Leaving behind all of D.C.'s worthy Mall museums and sneaking up to F Street to see the Spy Museum seemed like a guilty pleasure. But the parents in our group all grew up in the era of Goldfinger, I Spy, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and we were hot to see it, however schlocky. The kids trailed along, expecting some sort of Get Smart–ish romp. But what impressed me most was that this smartly packaged attraction is also plenty educational -- a little science here, a little history there, lots of geography -- so we didn't have to feel guilty at all.
The entryway to the museum has a certain clandestine allure, as you pass through a blue-neon-lit tunnel and step into a very secure-looking elevator. We could have stayed forever in the School for Spies section, devoted to the tradecraft of espionage -- everything from buttonhole cameras and invisible ink to microdots and disguised weapons. Several interactive kiosks let the kids hone their own skills, from detecting the bugging devices in a room to spotting covert activity in a seemingly harmless videoed street scene. The movie connection runs strong here, with a gadget-laden Bond car and a display of disguise techniques developed by Hollywood makeup artists. The kids were visibly getting drawn in.
The next gallery traces intelligence gathering through the ages, proving that the modern age has no monopoly on paranoia and secrecy -- even leaders such as Moses and George Washington used secret agents, and don't get me started on the spying that went on in Tudor England (that's how Sir Walter Raleigh ended up in the Tower of London). I hadn't before thought of the Underground Railroad as a spy network, but what else was it, with all its secret codes and furtive activity?
The World War II section was especially gripping, partly because so many artifacts still exist (all declassified now, evidently). Hindsight is 20/20, they say, but it was shocking to learn how the U.S. government ignored spy warnings of Japan's imminent attack on Pearl Harbor (reminiscent of the unheeded FBI warnings before 9/11), and how the super-secret technology behind the first atom bomb slipped into the wrong hands. The section on Bletchley Park, where British code breakers feverishly worked to break Germany's famed Enigma code, engrossed me so much, the kids literally had to pull me away. Then we turned a corner and the Cold War was upon us, the great face-off between the CIA and the KGB that made paranoids of all us baby boomers. I loved this section, especially the reconstruction of an East Berlin street corner, on top of the CIA's high-tech surveillance tunnel beneath the Soviet Embassy. Classic John le Carré territory.
Coming out 2 hours later, the kids peppered us with questions: What was the Cold War all about, and who was this Cardinal Richelieu, and was the guy who wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang really a spy? Forget the PlayStation they were longing to get back to. . . .
Nearest Airport: Ronald Reagan Washington National, 5 miles. Washington Dulles International, 26 miles. Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall, 30 miles.
Where to Stay: $$ Embassy Suites, 1250 22nd St. NW (tel. 800/EMBASSY [362-2779] or 202/857-3388; www.embassysuites.com). $$ Georgetown Suites, 1000 29th St. NW & 1111 30th St. NW, Georgetown (tel. 800/348-7203 or 202/298-7800; www.georgetownsuites.com).