When you visit the United States’ capital, it’s tempting to spend your time with the usual suspects: The Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument, the National Archives, and the Capitol Visitors Center. Add in the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, the National Gallery of Art, the Museum of American History . . . and it can start to seem more like civics class than pleasure.
It doesn’t have to be this way. I’ve made the Washington, D.C. area home since the Reagan Administration, and I’m always looking to entertain guests by taking them beyond the National Mall and the Smithsonian. The following five obscure museums, some of them fairly new, all make the list. I urge you to add one of these to your D.C. itinerary. Or add ‘em all for a trip full of surprises.
Most of the following charge admission fees, and reservations are strongly recommended.
If you’ve ever wondered if you have the right stuff to go undercover, you can get a reality check here. Upon arrival, you’re assigned a spy identity. As you move through the museum, speed quizzes test your ability to “be” your cover. I was a Greek artist assigned to exfiltrate a fellow spy from Moscow. I passed the test only because they clearly grade on a curve.
The exhibits tell stories of the famous (like Mata Hari), infamous (like Aldrich Ames), and obscure spies over the centuries and the information they uncovered. Recently retired spooks tell tales on video. Plus, there is fun spyware like an umbrella with a poison tip, a pregnancy prosthetic that hides a camera, and James Bond’s Aston Martin.
Nearby, check out the D.C. Wharf, a buzzy entertainment zone worth a trip itself.
We know what you’re thinking: Am I about to be proselytized? Short answer: Maybe a little, but the site provides some fascinating cultural history of the book in a highly interactive form that won’t make it feel like Sunday school.
The dynamic, cathedral-like ceiling in the lobby, which transforms into different luminous patterns of Christian art and symbolism every minute or so, sets the tone for a state-of-the-art museum experience. You’ll enter through massive Jerusalem columns, and along the way, in the midst of video and highly interactive displays, you’ll see fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a first-edition King James Bible, early Torahs, and artifacts from the time of Abraham. You’ll stroll a (slightly cheesy) replica of first-century Nazareth. Dining venues include a kosher cafe.
If you’re of a certain age, the name Rubell may ring a bell. Steve Rubell was the impresario of Studio 54. He died rich, and his fortune passed to his brother Don, who had been collecting contemporary art on a modest physician’s budget in New York City with his wife Mera. When the money came, Don went big—like, huge—and his son Jason joined the fun.
This more than 7,400-item collection (also displayed in a larger sister facility in Miami, Florida) brings a needed dose of avant-garde art to the city. It features loads of unsettling, funny, and puzzling creations. At the Rubell Museum, I’ve seen such yes-but-is-it-art? creations as an alarmingly realistic woman in the fetal position wrapped in plastic and a box of the stuff someone might carry out of the office when fired.
Nearby, check out the jumpin’ Navy Yard area.
Lincoln’s Cottage stands on the remote grounds of the “Old Soldiers Home,” where President Lincoln escaped the punishing Washington summer heat and did some of his most important cogitation. The tour includes, among other features, the bedroom where Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation (the desk is a replica). The property also holds a (visitable) national military cemetery, a precursor to Arlington. Lincoln heard Taps playing there daily as the graves filled, sounding the brutal costs of war.
The Lincolns first took to the cottage after their son Willie died and they couldn’t bear to be in the White House where memories of him were too fresh. A gallery display sets a tone of tragedy and love—a paper willow tree of contemporary families’ notes to their own dead children. Lincoln completists can add the Mall memorial and downtown Ford’s Theater to complete their visit.
Nearby is the neighborhood of Brookland, where you’ll find a few restaurants.
This “voice-activated museum” is devoted to the task of “renewing and inspiring a love of words and language,” but this ain’t no English class. Displays allow you to talk with speakers of obscure languages, learn how advertisers use word tricks to fool you, and train a computer to understand humor.
When I visited, I was recorded reading parts of Kennedy’s inaugural speech via a teleprompter. (They emailed me the video. Kennedy did it better.) Fun stuff for adults, and it’s a great choice if you’re traveling with young ones.
Nearby, there’s a strollable park surrounded by cafes and restaurants.