Washington, DC: International Spy Museum

IMG_0523 (2)A favorite with adults and children alike, the International Spy Museum is as advertised—a museum dedicated to the art, history, and glamour of spying. My family and I visited the Spy Museum on a recent trip to DC and, although Len did a great review in the Unofficial Guide to Washington, D.C., I decided to tell you all about it and what it was like for us.

The International Spy Museum is located at 800 F St NW, right near the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Verizon Center, and many other hot tourist spots. It is easily accessible by public transportation, only a block away from the Gallery Place Metro Station (Red, Green, Yellow lines).

Getting In

I feel the need to begin at the entrance process, which I guess is beginning at the beginning. When you walk by you may notice a long line on the sidewalk and an even longer, switchbacking line inside. As intimidating as that is, it’s probably not as bad as it looks. The outside line is to buy tickets, which moves pretty quickly. (You can also buy tickets online in advance if you want, and skip this line.)

Unfortunately this is not free like many D.C. museums; the cost is $21.95 for anyone 12 and up, $14.95 for children age 7-11, and $15.95 for 65+, military, law enforcement, and fire department employees. Ages 6 and under are free, which is nice because around 7 is when they really start to “get” what the Spy Museum is about.

The larger line inside is how they space out visitors to the museum. The actual Spy Museum starts on the top floor and the only way up is via elevator. While the larger line is a pain, it moves regularly and it is worth it when you walk into the highly interactive first section with only 50 people instead of 500.

Covers and Legends

Speaking of interactive elements, the far-and-away best part about the Spy Museum is its interactivity, which begins once you exit the entry elevator into Covers and Legends. This room is full of alternate identities and guests are instructed to select one and memorize all the details associated with their new cover.

Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to take on the identity of a 13-year-old Mexican girl, a 37-year-old Chinese businessman, or any of the multitude of characters listed along the walls. You better remember your cover, there is a quiz!

School for Spies

Following the choosing of your cover there is a short movie that doesn’t really add much to the experience, but after that is School for Spies, which is where you encounter the quiz stations for your cover. Answering all the questions correctly will unlock more details about your mission, which you will be asked about later.

This room also contains some necessary information about spying, including what a dead drop is and how to identify security or surveillance. The quiz-like nature of each station makes it fun, but also can cause backups at each machine. Oh well, part of being a good spy is having a panoply of patience.

My personal favorite permanent section (I’ll get to the temporary one later) is the tail end of School for Spies, which is where the museum displays hundreds of pieces of equipment that were actually used by spies. These include recording equipment (the older of which are comically large), disguises, weapons, and tools that could be stashed in secret pockets, boots, and worse. It wouldn’t be polite to print where “worse” is, but use your imagination (yes, your gutter-mind is correct).

It should also be mentioned that this section contains the best of all of the interactive elements: the air duct. It is as it sounds, an overhead vent with a semi-hidden entrance that children and adults can (just barely) fit through. From inside, you can look down on other guests and say things like “come out to the coast, have a few laughs” like John McClane in Die Hard. Well, maybe that’s just us.

The Secret History of History

Moving on begins the journey through time as you travel into The Secret History of History. Some of it, such as the legend of the Trojan Horse or the existence of ninjas, is less than secret. Other facts, like the fake protection force of Operation Bodyguard that helped fool the Axis powers during World War II, are less heard about.

Personally, we didn’t spend as much time in this section as I would have liked. While there are a few semi-interactive spots (like sitting at a desk–every kid’s dream), my 7 and 5 year olds just weren’t that interested in the history of the KGB or cryptography. I, on the other hand, am very interested and plan on forcing them to learn in the future.

50 Years of Bond Villains

The lower floor of the museum is currently—and for the foreseeable future—dedicated to the villains of the James Bond franchise. I’m going to go ahead and add a caveat here that I am a big fan of the James Bond movies (and books). Naturally, I loved this large section with all of its odd movie props, but even my wife (not necessarily a fan) and kids (no idea who James Bond is) enjoyed this area of the museum.

Part of the reason it has mass appeal is the same as the rest of the Spy Museum: interactivity. There is a bar/wind tunnel setup where you can see how long you can hang from a “helicopter skid” that is quite popular. If you are looking to scare the bejeezus out of a friend or family member (and of course you are), go into the “underwater shark tank” and have them tap on the screen that specifically says not to. I won’t spoil the surprise.

For film fans or just fans of the ridiculousness of Bond villains, there are some great props, such as:

Operation Spy

If you haven’t yet hit your mole maximum, there is Operation Spy, a $15 add on (or $29 including museum admission). You and your team are responsible for tracking down a bomb and using all of the spy knowledge you have amassed during your visit. It involves escape abilities, decryption, and covert meetings. While very entertaining, it moves a little faster than we would like.

Naturally, the museum ends in a gift shop although it is one of the more fun shops to browse. From inventive t-shirts (including the super-popular “Deny Everything” shirt) to books to “spy” equipment, good luck getting out of there with your wallet intact.

I hadn’t visited the Spy Museum in years, and never with children. As a former local, I had always seen it as a gimmicky, crowded, tourist trap. Happily I can say that my mind was mostly changed on this visit. It is still all of those things, but the exhibits are so interesting and so well put together that it’s hard to be too critical of it being popular. Luckily, many of the space and crowd concerns should be alleviated when the Spy Museum constructs its new digs near the L’Enfant Plaza in 2018.

Brian McNichols

In addition to blogging, I also do some analyzin' here at Touring Plans. I am a travel nut, planning nut, Disney nut, wall nut. Husband of 1, father of 2. Hilariously funny in my own mind. Find me on Twitter @YesThatBrian if you like really dumb jokes.

7 thoughts on “Washington, DC: International Spy Museum

  • August 10, 2016 at 7:49 am
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    We were at the spy museum a month ago with our 9-year-olds. We all loved it. It was a nice break from the more “formal” touring of museums and other public buildings, as the kids could “act more like kids” here.

    I would add that the MOST fun for my kids (and perhaps your young ones?) is the “Free Family Mission Guide” they have at the front desk (or you can download online). They didn’t offer us these, but I had read about them at their website. The kids each got one and had things to look for and tasks to complete in each room (climbing through the air duct and identifying the language being spoken, etc). In addition, they had 4-5 “Dead Drops” with secret coded messages to decipher, resulting in a final message. This was just hysterical–as the coded messages were hidden in the most random places (the worst was near a restroom behind a bench–my kids awkwardly tried to peek behind the bench with the man on it wondering what on earth they were doing). A great time. We went early–the first hour it opened and there were no lines and the exhibits were fairly “open,” which was nice also.

  • August 10, 2016 at 8:51 am
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    Can claustrophobes bypass the air duct?

    • August 10, 2016 at 10:03 am
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      Absolutely. You can just walk by it. Totally optional.

  • August 10, 2016 at 8:59 am
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    My kids would love this! Definitely adding it to our DC itinerary! How much time would you allow for this museum?

  • August 10, 2016 at 10:02 am
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    Often, LivingSocial seems to have discounted passes to both this museum and the Newseum–two of the pricier options in DC. It’s a good bet to check this out if you’re planning a visit.

    Also, you might want to check for major events if you’re planning on visiting the Spy Museum or the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery–they are right next to the Verizon center, so if there’s a big show/game, it can get a little wild there sometimes with larger crowds.

    Lots of food options nearby.

  • August 10, 2016 at 12:20 pm
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    the elevator in the beginning always reminded me a little of the elevator at the beginning of Disney Quest

  • August 11, 2016 at 3:19 pm
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    Great timing on this post, as DD17 and I are headed to DC next week. This is now at the top of my list of things to do!

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