same as daytime admission, but the programs are very popular, so reservations are recommended.

National Building Museum: Summer Block Party

By Day: It might lack the name recognition of D.C.'s more famous museums, but the National Building Museum is one of the city's treasures, devoted to "the history and impact of the built environment." The museum itself is a spectacle, housed in a beautiful 1887 structure that used to be the Pension Building. Inside the building, visitors are treated to the impressive Great Hall, featuring towering 75-foot-tall Corinthian columns and a 1,200-foot terra cotta frieze. The museum features exhibits like House & Home, which explores the importance of famous homes in America, and Designing for Disaster, which looks at architectural innovations in natural hazard-prone areas. Starting July 4, visitors can also explore a massive, 60-foot-square labyrinth, dubbed the "BIG Maze." Tickets, including admission to the maze and exhibits, are $16 for adults, $13 for children, students and seniors.

By Night: During the summer, visitors can take advantage of the National Building Museum's Summer Block Party, which boasts a plethora of after-hours activities. Enjoy live concerts and award-winning BBQ from Hill Country at the museum's Backyard Barbeque pop-up every Thursday through Saturday throughout the summer, and explore the museum's exhibits and maze during extended hours on July 31, August 7, 14, 21 and 28. Admission to the barbeque area is free (food and drinks can be purchased); daytime rates apply to the museum's extended hours.

Adventurous souls can also wander the museum's historic dark halls by lantern light on a special nighttime Ghost Tour on July 25. Additional tours will be available closer to Halloween.

Freer | Sackler Gallery: Asia After Dark

By Day: By day, the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art, two connected galleries, comprise the Institution's national museums of Asian art—and contain the largest Asian art research library in the country. The Freer Gallery also contains an important collection of 19th century American art, including the stunning Peacock Room, created by James McNeill Whistler—which is thought to be one of the earliest art installations ever created.

Be sure to check out the hanging sculpture "Monkeys Grasp for the Moon," created especially for the Sackler Gallery's staircase by contemporary Chinese artist Xu Bing. Other highlights include a 14th century sculpture of the seated Buddha (also in the Sackler), a 13th century ivory throne leg (in the Freer) and tiger sculptures from 900 B.C. (also in the Freer).

By Night: The Freer and Sackler Galleries provide some of the Smithsonian's most unique after-hours programming. In early June, they rebooted their popular "Asia After Dark," an evening event that featured the sights and sounds of Bollywood, complete with tours of the museums' Indian art installations, Bollywood-inspired dance classes, music by Basement Bhangra pioneer DJ Rekha and specialty cocktails. Missed this one? Don't worry, on July 25, be sure to catch a special free closing program for "Kiyochika: Master of the Night," an exhibition of Japanese woodblock prints. The museums will offer music, costumes (bowler hats and mustaches), food trucks and curator tours late into the night.

The National Zoo: Brew at the Zoo

By Day: This past August, panda-monium took over the country after Mei Xiang, one of the Smithsonian National Zoo's giant pandas, gave birth to a healthy little girl, Bao Bao. Come to see Bao Bao, but don't forget to check out the cheetahs in the Conservation Station, or the endangered kiwis in the Bird House. And don't miss the elephants—the National Zoo is home to seven, including three recent additions that will be viewable by the public soon

By Night: D.C. has a thriving craft beer culture—but you might be surprised to find it at the Zoo! Each year, the National Zoo puts on their craft beer festival Brew at the Zoo, which features sample beers from more than 60 craft breweries. Visitors can also grab food from local food trucks, play lawn games, watch animal demonstrations and learn about conservation efforts. This year's Brew at the Zoo is taking place Thursday, July 17, from 6-9 p.m.. Tickets are $50 for Friends of the National Zoo and $60 for the general public (note: it's a 21+ event).

National Gallery of Art: Concert Series

By Day: Opened in 1937 thanks to a joint resolution of the United States Congress, the National Gallery of Art features one of the nation's best collections of Western art, from the Middle Ages up through present day. Free to the public, the museum's massive collection spans two buildings—the West Building, built in 1941, and the more modern East Building, built in 1978 (currently closed for renovations). Don't miss the only Leonardo da Vinci in the Americas, Ginevra de' Benci, a portrait of a 16-year-old girl from a wealthy Renaissance family, or the recently acquired Vincent van Gogh masterpiece Still Life of Oranges and Lemons with Blue Gloves.

By Night: On Sunday evenings in June, the National Gallery of Art transforms into a performance space for esteemed classical performers through its National Gallery of Art Concert Series, now in its 72nd season. This month, visitors will be treated to performances by Philippe Entremont (a French classical pianist and conductor) and the National Gallery of Art Chamber Players. The performances are free to the public and held immediately after the museum closes on Sundays in the West Building's West Garden Court.