Looking for a little day trip adventure and something a little different? Let’s visit the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia!
I have a running list on my phone to refer to any time we have a free afternoon, weekend, fill in the blank. I add to it as I find things. Some of the items on the list are free and local. Some are a bit of a drive. Just a hodge podge so that when we are looking for something to do, I have a list to refer to easily, instead of wasting time trying to find something to do. The Eastern State Penitentiary has been on the list for a few years, and we were finally able to cross it off. My kids and I like to do off-the-beaten path stuff, mixed in with straight up touristy stuff, and this certainly fit the bill.
I put the address in my Waze app and away we went. It was about an hour and a half drive for us, and very easy to find. There is an adjacent parking lot, with plenty of space. The admission to the Penitentiary is inexpensive, and you can save a few bucks if you purchase your tickets ahead of time online, like we did.
The prison was operational from 1829 through 1971, and it now operates as a charitable non-profit organization and is a National US Historic Landmark. It seriously oozes history around every corner. It was once the largest and most expensive prison in the United States and even housed many “celebrity” criminals, including Al Capone (his cell block is pictured below). This particular prison was said to be the model for 300+ prisons that were erected after it. Unlike many other prisons, each of the cells here had its own faucet and flush toilet, which was controlled remotely by the guards. The prison design changed a bit while it was being built because it became very overcrowded very quickly. The original design called for seven one-story cell blocks, but halfway through, it was already past capacity, and second floors started being added. In the early 1920s, there was even an actual dog sentenced to prison for allegedly the Pennsylvania Governor’s wife’s cat!
My kids kept yelling at me because I kept stopping to take pictures. Even in its decay, the place was a photographers’ dream … in fact, it was probably more entrancing to me because it was in such decay. You know, beauty in the everyday and all that. Nick even submitted one of the photos he took that day for a class assignment – something I didn’t realize until the project came home. I loved seeing that – it was kind of like a quiet thumbs up from him that I do take them to interesting places.
The Penitentiary is open year ’round to the public, and you can do a tour with a guide or a self-guided tour with headphones (the latter is what we opted for). You can tour many of the cell blocks, including a few that were earmarked for solitary confinement, and the prison courtyard. During the year, there are also various events and exhibits as well, including a Haunted Halloween event (check their Events page for more details on what’s coming up). Over 220,000 people visit the Penitentiary every year!
Eastern State Penitentiary
2027 Fairmount Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19130
Hungry for more to do in Philadelphia?
Visit the famous Rocky Steps.
If you like oysters, the Oyster House is a must visit.
The Magic Gardens was a fun, quirky little stop and I can’t wait to take my kids there.
The Philadelphia Zoo is one of our favorite zoos, so much beauty around every corner.
And, of course, the Liberty Bell.
And if you make a weekend out of it, you can find a few more Philly places to visit on my dedicated Pennsylvania board right here, and other tri-state area stops here.