Looking for something creepy to do in Philly? One of the cooler areas to visit in Philadelphia is the Eastern State Penitentiary. Though not quite as popular as the Liberty Bell, or the Rocky steps, this place is filled with history that will make the average tourists and your family history buff both terrified and intrigued. If you’re in the area, or considering being here soon, visiting Eastern State Penitentiary needs to be on your to-do list. And if you’re already looking to plan your visit, this guide to Eastern State Penitentiary will help you do it right!
When I drove past this massive building years ago, I thought it was a castle. It takes up 10 acres right in the center of Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood, which is a pretty affluent area. Cool restaurants, shops, bookstores, and really expensive houses surrounded the place. Why would I ever think it wasn’t a castle? It wasn’t until this past year that I realized this old building was not some exclusive members only castle, but an almost 200-year-old former prison! And I don’t feel bad about not knowing it was a prison by its appearance. The architects of this massive building intentionally designed it to look much more inviting from the outside. There are grand windows, large towers, and other visually appealing aspects that were created to make people forget what was going on inside. Creepy!
A Little History
The Eastern State Penitentiary opened up in 1829, after nearly 30 years of well-known Philadelphians (including Benjamin Franklin) trying to convince the Commonwealth that this new prison system was a good idea. The prison’s aim was to move beyond simple punishment and toward a system that inspired true regret and penitence in its prisoners. Before that, prisons were usually just one big room filled with everything from murderers to people who stole from a food cart. In the early years of the prison, isolation and labor were the main means of punishment. Prisoners wore hoods when they were outside of their cells and were not allowed to speak to other inmates, receive letters, or even read books (except for the bible). Though this all sounds archaic, The Eastern State Penitentiary was actually very advanced for its time. The building itself had running water and central heating before even The White House did. It was so grand that tourists flocked to it then, and still do today. But the lives of those who lived in the prison were not so grand, as you’ll learn when you visit. After a long run, the prison was officially shut down in 1971.
When you walk inside the first entrance area of Eastern State Penitentiary, it’s hard not to peek behind you and second guess going in. The vibe is scary from the get-go, and the walkway to the ticket booth is daunting to say the least. After you pay for your ticket, they give you an mp3 player and a set of headphones (it comes with the admission price), so that you can play the audio tour. There are tons of options with this mp3 audio tour to choose from. The main tour is narrated by Steve Buscemi (The guy from Fargo, Boardwalk Empire, etc.), but other sections of the audio tour are narrated by guards, former wardens, and even inmates. There are dozens of audio stops available, aside from the 10 recommended ones, that will let you stop and hear more about the penitentiary. But if those aren’t enough, you also have the option of taking a 75-minute tour led by a guide to get more information and answers to specific questions.
The price of admission is super affordable for all that is included with it. There also is no time limit in place for your visit. Once you have your ticket for the day, you can literally stay until the penitentiary closes for the night. Tickets to the Eastern State Penitentiary are priced as follows:
$16 for adults
$14 for seniors
$12 for children ages 7-12
Those are the prices if you plan on buying tickets at the door, but you can save $2 for every ticket that you purchase beforehand, online. You can purchase tickets online here. You can also get a discounted rate if you have more than 15 people in your group.
*Children under 7 aren’t recommended to visit the Eastern State Penitentiary. They say it’s due to safety hazards and some inappropriate discussions with some of the audio tour. But when i was there, I saw a few younger kids there and they were totally fine. So I think they could tag along, but it’s obviously up to your discretion. (They get in for free if you bring them.)
Once inside the prisons walls, you’ll eventually find what looks a little like a baseball field. This is where the inmates were able to exercise and get some fresh air in the later years of the prison. Before that, they were confined to small, single person outdoor areas that were surrounded by brick walls. It’s a good thing to know beforehand that the Eastern State Penitentiary has both indoor and outdoor areas, but the indoor areas are not climate controlled. The building is old, and a lot of it has been left as it was when the prison shut down. So dress accordingly, and try to pick a good weather day. They’ll be open rain or shine, all throughout the year but visiting Eastern State Penitentiary will be more enjoyable if it’s not raining or really cold.
It’s a good thing to know beforehand that there are no dining options in Eastern State Penitentiary. You are, however, allowed to pack a lunch and eat it at one of the picnic tables outside. The penitentiary is located in a very central part of the Fairmount neighborhood in Philadelphia, so there are many restaurant options to eat at before or after your visit. They also a few tiny snacks in the gift shop.
On the inside, you’ll be able to look into the cells the prisoners lived in. A few of them are set up so that you can actually step inside. Many of their bed frames, and toilet stalls are exactly as they were left when the prison shut down in 1971. Some stalls, like the one belonging to the famous American gangster Al Capone, have been recreated to show exactly what it would have looked like (and boy did he have it good in there!) Other stalls now feature art installations and current projects that other Pennsylvania state prisoners are working on. I’ll spare you the rest of the details on the prison so that you can experience it for yourself! There is a lot to see here, so take your time walking around and listen to as many audio tour stops as you possibly can.
*If you happen to be visiting in Fall, and aren’t afraid of a good scare, Eastern State Penitentiary puts on a haunted house inside the prison. It’s actually the largest haunted house in America. The former prison extends their hours to 11 p.m. to put on this truly terrifying experience. It’s called Terror Behind the Walls and I will never go to it, because I’m a scaredy cat, but you can! Being there during the day was scary enough for me!
Visiting Eastern State Penitentiary was so much better than I thought it would be. Hearing people’s stories, and being in such an old place was one of the most interesting things I’ve done in Philadelphia so far. If you need something to lighten up the mood after visiting this daunting place, try checking out some of Philadelphia’s best bookstores or visiting Longwood Gardens just 45 minutes away!