When it comes to Washington, D.C. museums, the Smithsonian family is the ruling dynasty. But there are a slew of lesser-known museums that are well worth your time.
The Washington, D.C. Museums No One Knows About
Some of these museums are small, and some are well off the beaten path. But every one of them will offer a glimpse into new worlds that you’ll still be talking about after you get home.
Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
The National Air and Space Museum, on the Mall, is arguably the best known of all the Washington, D.C. museums. Far fewer people have discovered its massive annex, known as Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, which lies some 30 miles to the west, near Dulles Airport. The Center’s displays include nearly 200 aircraft, including a Concorde supersonic jetliner, the Enola Gay (the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima), an SR-71 Blackbird Mach 3 spy plane, and the Space Shuttle Discovery.
National Building Museum
Though it hardly registers on most visitors’ radar, the National Building Museum is a huge hit with D.C. locals. While the Building Museum’s collection includes a 4,500-piece set of architectural paper models, it also offers fascinating special exhibits like “an immersive experience bringing our visitors into the world of low-income renter eviction” and an exploration of the “secret cities” created during the atomic-bomb development and production effort during World War II.
The museum’s Building Zone, a children’s playroom, is one of the most family-friendly places in D.C. The museum occupies the former headquarters of the United States Pension Bureau, whose Great Hall has played host to numerous presidential inaugural balls. Architecture and history buffs will appreciate the 1,200-foot-long terra cotta frieze depicting scenes from the Civil War, which wraps around the outside of the museum.
International Spy Museum
Spying can be deadly business, but the curators of the International Spy Museum have embraced the world of tradecraft with a certain kid-friendly glee. Among the items on display are a sinister “Bulgarian umbrella,” a KGB lipstick pistol (that, as the curators note, “delivered the ultimate ‘kiss of death’”), and an exhibition called “Exquisitely Evil: 50 Years of Bond Villains.” For kids, the museum offers an “Operation Spy” role-playing adventure, as well as “Spy in the City,” which sends visitors onto the streets of D.C. with a GPS unit and a secret mission—and, best of all, with little prospect of spending the rest of their lives in a gulag.
Drug Enforcement Administration Museum & Visitors Center
A lesser-known contender among more famous Washington, D.C. museums, the Drug Enforcement Administration Museum & Visitors Center, offers a glimpse into the world of America’s drug-busting corps. The small museum, just across the Potomac River from D.C. in Pentagon City, covers everything from the ancient cultivation of drugs to the crack wars and the contemporary prescription drug-abuse epidemic. Some of the more notable exhibits include a drug kingpin’s diamond-studded Colt .45, an ultra-light drug-smuggling aircraft, and a ghoulish statue of Santa Muerte, the saint revered by Mexican narcos. A gift shop offers a wide array of souvenirs, from drug-sniffing dog plush toys to “Keep Off the Grass” bumper stickers.
National Museum of the U.S. Navy
They won’t let just anybody into the National Museum of the U.S. Navy. Open to the public but located within the Washington Navy Yard, a working Navy base, all non-military visitors must show a photo ID and undergo an on-the-spot background check. The hassle is worth it, though: The Navy Museum receives rave reviews, and features exhibits on everything from the Civil War through the Vietnam War, including the Navy’s undersea exploration programs. The museum is also home to an incredible array of warship models. The adjacent Cold War Gallery makes no joke about the seriousness of its subject: The first exhibit to greet visitors is a full-scale submarine-launched Trident nuclear missile. The gallery also includes a fascinating exhibit on covert submarine operations.
Art Museum of the Americas
On the grounds of the Organization of American States headquarters, just off the Mall and close to the White House, the Art Museum of the Americas is overshadowed in reputation by larger Washington, D.C. museums, but is well worth a visit. Primarily showcasing work by artists from Latin America and the Caribbean, the museum is housed in a beautiful Spanish colonial-style building. The permanent collection includes more than 2,000 pieces, including works by Roberto Matta, Wifredo Lam, Amelia Pelaez, and Emilio Pettoruti, and the museum hosts frequent special exhibits. Don’t miss “the blue room,” the spectacularly tiled atrium-like nook in the back.
National Cryptologic Museum
The National Security Agency is known as the nerdiest of the nation’s many spy agencies. For a look inside the famously secretive operation, the National Cryptologic Museum, about 25 miles north of downtown D.C., offers a look into the hidden world of spying and code-breaking. It’s not a big museum, but it has a devoted following, and exhibits run the gamut from Revolutionary War-era invisible ink to the saga of cracking the Nazi’s Enigma machine, with surprising detours into the world of secret signs used by train-hopping hobos, among other themes.
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—Original reporting by Matt Jenkins