Follow TV Tropes


City of Spies

Go To
Estoril is small town near Lisbon, Portugal. Having a casino, beach and wonderful weather, the region was a center of diplomacy — and spying — during World War II.

"Let me pass on to you the one thing I've learned about this place — no one here is exactly what he appears. Not Mollari, not Delenn, not Sinclair... and not me."
G'kar, Babylon 5, "Mind War"

It's a city. Of spies.

It might even be that the number of posted spies are equivalent to, or even outmatches the numbers of regular citizens, potentially creating a Flock of Wolves situation. Taken to its logical conclusion, is not unlikely that most of the spies have ended up Going Native to some degree or another, because who else would be around to actually maintain the city and making sure that goods and services are still flowing otherwise?

These locations tend to occur in multi-polar 'verses (that is, with two or more power blocs) and are either neutral locations or the capital cities of the powers themselves.

If all the world's spies seem to work in the city a Spy Drama is set in, it's a City of Adventure. See also the Truce Zone, which is very often one of these. For when a group consists entirely of people who are meant to be infiltrating it, see Flock of Wolves.

Its vast number of spies might also be because a Decadent Court has set up shop here.

For the Superhero equivalent, see Superhero Capital of the World.


    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 
  • Roanapur, in Black Lagoon, has a fair number of spies running around in addition to all the criminals.
  • Academy City from A Certain Magical Index.
  • Thanks to the mysterious Hell's Gate, Tokyo in Darker than Black is crawling with agents for every faction imaginable, from criminal cartels to national intelligence agencies.
  • Berlint in Spy X Family, as the capital of Ostania, naturally has a fair number of spies and counterintelligence agents (plus Yor's assassin organization). However, it's the only city we've seen so far.

    Comic Books 
  • Los Angeles serves as an interesting variation of this in Desolation Jones. It's a city full of spies who've all been forcibly retired and who are kept legally invisible by the government. They also can't leave.
  • One of the Marvelman/Miracleman comics ("Spy Story", #21 of the revived series, 1991, by Neil Gaiman) is about a woman living in a city of spies. It turns out that all the members of the intelligence agencies of the world who couldn't adjust to the Utopia were put into one big city to intrigue their little hearts out.
  • In Wonder Woman (1942), Diana, Steve and Etta can't go anywhere in Washington DC without running into someone doing espionage work for the Axis powers.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Atomic Blonde takes place in Berlin near the very end of the Cold War when the Wall is about to fall in November 1989, so naturally, the city is full of spies from both the NATO nations (chiefly USA, UK and France) and the Soviet Union.
  • Casablanca, in the film of the same name.
  • OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies: OSS 117 indeed bumps into a variety of spies in Cairo (Soviets, British, separate Egyptian factions, a goofy Belgian spy and even a hidden group of the Nazis), most likely due to the Suez Canal crisis and Gamal Abdel Nasser's presidency at the epicenter of pan-Arabism.
  • Star Wars:
    • Coruscant, being a City Planet and the center of the Galaxy's government, is rife with espionage.
    • Bothawui and the other Bothan-colonized worlds (especially Kothlis, home of the cell of Bothan spies who are mentioned in Return of the Jedi) in the Star Wars Legends are planets of spies. Also Playful Hackers, backbiting status-obsessed politicians, and incredibly brave honor-bound people. With plenty of overlap between these categories. Bothans wear many Hats.
    • Starting with The Illustrated Star Wars Universe Legends texts frequently portray Mos Eisley spaceport as a rat's nest of professional and amateur spies, all hoping to see something valuable that can be sold - either to Jabba the Hutt, Lady Valarian, or Imperial Prefect Talmont. Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina features the Devish fugitive Labria eking out a pathetic living as Jabba's least favourite spy, while more talented spies like Garindian prefer to work freelance and set their own prices.
  • Post-war Vienna is a hotbed of intrigue (and zither music) in The Third Man.

  • Grantville in 1632 becomes this in later books, as everyone and his mother wants to get their hands on up-time technology. Subverted in that the spying is done fairly openly - most of the information they want is public knowledge, and the Americans don't actually care that much. Adding to the mix is that Grantville still has a functioning (if limited) Internet, which offers a very secure way for the aforementioned spies to swap information with one another.
  • Boktor (capital of Drasnia) and Mal Zeth (capital of the Mallorean Empire) in The Belgariad. Drasnia tops it all, being a country of spies. Spies are its chief export (that and reindeer).
  • In Discworld, Ankh-Morpork is certainly implied to be one, but there's not a lot of focus on the spies themselves. It's just taken for granted that news will make it back to Lord Vetinari. At one point he's seen reading the report from the Thieves' Guild inner inner council. Amusingly, Glenda, the protagonist of Unseen Academicals (who really is just a cook), is mistaken for a spy because of thisnote  — Ridcully says that Vetinari is the largest employer in the city, and he wishes he knew exactly who he was employing.
  • Doctor Who New Adventures: In Death and Diplomacy, spying, deception and intrigue are the Hat of the Saloi, to the point that every Saloi is secretly spying on not only their two enemy cultures, but every other Saloi. (Except it's not a secret, because everybody knows that, so maybe that's just what they want people to think, and so on...)
  • Discussed in the Full Metal Panic! novels when revealing where Mithril had the administrative headquarters for their Pacific operations. They chose Sydney, Australia as its large enough that they can blend by pretending to be the regional headquarters of a multi-national corporation and geographically isolated enough that it's not a natural crossroads attracting a lot of attention.
  • In William Tenn's short story "Lisbon Cubed", Earth itself turns out to be a conveniently located neutral site where dozens of alien species secretly run their competing spy rings, spying on each other, while Earth remains unaware of the existence of aliens. The name is a reference to the historical role the city of Lisbon in Portugal played as a spy center during WWII.
  • Our Man in Havana, by Graham Greene (Author). Bet you can't guess which city.
  • King's Landing in A Song of Ice and Fire, though to a lesser extent than some of the other examples on this page, does have a large number of spies for different factions. Although they don't figure into the War of the Five Kings much, supplementary materials indicate that Braavos and Volantis (as well as the other Free Cities) have in the past served in this role. Essentially, anywhere Varys' influence extends could count as such, thanks to his network of "little birds".
  • In Robert Sheckley's "Spy Story", there's an entire planet settled exclusively by the spies who come to spy on the main protagonist.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The Americans, set in Washington DC during The '80s and featuring KGB spies as protagonists, makes use of this trope, showing how the KGB operates out of the Soviet embassy with impunity.
  • If you were to believe Burn Notice, Miami is full of spies and retired spies. Then again, the city attracts a lot of retiring people and is pretty close to Cuba. And it doesn't hurt that Florida doesn't have a state income tax, which makes it a popular place for mobile people to have as a residence.
  • Babylon 5: The Babylon 5 Space Station itself is a massive nest of intrigue, mostly because it's the only neutral port around and between the major powers. Being the hub of diplomats means it attracts the dark side of diplomacy, spying. Notably, when the Interstellar Alliance relocates its headquarters to Minbar at the end of season 5, the chief of the ISA's covert intelligence division chooses to remain stationed on Babylon 5.
  • Chuck: In the episode "Chuck Versus the Suburbs", Chuck and Sarah go undercover in the suburb of Meadow Branch to find a Fulcrum agent. Later in the episode, it is revealed that the entire cul-de-sac is actually a front for Fulcrum, which is trying to build their own intersect.
  • Game of Thrones:
    • King's Landing is rife with spies for various members of the Decadent Court. In one scene, Littlefinger is polite enough to point out several of them, including his own.
    • At the time of House of the Dragon, both Mysaria (a.k.a. the "White Worm") and Larys Strong have networks of informants in King's Landing.
  • Vancouver, of all places, on Intelligence (2006). This makes more sense than you might think. It's a major world port right next to a major world power (the United States) and right across from two more (China and Russia) in Canada, which has traditionally served as a buffer between the three. Plus, the fact that it's a very cosmopolitan city where any nationality blends right in, it could very well be a City of Spies for much the same reason Kathmandu has become so popular.
  • Berlin in Pan Am. Of course, as the series is set in The '60s during the Cold War, this is Truth in Television (as noted below).
  • The Village in The Prisoner (1967). All the inhabitants are forcibly retired spies. Presumably. Possibly. Maybe.
  • In Wonder Woman (1975), Washington, D.C. is a den of spies. From Steve Trevor's first secretary (who Wonder Woman personally knocks out to take her job) to Baroness von Gunther to spies posing as Treasury Department managers, the first season has so many spies that there must have been a shortage of both housing and abandoned warehouses.

  • Secret Service suggests that everyone in Washington D.C. is either an undercover agent or a Soviet spy.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Columbia in Crimson Skies.
  • In Demon: The Descent, any city with a huge Unchained presence quickly becomes a city of spies. The demons must constantly stay one step ahead of the God-Machine, unraveling its plans through moves and countermoves. Most demons organize themselves in small Rings, and many cities have Agencies that can offer demons resources, be they cash, safehouses, or host bodies.
  • Eberron goes a step further and has an entire country of spies — Zilargo, especially its capital of Trolanport. It's also the homeland of the gnomes. Adventurers in Zilargo are well advised to Beware the Nice Ones, as Zilargo boasts the most terrifyingly capable secret police force in the setting. It's not that everyone is watching you that you should be worried about — it's when everyone stops watching you that you should really worry.
  • Al Amarja, the Mediterranean Banana Republic where Over the Edge is based in, is crammed to the rafters with the weirdness of every description. The multiple espionage agencies fighting each other in the back alleys is one of the most mundane aspects of the setting.
  • Every player character in Paranoia is required to be a member of at least one secret society, and most NPCs are part of one as well. Given that the characters are supposed to be hunting down secret society members, this can get ugly.
  • Planescape has Sigil, City of Doors, which is a city of spies because it contains portals to every plane in the multiverse and is, therefore, the most strategically important location imaginable. Legions of ideological/philosophical or political factions, religious groups, business empires, crime syndicates, and both sides in the Blood War have agents here.
  • The board game Spy Alley takes place in one.
  • The 'newly created international city of Espiona' in the board game Spy Ring.
  • The setting of the Top Secret adventure "Operation: Sprechenhaltestelle'' is a small neutral European town full of spies.
  • The planet Arden in Traveller.
  • Krakow in Twilight: 2000.

    Video Games 
  • The AI in Civilization V will almost always plant its spies in the city with the highest espionage potential (because they can steal technologies from it faster), which is based on science output per turn and therefore almost certainly a/the player's capital, especially in single-player. Place one counterspy in your capital and watch him rapidly level up to Special Agent by killing spies from around the world every few turns as world leader after world leader crawls to you, embarrassed and begging for forgiveness.
  • Escape Velocity Override has two separate things that fit this in different ways. One is Pax Station, which as pretty much the sole place in which in the United Earth-Voinian Empire peace treaty meaningfully exists is a centre of intrigue, from Voinians hiring human mercenaries to UE agents retrieving Voinian defectors. The other is the entire Igadzra culture — all three of the Strands have a thing as a deliberate policy, and the Igadzra thing is something like devious paranoia. This both means that Igadzra tends to spy on other Igadzra and has led to the Igadzra having the most sophisticated and extensive intelligence agencies and clandestine scheming amongst the Strands.
  • The eponymous city in Fallen London qualifies. The Great Game has its players nearly everywhere in London, including the Admiralty, and the district of Wilmot's End may as well be the “District of Spies” since just about everyone you’ll meet there is one of them.
  • In Gwent: The Witcher Card Game, there's the Nilfgaard Empire. The most popular jobs in the Nilfgaardian empire are Spy, Assassin, and Courtesan. It's heavily implied that there is a major overlap between all three jobs.
  • In Knights of the Old Republic, Manaan in some ways has this role in its nature as an extremely valuable world that maintains neutrality. While both the Republic and Sith have embassies on the world, neither are allowed to carry weapons on the streets and are both extremely limited and forced to combat by proxy. In addition, the trial of Sunry, where both he and his victim were being manipulated by the Republic and Sith, is an example of the types of manipulation that go on. The way in which the Republic builds a secret base with the approval of elements of the Selkath rulers also fits into this type of system.
  • Syndicate Rychart in Star Traders: Frontiers is an entire faction that focuses on spying and subterfuge. A common saying goes: "Never bargain with a Rychart in the dark."
  • The city of Crossbell from the Trails Series edges into this, given that it’s located directly between the continents two major superpowers, the Erebonian Empire and Republic of Calvard, and is divided between factions that support Erebonia, Calvard or advocate for Crossbell to be independent of the two. Agents from both countries are also active in the background, along with Wazy and Abbas keeping tabs on things for the Septian Church, and later Ries keeping tabs on the Church. During Azures’s final chapter, it's possible to find out that Reins, a reporter at the Crossbell News Service, is actually an employee of R&A Research, meaning the Kingdom of Liberl is spying on Crossbell too.

    Western Animation 
  • Pottsylvania from Rocky and Bullwinkle is shown to be a whole country of spies in the few times it is shown.

    Real Life 
  • Nearly any capital city or any city big enough to have a consulate, due to intelligence agents using diplomatic posts as cover, since they have diplomatic immunity. If they're caught, they can simply go back to their home country.
  • As can be seen from the list below, if a city has been (or is) either the capital of a Great Power, or a focus of international conflict/intrigue at one time or another, it will become a real City of Spies.
  • Berlin during the Cold War, because it was a city in the middle of communist territory where all four occupation powers were in close proximity (as was Vienna, see below).
    • Lampshaded in all conceivable versions of Casino Royale by Bond girl Vesper Lynd (a pun on 'West Berlin').
  • Lisbon (World War II) was pretty much this during the course of the war, particularly when taking into account Portugal's neutral status.
  • Moscow (same as Washington DC)
  • Helsinki (Cold War, present):
    • Because it was close to the Soviet Union, largely sympathetic to the West, but neutral. The Finns were quite aware of their situation, practicing a policy of "bowing to the East in such a way that it could not be seen as mooning the West."
    • For a while it looked like Helsinki had lost its importance as a spy city in the aftermath of the Cold War as Finland was no longer situated in between two powerful military alliances. However, following the Russian annexation of Crimea, military intervention in Syria, the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the resulting tensions with NATO, spy activity has once again spiked and according to Finnish Security Intelligence Service, it has reached Cold War era levels. And as of 2023, Finland has joined NATO in the wake of the war in Ukraine.
  • Tallinn, Estonia (Today), because it was once part of the Soviet Union, but is now firmly in the Western camp (part of the EU and NATO). Since 2008 the city is home to the NATO Cyber Defense Center. This last is not particularly surprising: Internet penetration in Estonia is ridiculously high (the country was the first to hold official online elections), the country has a large number of internet-based companies including Skype, and Estonian systems are a common target for Russian hackers.
  • Vienna (Cold War, Present). Most people don't realize this, but Austria, like Germany, was carved up into four occupation zones after the end of World War II, with Vienna also being divided. The terms under which the occupation of Austria ended mandated that Austria become a neutral state, which it did, so its situation ended up being rather like Finland's. Also, a large number of international institutions are based in or have major offices in Vienna; of these, the most important is the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).
    • The Congress of Vienna at the end of The Napoleonic Wars was a great time for this as well. The British delegation went so far as to take their own service staff on the way with them, knowing that every Austrian they hired would be working for the Austrian government. Others didn't think of this and as a result, the Austrians picked them blind.
    • More recently, spy swaps between countries like the US, Russia, and Britain have still been known to take place in the area. The (now infamous) MI6 informant Colonel Sergei Skripal was 'exchanged' at Schwechat airport in 2010.
  • Prague seems to be the setting of many tales of espionage and intrigue across several genres.
  • London particularly during World War II when it was the main staging ground for the war effort but other periods as well. During the Cold War naturally and the early days of the age of sail, both Civil Wars and half a dozen other time periods, the place was swimming with people selling information to all sides of these conflicts. It probably has dozens of spies in residence to this day due to being one of the largest and most influential cities in the world.
  • Geneva and other Swiss cities. Being a neutral country with many international agencies is enough to be a spy magnet in any era, but especially during World War 2 when Switzerland was neutral in the middle of Nazi-controlled Europe that did extensive business with both sides.
  • Venice was this during the days of the Late Republic.
  • Stockholm (World War II), as you can read in Courier From Warsaw, similarly to Lisbon, above (but with colder weather).
  • Rotterdam in the Netherlands during World War I, being located at the crossroads of all the major players on the Western Front, was a hotbed of espionage for both Entente and Central intelligence.

The Americas

  • Washington, D.C. (Cold War, present)
    • It's not just unfriendly countries (the Communist bloc during the Cold War, China, and Russia today) that have a major espionage presence in Washington. There was a major scandal in the late 1980s when Israel, one of the U.S.'s closest allies, was caught conducting nuclear-related espionage, and commercial competitors of the U.S. engage in serious industrial/technical espionage efforts. The F.B.I.'s counterintelligence division has a more than a full-time job on its hands keeping track of all these spies and controlling their efforts.
    • The opening video on the National Spy Museum tour estimates that DC has more spies per capita than any other city on the planet.
    • Which causes problems when selecting areas for dead drops or covert meetings between spies and their handlers. Because thousands of spies have been working in cities like Washington and Moscow for over half a century, there are very few 'ideal' locations that haven't been used before. In theory, a security service could stake out these places permanently and have a good chance of catching a spy in the act.
    • Also during the The American Civil War, with DC set between Confederate Virginia and Confederate-friendly Maryland and a good number of residents sympathetic to the Southern Cause. DC's mirror opposite city, the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, was riddled with Union spies and sympathizers,note  and perhaps more to the point, all of the slaves in Richmond—including those in Confederate President Jefferson Davis' own household—were natural Union sympathizers and therefore natural Union spies (Davis' housekeeper, for instance, was a Union agent).
  • New York today. Thanks to the United Nations, just about every nation in the world has a diplomatic presence in New York, even nations like North Korea or Iran that are hostile to the US.
  • San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area region in the 21st century. Due to the presence of Silicon Valley and the many technology & media companies engaged in cutting edge research, countries all over the world are flooding the city with spies to steal as much tech as possible. The most alarming foreign power at work here is China, which is able to take full advantage of the enormous Chinese-American community in the area to infiltrate its operatives into.
    • It isn't just technology that foreign operatives are after, but also political influence and intel. California Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein, one of the longest-serving U.S. Senators to date and a native of San Francisco, was revealed in 2018 to have had a Chinese spy on her staff that had been working for her for 20 years. Feinstein's office only found out about it in 2013, after which they quietly fired him.


Middle East

  • Istanbul (Practically Forever.)
    • Istanbul has some claim to be the Trope Namer. It is after all a very "Byzantine" city.
  • Tehran during WW2. Reza Shah's Pro-Axis administration was overthrown in a joint British-Soviet invasion shortly after the whole Operation Barbarossa thing and his Pro-Ally son was quickly crowned. British forces controlled the city while their enemies at the time (The Soviets) were ravaging the Gilan, Mazandaran, and Azerbaijan regions just north of the Alborz mountains. The strong American, British, French, Russian, and German presence in the city was one of the reasons the conference that finally got the Allies to pull themselves together was held there.
    • And during the Cold War. Oil Money + U.S. Friendly Monarchy + Massive borders with the Soviet Union = Disaster. Even without all the MI6, CIA and KGB agents running around there was a lot of crap going on. Most of the intellectuals were promoting Marxist-Leninist ideas, but American pop culture was insanely popular. Prime Minister Mosaddeq was trying to make Iran into a full Democracy which the CIA decided to prevent because the Tudeh party and the Jangal party (which were both Communist) were becoming worryingly popular. All political parties except the Rastakhiz party were disbanded after the Mordad coup but that only led to Communist and Religious Terrorist groups (mostly with foreign benefactors) and the Iranian spy agency SAVAK failed to stop them decisively.
  • Also in Iran, Bushehr has been a hotbed for spy activity forever. Since the 50s, it's been about as crazy as Tehran (look up the Nationalization of the Iranian Oil Industry) but the biggest Spy Magnet of the city is Iran's first Nuclear Power Plant which was built in the early 70s. A few years ago, the Islamic Republic's government decided to revive the Power Plant, flying in a few of the brilliant minds behind Chernobyl to help with the Reactor and triggering a massive load of sanctions from countries who believe the IR means to use nuclear energy for something else.
    • Under the Safavids it was a sentinel of resistance against the Portuguese colonists, then when the Portuguese colonies were taken back it remained a major port in an era when the Safavids had developed relations with the Dutch and British East India Companies, which didn't quite get along. Nader Shah decided to put the Headquarters of his Navy in Bushehr, but he was killed before he was done conquering on land so the Navy went practically unused.
    • Under the Qajar dynasty, Bushehr officially became a British Colony. The rest of Iran wasn't quite happy about it.


  • Kathmandu (since about the early 2000s): With Nepal being sandwiched between the two next likely superpowers of China and India, and a strategic prize for either, the capital has become like this. Sympathetic towards India mostly, but makes sure to keep Beijing in the loop.
  • Iga, Japan (Feudal ages): It's where ninjas originated and where most of them lived during the feudal ages in Japan. It became so independent of the rest of Japan that it became a de-facto city-state until 1581 when it was destroyed.
  • Vientiane, Laos in the 1960's thanks to its unusual coalition government of neutralists, communists, and right-wingers, formed because JFK's administration didn't want to risk a direct confrontation in the region. Instead, all sides waged a proxy war through the various Laotian factions until the communist forces became powerful enough to take over by military force in 1975.