In my first DC adventure post, I focused on physically challenging adventures. In this post, we relax a little and focus on somewhat-less-physically challenging activities.
We arrived at Homewood Suites by Hilton at 11a.m., several hours before check-in time. I was expecting to drop off our bags and head out to start exploring the city. But the staff cheerfully welcomed us, and in fewer than 10 minutes, we were in our room.
Zoe immediately collapsed on her bed and took a nap. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to do one of my Insanity workouts, which I have with me no matter where I travel.
THE (URBAN ADVENTURE) QUEST BEGINS
A few hours later, well rested (Zoe) and showered (me), we took the Metro (DC’s subway system) to the Smithsonian station where officially launched our adventure. Appropriately enough, our first activity was Urban Adventure Quest, a 3.3-mile long, smartphone-guided scavenger hunt through the heart of DC. Some of the clues led us to places we’d already seen on our previous trip, but the Quest did it in a way that got us to pay attention to things we might otherwise have overlooked.
For example, to discover our next stop, we had to count the keyhole stones in the Enid A. Haupt Garden on the grounds of the Smithsonian Castle (we’d never heard of keyhole stones before, but what we learned about them on the Quest made it that much more fun when we saw a similar keyhole stone in a dim sum restaurant in Chinatown a few days later).
Along the way, we had to make a wordsearch from the last names of five sculptors in the Hirshhorn Museum (modern art) sculpture garden, figure out which hotel room Clara Barton (the Angel of the Battlefield) stayed in, find Abraham Lincoln’s values through the window of the theater where he was shot, and more.
The clues were challenging but not impossible, and hints were available throughout. Start to finish, the Quest took us 3 ½ hours, including several stops for snacks and water. We saw—and learned—a lot. But for me, the two best parts were having the chance to work collaboratively with my daughter to solve the clues, and the fact that she was fully engaged and enjoying herself the whole time—something that’s pretty rare with teens. There are Quests in nearly 50 other cities around the country. You’ll be using your phone pretty much non-stop, so make sure your battery is charged. You might also want to bring along a battery backup. Cost is $49, but that’s per team (generally 2-5 players).
After our Quest, we came back to Homewood Suites by Hilton, where we took advantage of their Evening Social for dinner, which was filling, delicious, and free (including the beer and wine!).
THE PACKED DAY
Last time we were in DC, Zoe did a 1-day camp at the International Spy Museum (http://www.spymuseum.org), one of the many non-Smithsonian museums in the city (meaning that it isn’t free). But she never had a chance to go through the museum itself. So one of our first missions on this trip was to rectify that. In addition to their regular collection, the Spy Museum has a number of special programs, one of which we signed up for.
SPY IN THE CITY
Spy in the City is a scavenger hunt that’s somewhat similar to the Urban Adventure Quest. But the focus is entirely on spying, decoding, and solving puzzles. Our mission was to find a rogue agent and keep her from selling valuable intel to the Russians. And, armed with a museum-provided Samsung tablet, we hit the street.
Through the tablet we received clues, audio intercepts, codes, and other info that we had to analyze in order to proceed from one stop to the next. At one point, the agency (our employer) thought that our communication with them had been compromised, so we had to include a code in our messages to them. The code consisted of the number showing on an old safe in the window of a restaurant plus an odd symbol on the side of a building a few blocks away. Spy in the City took us about 1 ½ hours to get through (they say it takes an hour, but we had to stay in a restaurant in order to properly surveil our target).
THE SPY MUSEUM ITSELF
Your visit to the museum starts with adopting a cover identity and memorizing specific details about it (name, birthplace, where you’re traveling, purpose and length of your visit, etc).
You also get your mission, which you have to memorize. After that, you’re on your own (or are you?) and you can go through the extensive exhibits at your own pace. Although beware, you’ll be quizzed on your ID and mission before you leave the facility.
The collection is fascinating, and covers the history of spying from the first spies (as far back as the ones in the bible or the ones hidden in the Trojan Horse) to the secret agents who may be lurking in the shadows outside your home. There are also actual pieces of spy equipment, from hollow coins and cameras hidden in false-bottom purses to poison-delivering umbrellas and cyanide capsules.
Some of the equipment is so clumsy looking and enormous (it boggles the mind that anyone could have hidden an electronic bugging device the size of a loaf of bread in another person’s home or office and gotten away with it).
There are also a number of interactive exhibits, where you have a chance to solve codes, create your own spy disguise, and more.
One of our favorite exhibits was Exquisitely Evil: 50 Years of Bond Villains, which features actual artifacts and props from the films, movie clips, exploration of how the villains and their plots have changed with the times, and more. There’s also a series of short videos in which real-life spies discuss their “Bond moment”—a situation they were in that could have been a scene from a movie. And, of course, we had a chance to learn about every one of the villains, including some very forgettable ones from the Timothy Dalton films.
UNITED STATES HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM
I wanted to keep our DC trip as fun as possible, but since so many of my relatives were murdered by the Nazis in Russia and Poland, I felt it was important for Zoe to see the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (https://www.ushmm.org). And whether or not you have a personal or family connection to the Holocaust, no visit to DC is complete without seeing this museum. It’s nearly impossible to get same-day tickets, but you can reserve tickets for a specific date and time online.
No matter how much we thought we knew about the Holocaust, the scope of the evils committed by the Nazis was still startling. There was one bright spot, though: we learned about the White Rose (weisserose), a small group of courageous young Germans who tried to call attention to the horrors being committed against the Jews and others. Sadly, all the members were caught and executed.
There’s no question that the Holocaust museum was depressing—that’s exactly as it’s supposed to be. We gave ourselves a few quiet hours to recover, and then decided to do something a little more uplifting. So we went to see the Universoul Circus, which had set up camp just outside DC. With acts from all over the world, clowns, great audience participation, a dizzying variety of daredevil acts, and plenty of fried food, it was nothing short of amazing.
They use the hashtag #bestcircusever, and I’m inclined to agree.
OUR LAST DAY
We’d been running around pretty much non-stop for a few days, so we decided to relax. After a leisurely morning of sleeping in, we went to Chinatown for dim sum.
Then, because it was already blistering hot and muggy, we decided to take in a matinee movie. After the movie, it was even hotter and muggier, so we ducked into a bowling alley (one with an actual dress code), which was blissfully air conditioned.
On the way out we stopped to watch a group of incredibly athletic street dancers. They did some wonderful solo routines and then started setting up for their grand finale, which involved having one of the dancers do a flip over three young women. That’s when we (and by “we” I actually mean “I”) became part of the act. The performers needed a tall guy to up the degree of difficulty, so they dragged me (giving me the nickname “White Chocolate”) from the crowd. Anyway, it was all good fun.
THE LAST NIGHT: BIKING THE CITY
Our last activity was a wonderful evening Bike and Roll bicycle tour of many of DC’s monuments. Most are plenty impressive during the day, but at night, they come to life in a whole new way. Our guide, Tujon, was very knowledgeable and regaled us with fascinating stories about the city, the monuments, the juicy controversies and scandals behind them, and the people who built them. Of course, he took us to the major ones: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., FDR, the Vietnam Memorial, and others.
But along the way, we also discovered some I never knew existed, such as the Albert Einstein Memorial, with its specially designed private echo chamber (you’ll have to visit it to find out what I mean). The tour lasted about three hours and we covered maybe four miles. But there were plenty of stops along the way and the road was mostly flat. Bike and Roll shows you a side of the city most people never get a chance to see, and it definitely belongs on your next DC itinerary. $45 for adults, $35 for kids 12 and under.