The Washington, DC area has more than 200 museums, many grand, famous and praised. There are 16 Smithsonian museums alone and, when you've had enough of Rembrandt and Renoir, had your fill of the Hope Diamond at the Natural History Museum and seen the handwritten Constitution of the United States, in The National Archives, there are a host of more offbeat establishments to consider.

The International Spy Museum celebrates the world of snooping and spooks, and offers a crash course on the history and tradecraft of global espionage. A huge collection of artefacts from around the world is housed in a cluster of restored 19th-century Victorian Italianate commercial buildings in Washington's Downtown area. The ornate mouldings and friezes of the post United States civil war landmark are charming, but it is the glimmering wraparound red and silver marquee-style sign announcing the museum in bold letters and the street-level windows that offer a peek inside that give the crowds (and there is always a queue) a frisson of delight.

What they see when they finally enter are hundreds of authentic tools of the trade, such as locks and picks, eavesdropping devices, a coat-button camera, a shoe with a transmitter hidden in a hollow heel and a mesmerising collection of weapons. There's the "Bulgarian umbrella", a device that fires a poison-laced pellet, a gold engagement ring that shoots tiny bullets and, courtesy of the KGB, a lipstick called the "kiss of death", which doubles as a pistol.

Watch on screen as a female CIA operative is transformed within minutes into a bearded, turbaned terrorist stereotype, fly with the spy pigeons (the living, breathing predecessors to drones) that carried messages and cameras during the second world war and learn about the covert contributions of everyone from Mata Hari to Julia Child.

Nothing says sexy intrigue, however, more than the museum's latest multi-gallery installation. Spies on Bond is full of 007 film paraphernalia, such as the emerald green Jaguar XKR driven in Die Another Day and video testimonials in which real spies comment on the technical veracity of the Bond films.

Hungry for more? Rumour has it some of Washington's Bond types exchange tales over the desserts at NoPa, the eatery next door.

More vicarious thrills can be had at the comprehensive and quirky DEA Museum, run by the Drug Enforcement Agency. Like one giant evidence room, the museum holds, among other things, a candy-apple-red Harley-Davidson motorcycle once owned by a Hells Angel kingpin, an ultra-light aircraft that ferried blocks of cocaine from Mexico to California and a hollowed-out surfboard used to stash drugs.

An installation evoking 1960s drug culture includes a case full of bongs, papers and roach clips. Another exhibit features beautifully carved silver and ivory opium pipes used in New York's Chinatown in the 19th century. If the exhibits leave you pondering the street value of the bags of marijuana, cocaine and hallucinogenic mushroom evidence under glass, note bene: the displays are fake. But thoroughly real are the 600 diamonds embedded in the handle of a pistol once owned by notorious Mexican cocaine smuggler Miguel Caro-Quintero.

With the huge popularity of Narcos, the new Netflix series (soon to be available in Hong Kong), visitors are likely to find artefacts relating to the Colombian drug dealer Pablo Escobar compelling. Most sensational, though, are the disturbingly graphic photos of shootouts that include close-up images of the gruesome results of the 1993 gun battle that took down Escobar.

The little National Cryptologic Museum is part of America's super-sleuth organisation, the National Security Agency, or NSA, erstwhile employer of one Edward Snowden. Not surprisingly, the artefacts here are from surveillance operations that took place last century and so are declassified.

Given the NSA's oversized reputation, the tiny museum, housed in a 60s motel, is surprisingly modest and sweetly odd. It holds thousands of artefacts detailing an often dramatic history of decoding enemies' encrypted missives. Displays trace the history of secret messages, from invisible ink to a 60-tonne steel voice encryption device, SIGSALY, which takes up an entire wall of the museum. What look like clunky antique black adding machines and typewriters are actually early code makers and breakers. There is even an Enigma machine (celebrated in the film The Imitation Game); the German cipher device, on which visitors can encrypt their own message, looks very basic: a worn wooden box with typewriter keys and gears. The bulky Cray supercomputer looks as antiquated as the signalling devices American soldiers in Vietnam had to lug around, some of which are also on show. As are an old black telephone handset on which visitors can listen to scrambled voices and a dusty diorama of a village and railroad tracks, detailing the codes hobos used to stay in touch with each other.

The lo-tech nature of the displays makes the museum seem like it was put together by a passionate and knowledgeable hobbyist. Yet, through the artefacts' back stories, as told by the volunteer guides (all former NSA agents), visitors can catch a glimpse of some of the most dramatic moments in the history of American cryptology.

If everything you've seen in the museums so far seems fantastical, you can get a dose of reality at the Newseum. Not everything in this museum honouring the history of news journalism is as gut-wrenching as the sight of the last letter written home by journalist James Foley before he was beheaded by Islamic State and a bullet-riddled truck belonging to Time Magazine, but these pointed reminders of the dangers facing reporters are among the more than 5,000 artefacts on display.

The Newseum's mission is to ignite visitors' interest in the craft of reporting and in freedom of the press. Its dramatic glass wall exterior, with a huge glowing digital Associated Press "zipper" pulsating with breaking news, is an attempt to invite passers-by behind the scenes of newsmaking.

The first television news helicopter dangles from the ceiling of the 27-metre-high atrium of the Great Hall. Other installations include the first news satellite (also suspended from on high), an emotion-laden chunk of radio tower from New York's World Trade Center and, perhaps the most arresting, a 60-tonne section of the Berlin Wall, replete with original graffiti.

The News History Gallery, with its rows of sliding glass drawers of hundreds of newspaper front pages, offers hours of good reading. On the wall is a light-hearted display of tabloids with come-hither headlines about sex, crime and scandal, and stories about people who married space aliens and others who "saw" a resurrected Elvis.

The Pulitzer Prize Photographs Gallery offers the world's largest collection of prize-winning pictures, among the most recognisable being Joe Rosenthal's Marines Raise the Flag on Iwo Jima.

The Remember the Fallen Memorial features a two-storey glass wall etched with the names of journalists killed in action while the very large colour-coded wall map of the world reflecting the degree of press freedom in each country reminds us that many journalists are imprisoned for simply practising their trade.

The Newseum's restaurant, Source, is a high-concept Wolfgang Puck creation helmed by chef Scott Drewno, whose homage to the Chinese hot pot is bringing in crowds. The bar at Source isn't bad for journo spotting, either, with CNN's Wolf Blitzer and Gloria Borger frequent customers.

As if to prove the US capital isn't just about politics and history, there are plans afoot for a science-fiction museum, a Bible museum and an expanded crime museum.