If and when you find the time to visit our nation’s capitol, pretty much anyone and everyone you talk to will tell you to visit any and all of the Smithsonian-funded museums you can get to. Honestly, that’s solid advice. The Smithsonian Institutes are huge and varied and they house the collected knowledge of our nation, from its highest-level art all the way to Fonzie’s leather jacket. However, if this isn’t your first trip to Washington D.C. or you simply want to wander off the beaten path, you should check out any of these other engaging venues in Washington D.C.
1. International Spy Museum
You know you’ve always wanted to know everything there is to know about spies. Well, the International Spy Museum is your ticket. Located in an appropriately unassuming building in a predominately commercial part of town, the Spy Museum is an expansive modern history of espionage. Learn about different types of spies, the tools they used and the devious methods they employed. A trip through the museum is also a pretty solid primer on the Cold War. Just go through the hidden entrance and fill out your credentials and try not to get excited.
2. Ford’s Theatre
In a city of stirring history, Ford’s Theatre stands alone. A simple trip to the still-active playhouse will stay with you for years to come. Just take a look at the perfectly preserved box where Lincoln was assassinated, or take a quick walk across the street to the small house where the greatest American President breathed his last. It won’t take up too much of your time, and it’s well worth the visit.
3. National Geographic Museum
The exhibits at the National Geographic Museum change with almost breakneck speed and they cover a variety of topics that are so widely varied, you might as well call the place Planet Earth: The Museum. The one connecting thread? Each exhibit is as beautiful curated as the magazine (and now channel) that have made the Nat Geo brand a household name. If you’re in the D.C. area, you owe it to yourself to check it out.
4. National Museum of Crime and Punishment
If you’re impervious to a little morbidity (or if you’re a fan of Law & Order: SVU), you have to swing by the National Museum of Crime and Punishment. In a country that houses jails more people than any other country on the planet, a walk through the history and current state of the United States’ justice system is both worthwhile and captivating (in a really dire kind of way). If nothing else, the mock crime scene and police station is worth the trip alone.
Want to dig a little deeper into the news media and the journalism industry? This interactive museum champions the five freedoms of the First Amendment. They’ve done a really good job in making issues surrounding freedom of the press both educational and entertaining, even the kids will be engaged. Located on Pennsylvania Avenue, it houses theaters, exhibits and hands-on activities including an interactive news room and studio. There’s even a slab of the Berlin Wall here.
6. Folger Shakespeare Library
Okay, so it’s not too far off the beaten path, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to miss the Folger Shakespeare Library while wandering around the National Mall. Located on Capitol Hill, the Folger Library is home to the world’s largest printed collection of the Bard’s works. Just wandering through the quiet stacks is a breathtaking trip through history.
7. United States Capitol Cafeteria
You might have gotten a tip to visit the Capitol building, and that’s kind of worthwhile in and of itself (assuming you want to be surrounded by the bumblers who lead the country). The real reason to visit the seat of Democracy isn’t for the democracy, it’s for the food. Come hungry when you come to the Capitol because our nation’s leaders demand the best when they’re sitting down to a meal. Just try the bean soup, you won’t be disappointed.
8. Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
Frederick Douglass was one of America’s greatest statesmen, having achieved astronomical success in a period of time when most black men weren’t even afforded the opportunity of literacy. A short jaunt from the metro, Frederick Douglass’ House offers an intimate glimpse into the mind of an astounding human being. It also offers incredible views of the Capitol and the city’s skyline.
9. Georgetown University
Just take a walk through Georgetown. It’s not technically a museum, but you’d be hard pressed to walk from one side of the campus to the other without bumping into something historically relevant. And while you’re on your journey, the university’s manicured lawns and old world Georgian architecture are a feast for the senses. If you take some time to head there on a week day, it’s positively pleasant (in between classes, that is).
10. L. Ron Hubbard House
Have you ever visited a shrine to an odd job? Well, here’s your chance! The L. Ron Hubbard House was the Scientology founder’s home and headquarters from 1955 (when he set up his first con) until the mid-sixties. You could call it the birthplace of Scientology. While you’ll definitely want to have Wikipedia open and handy (and don’t say anything bad about LRH), the L. Ron Hubbard House is a fascinating, if white-washed, journey into the mind of one of the most controversial figures in history.
11. Library of Congress
You might think that the Library of Congress is just a building with a bunch of books, but consider this: it’s a building with more books than you can possibly imagine. The nation’s oldest federal institution (and the world’s second largest library) is a mind-blowing collection of the world’s literature – including an original Gutenberg Bible. The art, sculpture, dome and architectural features are truly impressive.
12. Holocaust Memorial Museum
A visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum isn’t exactly a fun outing, but it is an important one. They do a great job educating the public on not only the Nazi Holocaust but also other incidents of antisemitism and genocide. It can be considered appropriate for sixth graders and above. It’s a heavy experience, but we all must be enlightened about this watershed event to ensure it never happens again.