Explore Washington D.C.

D.C. Confidential: A Spy Lover's Itinerary

Inspired by TV’s fictional spooks, our local editor plots a course to sites of real-life espionage.

Of all the spies skulking around the small screen these days, I’m partial to KGB operatives Philip and Elizabeth Jennings. On “The Americans”— named TV’s best show by the Washington Post—they lead seemingly normal lives in 1980s suburban D.C., a setting that recalls my childhood in Great Falls, Virginia.

My dad, too, was a spy, albeit for the “right” side and, as far as I know, he never locked adversaries in the trunk of his car or took a fake wife to obtain state secrets. I often wondered what he did do. But forever loyal to the CIA, he remained frustratingly tight-lipped.

“The Americans” creator and co-head writer, Joe Weisberg, was also an agency man (and now must run every episode’s script by the CIA’s review board). While the Langley HQ prohibits access to civilians, other city sites give glimpses into the shadowy world of spooks, from their hangouts to their ops. Comrades, your mission awaits!


Aerial view of Georgetown (©Jason Hawkes, Courtesy Destination DC)

Don’t let Georgetown’s elegance fool you. The genteel neighborhood has long been a hotbed of covert affairs. In the 1940s, “Wild Bill” Donovan, director of CIA-precursor the OSS, held secret rendezvous in his home at 2920 R Street NW.

In 1985, KGB colonel Vitaly Yurchenko escaped from his CIA guards by climbing out the bathroom window of Au Pied du Cochon bistro (now a Five Guys) at 1335 Wisconsin Avenue and promptly defected back to the Soviet Union.

Aldrich Ames, a KGB double agent from 1985 to 1994, allegedly left chalk marks on a mailbox at 37th and R streets to alert his Russian handlers that he wanted a meeting.


KGB lipstick pistol
KGB lipstick pistol (Courtesy International Spy Museum)

For undercover immersion, there’s no place like Penn Quarter’s International Spy Museum, given clandestine cred by director—and CIA alum—Peter Earnest. Visitors assume a cover identity (later tested!) and learn about historical spooks like, yes, George Washington, whose spy ring inspires the TV show “Turn.”

Other exhibits reveal tools of the trade, from a CIA disguise kit to a KGB lipstick pistol, and showcase 100-plus artifacts from the films depicting that smoothest of sleuths, James Bond.


“The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse”
“The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse” (Courtesy Goethe-Institut)

A short stroll northeast at 604 H Street NW, a simple plaque marks the site of Mary Surratt’s boarding house, where John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators planned President Lincoln’s assassination (originally a kidnapping scheme). Now Wok and Roll restaurant and karaoke lounge attracts a more jovial set.

One block west, Goethe-Institut screens spy films from both sides of the Iron Curtain (through March 17). Don a disguise for “mystery” cocktails and thrillers like “The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse” and “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.”