Living and working in DC, it is rare that my family takes the time to visit the museums, monuments, and landmarks. Work, schedules, and activities get in the way and we always just figure that we will go and visit someday. Recently, my eight year old and I had the opportunity to spend the entire day together, without my toddler, and we decided to take advantage of the glorious 50 degree day in the middle of December and spend some time exploring downtown!
We left our home at 9:30am and, a short metro ride later, found ourselves in DC, just four blocks away from the Spy Museum.
Unlike many museums in DC, the Spy Museum is not free and admission is steep at $21.95 / adult and $14.95 / youth (ages 7-11). The Museum offers a number of Interactive Spy Experiences, such as Spy in the City and Operation Spy, which you can add on a la carte, or combine with the price of admission for a slight discount. The Operation Spy experience is limited to ages 12+, so, by default, we chose to add Spy in the City to the price of admission for later in the afternoon.
After purchasing our admission tickets, we were told to wait for the elevator ride to the start of the museum exhibits. We had no idea, but the Spy Museum has timed entry in an effort to minimize traffic and manage crowd control. We took the elevator up to the third floor of the museum where we were deposited into a room that introduced us to spy agencies all across the world. We were also encouraged to choose an undercover identity from one of the many “covers” posted on the beams throughout the room.
After selecting our identities, we were allowed to enter the galleries, which were more standard museum fare. We poured over the exhibits of espionage artifacts. I personally loved seeing the old style hidden cameras tucked away in buttons, shoes, pens, and more.
As you wind your way through the exhibits, there are a number of interactive opportunities for visitors to test out their spy skills. My son loved looking for clues on the interactive light-up maps and he also enjoyed practicing his hand at deciphering codes.
Although we enjoyed the modern spy section, my son found the historical spy section to be underwhelming. There is a section on the origins of spying, beginning with Sun Tzu and The Art of War, and also an extensive section on James Bond, which went entirely over my eight year old’s head.
Overall, I enjoyed the Museum and it was a great way to spend 90 minutes of our day, but my son did not enjoy it as much as I hoped as he isn’t one to be particularly fascinated by espionage and has not ever seen any of the James Bond movies. As we made our way out of the exhibits, we emptied into the gift shop, which is where we picked up our tablet device to do our Spy in the City interactive adventure.
The Spy in the City interactive adventure is a guided “spy” adventure that takes you around 7-8 blocks of Washington, DC. The rental tablet provides visual instructions and cues that direct you along the way.
The weather was beautiful that day, so we greatly enjoyed the walk through the City. My son, a total iPad/screen junkie, loved following the clues and deciphering code along the way. I enjoyed the opportunity to stretch my legs and to see some of downtown DC at a leisurely pace.
Our journey took us past the FBI building, the Department of Justice building, the Trump Hotel (where we peeked inside to see the lobby decked out for Christmas), and much much more.
Although it was a fun walk and my son enjoyed the “mission,” I was honestly disappointed that the “mission” did not incorporate more of the historical landmarks in DC. Given that we were in DC and walking right past the FBI building, I expected more than to be directed to a random plaque in a plaza as the site of the next clue. The mission could have taken place in any city USA and no one would have been the wiser. Although it was worth the $7 to include the Spy in the City adventure with our admission ticket, I don’t think it is worth the $14.95 on its own and I would not go out of my way to do this experience if time was limited. Moreover, my son and I happily shared one tablet and unless you happen to have two children who are adamantly against sharing, I would not recommend renting more than one device as the instructions would be identical and we had no trouble hearing the instructions via the tablet’s speakers.
Finally, the Spy Museum has an excellent gift shop so if you happen to be looking for a spy-themed gift but don’t have the time or desire to visit the exhibits, you can visit the gift shop via the separate outside entry.
It would also be remiss of me not to mention that the Shake Shack is located right next door to the Spy Museum. It’s an easy and convenient place to grab a bite to eat but note that it’s more expensive than your usual burgers and fries joint AND lines can get out of control very quickly.After the Spy Museum, we headed across the street to the National Portrait Gallery. As a Smithsonian, admission is free and it was completely deserted when we visited. There was no line to enter and security was a breeze. We had the entire presidential gallery to ourselves and my son loved the open space.
We particularly enjoyed seeing the evolution from traditional oil paintings to more modern portraits and I loved the placement of the Bush presidents across from each other with Clinton in the middle.
Although we did not visit the actual galleries on the third floor, we did head up there to peek at the stained glass ceiling which was stunning.
Finally, no visit to the Portrait Gallery is complete without a glimpse at the atrium – the largest public enclosed area in DC.
As the original home of the Patent Office, the building has served many purposes and the former courtyard has now been enclosed into a beautiful garden with ample space for kids to run around, people to lunch, and just generally enjoy a reprieve from the elements (humidity and heat in the summer, rain/cold/sleet in the winter).
My coworkers and I used to regularly take lunch breaks in the Portrait Gallery, including packing in our lunch from the outside to eat in the atrium. There’s also a little self-service cafeteria, if you’d like to grab a bite to enjoy.
From the Portrait Gallery, we headed off to our final destination of the day: the Botanical Gardens. Unlike most of the museums located near the mall, the Botanical Gardens are located across from the Capital and thus about a one mile walk away. For this reason, it’s a bit off the beaten path and not a place that many have visited. Along the way, we enjoyed the view of the Capital with the bright blue sky and also spotted the great blue chicken that has been roosting at the National Gallery of Art.
Visiting the Botanical Gardens is an annual holiday tradition for my family. My kids started visiting the Botanical Gardens as young tikes with daycare and between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, there is an annual exhibit featuring model trains and replicas of DC landmarks made entirely of plant based materials. We have visited when the line to enter has been wrapped around the building, but on the day we visited this year, there was no line and we walked right in.
After winding our way through the seasonal exhibit, we took a quick tour of the regular gardens, including the desert and rain forest.
After our brief walk through the gardens and having walked extensively downtown, we decided we were too tired to ride public transit home and called a Lyft instead. All in all, it was an action packed day in downtown DC and I am so glad we had this opportunity to explore the city in ideal temperatures. There is so much to do in DC it can be overwhelming to decide on the actual museums and activities. We had no real set itinerary or plan and just let the weather and crowds dictate our agenda and we managed to pack in more than I thought – a pleasant surprise! Moreover, because admission to the Smithsonian museums and the zoo is free, it is a very affordable way to spend a day with the family.
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