If you have kids 10 and up, you’ll want to include the International Spy Museum in your Washington DC itinerary. We absolutely loved it. Even though there are many free museums to tour in DC, it’s absolutely worth the price of admission.
Why we loved it:
This museum is one of the most interactive we’ve seen. It was created by a 30+ year veteran of the CIA, and it shows. The first section allows you to pick a ‘cover’: a new name, occupation, and cover story for your ‘mission’. You are asked to memorize it, then continue to ‘Spy School’. This section includes exhibits on various spy skills: the art of disguise, but also observation skills and common practices of the trade, such as dead drops (and others I can no longer remember…I wouldn’t make a good spy). There are tests you can take, games to play, and video screen challenges to test your skill.
After learning what it takes to be a spy, you continue the cover story game. On a bank of computer screens, you’re questioned about your cover, and, if you remember your details correctly, you’re given a second set of instructions (where to meet a contact, etc). Memorize these details, too, because you’ll need them at the last computer station. Tip: If you forget your details, you’ll be told the agent questioning your (in the computer game) is suspicious, and you may not get the info you need for the next part. Realistic, but frustrating. Since this first bank of computers is near the front where you picked your cover, it’s not too late to walk back and try again.
The next rooms in the museum take you through tools of the trade for soys through the decades, from packs of cigarettes that conceal cameras to the tiny bugs of today. It’s downright fascinating. Additional rooms detail the history of spying, from early cyphers to Civil War agents to WWII code breakers. Again, you’ll be entranced. At least we were.
At the end of this section, a last bank of computer screens will further test your knowledge of your cover, asking you to remember details from the earlier screens. It’s fun. Again, if you’ve forgotten stuff, your game will end early, but this time, it will be too late to go back for more info (unless the museum is very uncrowded). If you have younger kids in your group who struggle with this game, don’t worry: it’s a very small part of the overall museum. Our nine-year-old had a hard time with it, but our 12-year-old and 15-year-old loved it.
You tour the downstairs of the museum last. This large section is dedicated to James Bond villains. It’s cool, of course, but a bit intense for young kids. The good news is, it’s easy to skip this level with a convenient exit. Older kids who are not familiar with Bond will probably still be interested, because it shows various ‘bad guys’ and the techniques and weapons they used. Our older kids had seen Bond films with their dad and grandpa (avid fans) so they found it very interesting. There are a few more interactive exhibits here: for instance, kids can test their strength by hanging from a bar while wind whips around them and the bar shakes (simulating hanging from a ledge).
The last exhibit as you exit is on contemporary threats to communication, i.e., hackers. It showcases what may happen should a spy or terrorist hack into the US power grid. The result is quite apocalyptic. Young kids can be walked past this exhibit without grasping it’s meaning, but older kids may be alarmed. My older kids loved this exhibit best. They found it scary but also thought-provoking. To be honest, so did I.
The exit of the museum deposits you directly into a gift shop (of course), but it’s a quite fun one, with spy gadgets and lots of books and fun t-shirts. Kids may want to part with souvenir money here. Give yourself at least two hours to tour the whole museum. We had 1.5 hours, and were a bit rushed at the end.
Note: There are several additional programs run by the museum that we didn’t have a chance to try, including an hour-long spy game in the museum and a GPS-based scavenger hunt type game in the city. Both have an extra charge. If your older kids loved the museum and want more, I’d consider returning to play one of these games.
Date last visited:
Distance from the interstate;
Right off the Mall, close to I-66 and I-395.
$21.95 for adults (12 and up), $14.95 for kids (7-11). Kids six and under are free.
Hours of operation:
9 am to 7 pm in peak season. 9 or 10 am to 6 pm in off-seasons.
There is no dining directly in the Spy Museum; however, the Shake Shack is located directly next door. This casual burger joint has the best frozen custard I’ve tasted!
The museum is located at 800 F Street NW. The closest Metro station is Gallery Place/Chinatown. If you’re driving and parking (not recommended), use Panda Parking, which has partnered with the museum.
Wondering where to stay in DC? Check out our review of Grand Hyatt Washington.
Photos courtesy of International Spy Museum.