Greetings Internet Stranger and welcome to one day in Washington DC. Some little girls dream of being astronauts. Others dream of being princess. (And of course, some dream of being both.) But when I was a little girl, I dreamed of being a spy. Perhaps this was a result of playing too much Carmen Sandiego or watching From Russia With Love at the tender age of seven. But the number one tourist attraction I wanted to visit for my one day in Washington DC was the famous International Spy Museum.
But if the Spy Museum isn’t your bag, Internet Stranger, never you fear! Today we’ll also hit up one of DC’s outstanding free museums and dine at one of the most celebrated restaurants in our nation’s capital. Plus I will teach you how to sell state secrets to the Russians without getting caught. Don’t say I never did anything for you!
One Day in Washington DC
Where to Stay?
Ordinarily, this is an area where I recommend possible hotels for my readers. Sometimes I even just recommend my favorite neighborhood. This is not one of those times. You need to stay at the Malolo Bed and Breakfast in Washington DC. The rooms are stunning, and there’s an amazing breakfast spread every morning. Plus the owners, George and David, are the nicest people you will ever meet. It’s the best choice for your One Day in Washington DC.
It’s not terribly centrally located, but you can get here easily using the subway or a rideshare. Stay here! You have no choice!
One Day in Washington DC
What to Pack
You’ll need comfy shoes for all the walking we’re going to do today. It’s crazy hot in DC in the summer, so it’s smart to wear sandals. I love my special pink Birkenstocks. These aren’t your grandpappy’s Birkenstocks anymore. They come in every shade, and I always get compliments on my electric magenta shoes.
Also, don’t forget the sunscreen! The sun can get scorching! My favorite is the Neutrogena spray bottle because it’s so easy to apply. And as a solo traveler, I can actually use it myself on my own back. I just put it in my purse and re-apply throughout the day.
Finally, since we’re going to be out all day, you’ll want a battery for your cell phone. I always use the Anker charger. It’s light enough to fit in even a small purse. You don’t want to sling a heavy bag all around DC. Plus the Anker lasts for several full charges of a phone, so I’ll never run out of juice!
One Day in Washington DC
Morning: National Gallery of Art
One of the best things about spending One Day in Washington DC is that it’s full of free museums. Almost every museum worth visiting in the city doesn’t charge admission. (The Spy Museum does charge admission, but we’ll get to that later.) I’m aware that some people find museums overwhelming and don’t know where to start.
Fortunately, the company Museum Hack has a fantastic and fun tour of the National Gallery of Art that’s perfect for art lovers and art fearers alike. If you take this tour, I guarantee you’ll have loads of fun and get to explore…
approximately top 5: national gallery of art
1) mona lisa frown
The most famous work in the National Gallery of Art isn’t even American. It’s this lady above, Ginevra de’ Benci. Why is she so famous? Well, she was painted by none other than Mr. Leonardo da Vinci. This portrait was probably done for her engagement, but apparently she was rather unhappily married. I’m sure I couldn’t tell that from the completely miserable expression on her face! You’d think Leonardo could have painted something more cheerful.
The story of how the National Gallery came to obtain this work is one of the wildest I have ever heard. It used to be in the possession of (not joking) the Crown Prince of Liechtenstein. He needed to sell it because of his massive debts. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in my hometown of New York and the National Gallery of Art fought over it, and the NGA won. So the da Vinci was sent to DC from Liechtenstein with some serious subterfuge and what my guide referred to as a James Bond suitcase. We’re getting ready for the Spy Museum already!
Apparently New York City was cranky about losing the painting, so the New York Times tried to leak details about the transfer of the da Vinci in an effort to make the National Gallery of Art look bad. Yeah, DC! That’s what you get for tangling with NYC! And Jackie O still gave us the Temple of Dendur, so suck it!
2) a lady writing
Now we come to my favorite painting in the National Gallery of Art, A Lady Writing by Vermeer. I love her because she’s beautiful and because she’s the subject of one of my favorite young adult mysteries, Chasing Vermeer. But I didn’t know that Vermeer himself was the subject of an incredibly bizarre mystery.
There was a Dutch dude named Han van Meegeren who apparently made quite a bit of money selling Vermeers to Nazis during the Second World War. After the war this was frowned upon and he was tried for treason for selling Dutch treasures to the Germans. However, van Meegeren claimed that he in fact had painted all the “Vermeers”, so he was really a national hero for tricking Nazis and taking their money.
The Dutch did not agree that he was a hero, but they did agree that he wasn’t a traitor. He was given a brief sentence for forgery and died in prison of a heart attack. I personally don’t know how he managed to fool anybody because our guide showed us one of his “Vermeers” and it looks like the lady in the painting is melting.
3) symphony in white no 1
OK, this is one of the other most famous paintings in the National Gallery of Art. She’s sometimes referred to as The White Girl, but her official title is Symphony in White No 1 by James Whistler. The girl in the painting is Whistler’s mistress, Joanna Hiffernan. Apparently Whistler wasn’t very nice to her, so she decided to make friends with some other artists.
One of those artists was notoriously intense Frenchman Gustave Courbet. I guess Courbet was having a hard time figuring out how to tell Whistler about the affair, so he decided to say it with a portrait…a large portrait of Joanna Hiffernan’s vagina. (The painting is called L’Origine du Monde and it exists in Paris. I’m not posting it here because my dad reads this blog sometimes.) Anyway, I wonder what Whistler’s mother would have to say about all this drama.
4) trompe l’oeil
Here we have one of my favorite categories of art: trompe l’oeil. It’s French for “trick the eye”. Trompe l’oeil paintings fool the viewer into thinking they are seeing something they aren’t actually seeing. This painting above is the work of 19th century trompist John Haberle. He was so talented at painting money that the US government considered him to be a potential forger and tried to get him to stop.
Haberle responded by…aggressively painting more and more realistic money in an effort to get arrested. Being provoking the United States government and painting their friends’ mistresses’ vaginas, it seems like 19th century artists were generally a lot more aggressive than artists nowadays. I feel like all artists do nowadays is drink cold brew and create didactic video installations.
5) watson and the shark
One reason Museum Hack’s tours are so fun is that they are interactive. We played several games on the tour, but my favorite was Tableau Vivant. You can probably tell from my photo, but we were trying to recreate the John Singleton Copley painting in the background, Watson and the Shark.
Watson was a real 14 year old boy who had his foot bitten off by while vacationing in Cuba. Copley had never been to Cuba, and the painting, though dramatic, is not very realistic. Most of all because Watson in the painting is way too muscular to be a believable 14 year old boy.
Anyway, you can see from our Tableau Vivant that we were all having a high old time pretending to go on a shark hunk/have our foot bitten off. I can’t quite decide who was having the most fun though: the dude pretending to stab the shark or the dude pretending to be the shark. Or perhaps it was the other patrons in the museum trying to figure out what the hell we were doing.
One Day in Washington DC
Afternoon: International Spy Museum
At last! It’s time on our One Day in Washington DC to visit the International Spy Museum and learn the skills we’ll need to betray our government by having conversations with our shoes.
But first you’re going to want a quick lunch. It was hard for me to find a place in between the National Gallery of Art and the Spy Museum, but I liked the local fast casual Indian chain Merzi. I had never been to an Indian fast casual chain before, but the chicken tikka masala bowl was fresh and flavorful. (Also almost every customer was Indian, which is generally a good sign.)
24 hour treat
If you’ve got a little extra time, wait on line at Pitango gelato. If it’s a warm day, that line will be long, but it’s worth it. I got a mixture of passionfruit sorbet and Gianduja gelato. Gianduja is my favorite gelato flavor, a mischievous blend of hazelnuts and chocolate that always hits the spot. And now that our bellies are full, it’s time to hit the Spy Museum! I know that I can already spy…
three fun facts: spy museum
1) do you actually get to be a spy at the spy museum?
Sort of! After you enter the Spy Museum, you are assigned a fake identity and cover story. Mine was Greta Schmidt, a “German” “astronomer”. I was a little freaked out because I don’t speak German and I know nothing about astronomy. Also I didn’t like that the Spy Museum seemed to think I was 33.
But it turns out that there’s no consequence to blowing your cover. At the end of the Spy Museum, you can play a game against a computer. You answer some questions about your cover and try to fool the computer into thinking you aren’t very suspicious. I didn’t pass, but I wasn’t tried for treason or anything. And if I had been, I just would have claimed to have been selling fake Vermeers to Nazis and then everything would have been okay.
2) what’s the worst object in the spy museum?
That’s easy, Internet Stranger! It’s this rectal concealment for cyanide capsule. Of course some spies are caught from time to time, and then they have to make a decision. Do they want to risk capture and giving up their valuable information? Or do they want to take the quick way out? That’s why some spies concealed cyanide in their person. And obviously putting something in your rectum is the easiest way of concealing it during a search.
What makes this rectal concealment so awful is who it belonged to: high-ranking Nazi official Rudolf Hess. I think if we were making a list of objects I would never, never, never want to touch, a rectal concealment capsule that belonged to a Nazi might be first on that list.
3) what about the cold war?
Glad you asked! Any self-respecting spy museum’s got to have lots on the Cold War. These dummies above are demonstrating how people escaped from Communist East Berlin into capitalist West Berlin during the Cold War. The security was right because it was bad publicity for East Berlin to have so many people want to escape to West Berlin.
So the refugees had to think of clever ways of escaping the Eastern Bloc when passing through the checkpoints like the famous Checkpoint Charlie. One of those clever ways was hiding under the backseat of car. This dummy is making it look easy, but if you were a real person, I imagine it would be very painful. And of course both the escapee and the person helping them escape had to be very brave because if you were caught, you’d likely be shot on sight.
On a lighter note, this KGB lipstick pistol is the coolest item in the Spy Museum. I’m proud to be an American, but if the KGB had offered me this lipstick pistol, I think it would have been fairly easy to turn me against my country. As long as they didn’t make me use a rectal capsule. No lipstick pistol is worth that.
One Day in Washington DC
Evening: Dinner at The Dabney
Digging deep into regional and historical cuisine has become a major international trend. But even though technically I am from the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, I never really thought of the Mid-Atlantic as having its own cuisine. At least, not until I dined at The Dabney. But Chef Jeremiah Langhorne’s restaurant uses the freshest local ingredients and traditional recipes to take the diner through a scrumptious history lesson.
24 hour tip
The Dabney is a small plates menu, so I suggest trying several dishes. Three plates plus dessert was a good amount of food for one me. I began light with radishes served with herb butter, sea salt, and dried scallops. You eat these with your hands, which I always enjoy doing at a high-class joint like this. The radishes were so fresh and delicious I even loved eating the radish greens, which I’d never tried before.
The menu changes seasonally, so not all of the items I enjoyed will still be on the menu when you visit. I went to The Dabney in the spring time, and in the spring I feel honor bound to eat every ramp I see on a restaurant menu. So when I saw this pumpernickel toast with strawberries, ramps, feta, and honey, I knew it needed to get in my belly.
Every time I eat a truly seasonal dish like this, I always long to have my own garden and eat nothing but vegetables that I grow with my own fair hands. But then I remember that I live in New York City and I’m scared of dirt, so I abandon this foolish pipe dream.
24 hour treat: sugar toad
If you’re anything like me, Internet Stranger, you’ll be thinking to yourself, “Bluh? What is a sugar toad?” Now I’ve eaten frogs before, and if sugar toads were actually toads, I would have eaten them anyway. But they are not. Sugar toads are just a type of pufferfish that swims along the coast of the Atlantic.
At The Dabney they are usually on the menu, fried and served with hot honey. They are so snackable that I feel disappointed to have never seen them on the menu at any other restaurant. As a bonus, you get to eat them with your hands! I almost wonder why The Dabney bothers to give you forks and knives at all.
Of course the dessert was just as seasonal as the rest of the menu. This vernal beauty is made with woodruff, a natural sweetener I had also tasted in Galway, charred rhubard, and spring herbs. Rhubarb, ramps, and asparagus are the three foods that most make me think of spring. If only there were some way to combine them into a dish that weren’t completely disgusting. Get on it chefs of the world! Don’t make me threaten you with my KGB lipstick pistol!
That’s a Perfect One Day in Washington DC!
What would you do with One Day in Washington DC? Does the KGB still give out lipstick pistols? And could there conceivably be a more disgusting object than a Nazi rectal concealment? Please leave your thoughts below!
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend One Day in Washington DC. If you have another One Day in Washington DC, try this itinerary. And if you have time for another One Day in Washington DC with the National Mall, click here.