This summer is about being a local tourist in DC with my mom and nephews, and you just can’t see DC without a visit to the International Spy Museum, especially if you are going with your 11-year old nephew who loves everything “spy” (well, I kind of do too). I must warn you that this museum is not like the typical museums in DC – FREE!. This one you have to pay for and dearly! It was about $50 for my mom (senior), my nephew (child) and me (adult). I think it is a little cheaper if you buy your tickets on-line at the museum’s website and then you don’t have to wait in line either. An added bonus!
After you purchase your tickets, you take an elevator to the top of the building, where you see a short movie about how there are spies everywhere and nothing is what is seems.
From there, we were instructed to read the spy biographies on the walls and choose a spy cover. For the duration of the visit, I was Angelina Falcone, a 33-year old (oh to be 33 again…) travel agent traveling to Vietnam for a month in search of hotels to recommend to my clients. My mom became Sandra Miller, a 62-year old clothing store owner. My nephew picked Billy Henderson, a boy around his age who was traveling on vacation. We were told by a museum guard to memorize our “covers.” Could we stay undercover? A immigration officer (about half-way through the museum) and two computer verifications of our cover stories confirmed that we were true spies.
The museum is self-guided through different-themed rooms. As a kid I wanted to be a spy or a detective so this kind of stuff was right up my alley. Interactive monitors test one’s powers of observation and teach you what to look for when it comes to suspicious activity. My nephew, mom and I walked from display case to display case marveling at early bugging devices in buttonholes, shoes and hats. Single-shot pistols disguised as a in lipstick tube (our favorite) and umbrellas.
Various videos show spies talking about bugging devices and locks and picks. You can watch a video that shows individuals being made up for disguise.
You can even crawl on your belly through ductwork in the ceiling overhead. My mom and I decided to skip this one, but my nephew said it was fun. Conversations you hear are taped, not floating up from the room of tourists below.
You will need to pace yourself because much more follows in this 80,000 square foot museum. The museum boasts the largest collection of international espionage artifacts ever put on public display. You can see a James Bond car, a re-created tunnel beneath the divided city of Berlin during the Cold War; an exhibit on escape and evasion techniques in wartime; the tales of spies of recent times (think Robert Hanssen), told by the CIA and FBI agents involved in identifying them; and a mock-up of an intelligence agency’s 21st-century operations center.
Lining the walls are blown-up photographs of celebrity spies — who knew that J… (did you think that I was going to tell you — no you have to go and find out for yourself).
You exit the museum directly to its gift shop where you can have you fill of cool spy gadgetry, books, t-shirts all for a price. My mom and I had to pull the reins on my nephew here, both in time and money. We had given him a spending budget which we had to stick to our guns and not cave.
The museum shop leads to the Spy City Café. Lunch at the Spy City Cafe fortified us for our next mission – National Museum of Crime and Punishment (which is located just down the street). The Spy City Cafe offered a selection of salads, sandwiches, pastas, chicken fingers and hot dogs. My mom and nephew had the pasta. I was somewhat limited in my choices since everything seemed to have wheat (I have recently found that I’m gluten sensitive) in it from buns to pasta. I settled for chicken fingers and fries which seemed o.k. at the time, but that is another story too.