Note: Eastern State Penitentiary has no clue I’m writing this review about my experience. Just in case you were wondering!
Sooo I’m veering away from my typical advice-y posts, to tell you about this awesome thing you must do on your next trip to Philly.
And if you had zero plans to visit Philadelphia, welp, I’m about to change your mind.
This is a low key summer for me. I don’t have any big trips planned, and I’ve been too busy both personally and professionally to make time for something grand.
But with all this work piling on, I was itching for a getaway! I’m a big believer in the low-maintenance staycation, and for the past few weeks, I’ve been seeing subway ads to tour the Eastern State Penitentiary. (Note to the communications folks: I guess those ads do still work.)
After perusing the website, I was sold and booked the trip with my other half. Because who wouldn’t want to spend their off day visiting a decrepid, crumbling, very-probably-haunted prison ruin in the middle of summer?
What exactly is the Eastern State Penitentiary?
When I told my mom about this trip, she initially thought I was touring a modern day prison for fun. But to her credit, she wasn’t the only one confused about what I was doing!
So here’s the scoop. The Eastern State Penitentiary is one of the oldest prisons in the country (and I believe the first penitentiary at all). First opening nearly 200 years ago, it quickly became not only one of the most famous prisons – for its sheer size, practices and occupants – but also one of the most expensive.
That eventually led to its current state – a ruin of crumbling stone and prison cells – which was eventually acquired and continues to be preserved by its charitable arm, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc. More on that team here.
Why I Decided to Visit
First, I am not a history buff by any means. I’m also not big on museums! I can appreciate art and some history, but my brand of exhibits are hard to come by (basically anything gloomy, dementor-like or remniscent of Tim Burton).
Also, ghosts and I don’t mesh. Tell me a place is haunted and I’m steering clear.
But the current moment —and everything this country is grappling with as it pertains to detention, incarceration, and prison reform— has been weighing on my mind. And frankly, I was curious. With all that we know now, how did this system work decades ago? What were things like back then?
And just how old were these ruins anyway?
I think there’s something deeply humbling about being in a physical space that is significant – either because you recognize the richness to its history (good or bad), or you simply appreciate the beauty. And in this case, both apply.
Why You Should Visit
If you’re at all into ancient ruins, historical sites, or exploring pretty crumbling places….Eastern State Penitentiary is a true surprise. You’d never expect something so massive to be in the middle of a major city.
But beauty aside, there’s also real substance to this experience. Not only do you get the full scoop on ESP’s role in our prison system, but there are interactive exhibits exploring the realities of incarceration today worldwide – including the stats, differing approaches, and the social dilemmas we all need to consider.
Oh, and to the art lovers out there…some of their prison cells serve as exhibits for modern day art projects that are also pretty cool.
As a nonprofit person, I love when I get to interact with an org in a way that is removed from my work. There are many nonprofits out there doing great work in this space, and the ESP team is no exception. From maintaining the grounds to crafting the exhibits, this tour makes for a really memorable experience.
And if you want to learn any more about the stuff I just mentioned, check out this fairly recent article from The New York Times about how Eastern State (the nonprofit) is taking a stand.
What to Know Before You Go
First, the Eastern State Penitentiary is this massive castle-like structure right in the city. So don’t worry if you’ve never been to Philly before and are afraid you’ll miss it: once you’re on the right set of streets, it practically hits you in the face.
Your admission ticket includes a free self-guided tour, narrated by actor Steve Buscemi (wildcard!). If you can make time for the guided tours, I’d probably do that the next time around…but the self-guided tour was still absolutely fantastic.
*Tip:* if you’d rather not borrow used headphones, bring your own!
Plan to be there for at least 2 hours. The recorded tour only takes 35 minutes, but you’ll want to take your time soaking everything in as you walk through the cell blocks.
That said, exude comfort on your visit day. You’re going to be there a while, so you’ll want to bring the comfy sneakers, leave the flip flops, and bring your best canteen of water.
And speaking of water, let’s talk weather. We went to visit an outdoorsy ruin on one of the hottest weekends of summer. I still loved every second….but if you’re banking on air-conditioned cell blocks, you may want to pick a cooler time to go. My next visit will definitely be in the Fall.
p.s. For you thrill seekers, they do offer a “haunted” excursion in the Fall. AND if you have ghost detecting equipment, you can book appointments to research the grounds in the evening. (Like I said, ghosts & I don’t mesh! So you don’t be seeing me at either of these. 😅)
if you’re interested in learning more, definitely head over to the Eastern State Penitentiary website to get more info and get your ticket! And if you have recommendations for similar excursions, please leave them for us in the comments!