Despite its political dysfunction, where seemingly intelligent leaders have been saying the most outrageously dumb things for decades, Washington, D.C., is a traveler’s treasure trove. Its glorious churches, plentiful monuments and memorials, and excellent restaurants are just a few of the attractions that contribute to the city’s appeal, not to mention its world-renowned zoo and the spectacular Jefferson Building. And, of course, it has an abundance of museums—more than 70 of them—to educate, inspire, and entertain you. With many offering free admission, they’re the best deal in town. These are my favorites.
#1 International Spy Museum
You’re pretending to be someone else. You’re away from your home and family for months at a time. You have a script, but you must be able to improvise. You’re not an actor. You’re a spy. And if you think you know what it’s like to operate undercover, forget it—you don’t. Opened in 2002 and reopened in a larger location in 2019, the International Spy Museum is an eye-opening revelation. Suddenly, the absurdities of Get Smart! don’t seem so ridiculous after you’ve visited Washington’s most intriguing museum dedicated to espionage, spies, and agents provocateur. Upon entering, I adopted my cover in the Briefing Center—a 48-year-old Russian fisherman heading to Boston to visit family, a deceit that would be tested as I made my way through the riveting displays. Interactive exhibits let you gauge your spy capabilities and powers of observation and recall. Other exhibits display shoe transmitters, the decreasing size of bugs, bugs hidden in tree trunks, film hidden in umbrellas, cameras in toy trucks, ring and flashlight guns, briefcases that could shock anyone who stole them with 100,000 volts, eyeglasses with cyanide pills, and dead-drop objects. The U.S.-Soviet spy game reveals how truly dangerous the Cold War was. A history of spying supplemented my knowledge of Mata Hari and Nathan Hale with new information while also introducing me to names I had never heard of (a very good thing—their obscurity is testament to their espionage skills): Dmitri Bystrolyotov, for instance, was a shockingly pliant Soviet spy who expertly passed himself off as a British lord, a Greek merchant, and a Hungarian count; James Armistead Lafayette was an enslaved African American spy who proved vital during the American Revolutionary War. The story of the Enigma machine, and the cracking thereof, shows how this one breakthrough affected the entire direction of World War II. The humble homing pigeon gets some much-deserved recognition: These trained birds not only carried messages, but were equipped with cameras for aerial footage; 95% of the hundreds of thousands of these avian spies in service completed their mission, earning more medals of honor than any other animal. And, for fun, an entire section is dedicated to James Bond and the truths behind the gadgets and disguises utilized in the long-running series that started way back in 1953, when Ian Fleming created the fictional British intelligence officer in Casino Royale.
As a professional editor and semi-professional writer, I knew I had to visit Newseum, an homage to journalism, journalists, and the power, politics, and problems of the Fourth Estate. Outside the admittedly ugly museum building, glass showcases display 50 front pages from 50 newspapers (one from each state, changed daily). Inside, six floors of fascinating exhibits explore the history of news, journalism, and reporting. The First Amendment Gallery explains the significance of the concept of freedom of the press and why it’s just as important, if not more so, today as it was when it was adopted as part of the American Bill of Rights in 1791. Three hundred historic front pages dating back to the 1700s give you the opportunity to see firsthand how news about, for instance, the Gold Rush or the attack on Pearl Harbor, was written, reported, and photographed in a different era. A huge press freedom map shows the degree of freedom the press enjoys, or doesn’t, in every country, color coded in green, yellow, and red, and then offers deeper digital explanations about why it’s high in New Zealand, for instance, and not in Congo. You can hear Herbert Morrison’s dramatic reporting as the Hindenburg exploded and crashed in New Jersey, and Edward R. Murrow’s reports from London during the Second World War. A radio, television, and Internet gallery displays how reporting the news has shifted and evolved from strictly a print medium. A history of comic strips, including Peanuts and Beetle Bailey, will make you chuckle; the collection of editorial cartoons will also make you chuckle, but for different reasons. A section of the Berlin Wall gave me the opportunity to see something very few people ever got to see when it divided Berlin from 1961 until it began to be demolished in 1990: both sides—the side facing the former West Germany is covered in colorful graffiti while the East German side is shockingly bare because no one was allowed to get close enough to it and, even if they did, freedom of artistic expression was verboten. Pulitzer Prize–winning photographs can warm or break your heart. The Journalists Memorial shows photos of far too many reporters, photographers, and broadcasters who were killed on the job. The mangled antenna that once stood atop one of the Twin Towers is surrounded by front pages from around the world reporting the terrorist attacks on that unforgiveable day. If that’s all too serious and heavy for you, just step into a restroom for a good laugh—headline misfires are scattered among the wall tiles (“Asteroid Nearly Misses Earth,” “Drunk Gets Nine Months in Violin Case”).
* Note: As of 2020, citing financial difficulties, Newseum closed and is currently looking for a more affordable location. When it does, make sure to visit; you’ll never again view news media in the same way.
#3 National Gallery of Art
Established in 1937 and housed in what was the largest marble structure in the world at the time of its completion in 1941, the National Gallery of Art today boasts a collection of more than 150,000 paintings, sculptures, decorative arts and furniture, photographs, prints, and drawings. That’s an awful lot to see in one visit, but I tried. The original West Building itself is spectacular, especially the rotunda and the garden court, so make note to appreciate it as well as all the art around you. The collection starts with 13th- to 17th-century Italian and then moves on to masters of French, Spanish, Dutch, German, British, and American art. Such well-known paintings as da Vinci’s Ginevra de’ Benci (1476), Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington (1821), Edward Hicks’ Peaceable Kingdom (1834), Claude Monet’s The Japanese Footbridge (1899), Mary Cassatt’s The Boating Party (1894), and Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe (1967) are all here. They’re in fine company with works by, among others, Botticelli, Church, El Greco, Fra Angelico, Gaugin, Homer, Raphael, Rubens, Manet, Matisse, Monet, Picasso, Rembrandt, Seurat, Titian, and van Gogh. You’ll also find prints of flamingos and steamboats, a blazing-yellow recamier, mosaics, landscapes and portraits, and a spectacular in-laid marble table. And then there are so many pieces with which I was unfamiliar that quickly became some of my favorites: one of the world’s best depictions of St. Mark (part of a five-panel painting by Giorgio Vasari, 1571) and of St. Veronica (The Procession to Calvary tapestry, by an unknown Flemish artist, circa 1540); two of the best depictions of Adam and Eve (The Rebuke of Adam and Eve, by Domenichino, 1626, and The Fall of Man, by Hendrik Goltzius, 1616); The Veiled Nun, an impossibly carved marble bust from 1860 that’s one of the world’s top five things that are white; and two of the world’s best nativity scenes (The Nativity, by Lorenzo Lotto, 1523, and Adoration of the Magi, by Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi, circa 1460). It’s unexpected discoveries like these, coupled with famous masterworks, that make the National Gallery of Art the best art museum in Washington, D.C.
#4 National Portrait Gallery
Sharing the same building as the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, also under the Smithsonian umbrella, focuses on images of famous Americans. Particularly noteworthy is the full collection of American presidents, the only place in the United States to have such a collection outside the White House. Two of the standouts here are a painting of a young Abraham Lincoln in a black suit and the shockingly contrasting photo of a later, much haggard Lincoln, in a similar suit, taken just two months before his assassination in 1865. I also found a chubby Benjamin Franklin, the Fricks in their finery, Thomas Edison at work, a uniformed William T. Sherman, Clara Barton in a buttoned-up bodice, a fiery John Brown, and a studious Noah Webster. Of course, not every person captured in art here comes straight out of a history textbook. There’s also a dapper F. Scott Fitzgerald, a contemplative John Muir, Edith Wharton as a child, a bust of Rachel Carson, and a sculpture of Chuck Jones surrounded by some of his creations, including Bugs Bunny, Wile E. Coyote, and Road Runner. Hollywood makes a big splash with photographs and paintings of Rita Moreno, Brad Pitt, Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn from their On Golden Pond days, a young Meryl Streep, Sylvester Stallone in gold satin boxing trunks, and a Rain Man–era Tom Cruise. While you’re strolling around, you may very well be accosted by the security guard who’s planning to be the next president of Sierra Leone, and how he’s going to invite the British back (because, as colonialists, they weren’t really that exploitative, but rather brought needed development to the colony and sacrificed a lot) and give them 40 percent of the country’s natural resources. Cleary a nut, but who knows? Maybe he’ll be the next person to have a portrait hung here.
#5 National Museum of American History
If you need a refresher course in American history, or just want to learn a lot of new things about the United States, head directly to the huge National Museum of American History. Opened in 1964 as the Museum of History and Technology in one of the last structures designed by McKim, Mead & White, and renamed to its current designation in 1980, the museum and its exhibitions are dedicated to exploring fundamental American ideas and ideals, and they achieve that with every topic imaginable, from advertising and agriculture to energy and engineering to the tools and rules of the workplace. You’ll find displays on every war the United States has ever been in, and items forever linked to their presidents—Lincoln’s top hat from the night he was assassinated, for instance, and FDR’s microphone for his Fireside Chats. Popular entertainment is well represented with Archie Bunker’s chair from All in the Family, a photograph of a fedora-wearing Frank Sinatra, and Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. Hand-pump fire engines, lighthouse lanterns, Thomas Jefferson’s Bible, a $5,000 bill from 1918 (James Madison is the honored president for those of us not fortunate to have ever laid eyes on such lovely legal tender), a baseball signed by the 1937 Yankees, a fantastically bulky adding machine from 1925, and a bizarre board game called “The Exciting New Game of the Kennedys,” with a box cover featuring John Fitzgerald, Bobby, Jackie, and a few other family members as the new Mount Rushmore are all part of the museum’s collection of 1.8 million objects. Not all the exhibits are relegated to the distant past, of course; many extend to contemporary issues. The section on food presents how American diets and eating practices have evolved, and the health and medicine section traces the history of vaccines—particularly relevant today, in the middle of a wearisome, worrisome pandemic that is going to require you to wear a mask to enter the museum.
- National Museum of Natural History
- National Postal Museum
- Smithsonian American Art Museum
- National Building Museum
- National Geographic Museum
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