Stay up for the European Night of Museums

Stay up late this spring, when Europe's annual celebration of culture and the arts delivers after-hours openings and inspiring events for all

What's the attraction?

Who wouldn't want to poke around a museum after dark? As night falls, it's easy to let your imagination run wild, imagining the exhibits coming to life as you wander through dimly lit halls of Egyptian mummies, past towering dinosaur skeletons (remember Ben Stiller in Night at the Museum?).

The first Lange Nacht der Museen took place in 1997 in Berlin, the first Nuit des Musées in France in 1999, spreading out across Europe in 2005 to become the European Night of Museums. Last year, two million visitors in France alone enjoyed the special events, temporary installations and dramatic performances at venues across the country.

This year, on 18 May, the programme, backed by Unesco, will unfold across more than 30 countries across Europe (nuitdesmusees.culture.fr).

Home run

In the UK, you get three nights for the price of one (16-18 May; culture24.org.uk). Last year, more than 530 venues got involved in the event. This year looks set to be even better: new venues taking part include the Golden Hinde galleon in London and Manchester's new National Football Museum. Highlights include an all-night poetry workshop at the Writers' Centre in Norwich (01603 877177; writerscentre norwich.org.uk; £65) and a free 1920s murder-mystery performance at Blackwell The Arts and Crafts House in Cumbria (015394 46139; blackwell.org.uk; booking essential).

Early birds

Not everyone toes the date-line. Those doing their own thing include Sweden. Stockholm's annual Culture Night (kulturnattstockholm.se) takes place this coming Saturday from 6pm until midnight and offers free admission to more than 100 events at more than 85 art galleries, clubs, museums and theatres, including boat rides around the archipelago.

In Switzerland, Geneva's Museum Night is on 11 May. The tourist board has a special offer of one night's accommodation, a Museums at Night ticket (there are 21 places flinging open their doors until midnight and a host of additional activities) and a free public-transport card for Sfr68 (£48)pp, when booked online at geneve-tourisme.ch. Flights extra.

Artistic licence

At the Paul Dupuy Museum in Toulouse there will be readings of the works of Villon, Ronsard, Rimbaud and Verlaine on 18 May (00 33 5 61 14 65 50; bit.ly/PaulDupuy; toulouse-visit.com), while elsewhere in France highlights include a film screening in the Vesunna museum in Aquitaine on Heroes and Mythology (perigueux-vesunna.fr). The Grenoble Museum will dedicate its night to the artist Giacometti (museedegrenoble.fr), and the Jean Cocteau Museum in Menton, will put on performances of the poet's favourite jazz (nuitdesmusees.culture.fr).

Night owls

At the Zoological Museum of Rome (00 39 06 67 109 270; museodizoologia.it; 7pm-2am; free) visitors can roam the exhibition halls before heading to the Zoo Lab, where there will be laboratory activities laid on for adults and children. In Ravenna, there's an evening of delights planned at the House of Butterflies (00 39 05 44 995 671; atlantide.net/casadelle farfalle). Not only will there be guided tours during the night in the tropical greenhouse, but children can bring a sleeping bag and bed down in the House of Insects. Evening activities cost €10 or €18 including an overnight stay and morning walk in the woods.

Wake up and smell the coffee

The Age of Discovery is the theme of Museum Night celebrations in Povoa de Varzim's town museum in northern Portugal (cm-pvarzim.pt; €20). In this traditional seafaring and shipbuilding town near

Porto, a vivid historical re-enactment is scheduled from 7pm until midnight, when the museum will be invaded by sailors, navigators, merchants, pilgrims and soldiers. The air will be scented with freshly brewed coffee, chocolate and spices brought back by the explorers. There will be a dinner in the courtyard, as well as music, dancers and jugglers.

And so to bed

Head to Belsay Hall in Northumberland for ghost stories in the castle keep, twilight rambles in the grounds and a cosy supper. There are 10 bedrooms (suitable for adults and children over 12) furnished with air beds. Just bring sleeping bags, pillows and a torch (0870 333 1183; bit.ly/BelsayNight; 7pm-8am; from £60 adults, £50 children; booking essential).

There's a dinosaur, rocks and fossils theme at Wrexham museum's family sleepover on 17 May. Suitable for children aged 7-11 (01978 297461; bit.ly/WrexhamNight; 7pm-9am, £7.50 per child, £3.75 per adult including breakfast).

At Kensington Palace children age 7-11 can act the little prince and princess at the family sleepover on 16 May (0844 482 7777; hrp.org.uk/kensingtonpalace; 6pm-9am; £55 per person).

Dress up as a dalek and head to the John Rylands Library in Manchester for a Dr Who-themed slumber party on 17 May. There's a prize for the best costume, you'll watch two episodes of the show and take a torch-lit tour of the library, solve the mystery of the missing Tardis and then bed down in the Historic Reading Room (0161 306 0555; library.manchester.ac.uk/rylands; 5-9pm, free but booking essential, age 8-14 accompanied by an adult).

As part of "Secrets of the Royal Bedchamber" at Hampton Court you can bed down in style in the palace on 17 May. There will be private tours and talks and supper in the privy kitchen before you clamber into bed (0844 482 7777; hrp.org.uk/hamptoncourtpalace; adults only, £100 including breakfast).

Insider information

"This year, the festival starts on a Thursday night. I am really looking forward to an event at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, where Gavin Turk will take visitors on a magic-carpet ride. Museums at Night has 10 artist-led events this year, each with its own unique quality akin to creative alchemy." Nick Stockman, project director of Museums at Night in the UK

Culture crawls

In Newcastle, you can go on a late-night culture crawl. Venues across the city will have a mix of events, exhibitions and performances as part of the Late Shows from 7-11pm on 17 and 18 May including a tea party, a behind-the-scenes look at a dinosaur exhibition and the opportunity to contribute to a constantly growing artwork (culture24.org.uk). In Liverpool, LightNight (lightnightliverpool.co.uk) kicks off at 4pm on 17 May with free events, such as large-scale light projections, a carnival and a samba procession, at more than 50 of the city's cultural venues.

Who said that?

"In poetically well-built museums, formed from the heart's compulsions, we are consoled not by finding in them old objects that we love, but by losing all sense of Time." from 'The Museum of Innocence' by Orhan Pamuk

"In museums and palaces we are alternate radicals and conservatives." Henry James

"We used to build temples, and museums are about as close as secular society dares to go in facing up to the idea that a good building can change your life (and a bad one can ruin it)."Alain de Botton

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