Eastern State Penitentiary – A Tour of Gritty Philly

Take a Walk Where You Never Want To Be

Eastern State Penitentiary

Philadelphia is a city full of attractions to tempt the tourist keen on experiencing the history of America’s birth. But once you’ve rapped your knuckles on the cool, smooth sides of the Liberty Bell; tread upon the creaky, wooden floors of Freedom Hall; and jingled the change in your pocket while watching thousands of coins per minute being stamped and rolled at the U.S. Mint its time to get down and dirty in the darker side of Philly.

Eastern State Penitentiary
Eastern State Penitentiary Eastern State Penitentiary

Standing forbiddingly like a ramshackle, crumbling English castle, the Eastern State Penitentiary looms large in its mostly middle class neighborhood. In its heyday it must have been impressive indeed. Now, however, it has an eerily forlorn mood that sits about it like a cold, dark mantle. Even on our sunny, summer day the mood of this place rested heavily on your shoulders. It is hard to visit the dusty, paint-peeled halls and rusted, crusted cells and not feel at least in small part, a sense of what the prisoners in this place must have felt.

Eastern State Penitentiary
Eastern State Penitentiary

For a photographer that thrills at a gritty, industrial backdrop, this is the place to be. Aside from the other visitors, it’s hard not to point your camera and take amazing shot after amazing shot that won’t help but capture the mood of these wrecked walls that once held the wretched dregs of society.

A visit to the Pen can easily absorb most of the day. We only had a few hours on our trip so we were determined to make the most of it. We followed the guided tour, making the most of audio guides that worked flawlessly and let you move through the prison at your own pace. They’ve done a wonderful job of capturing the essence through sights and sound and storytelling. You don’t really get a full sense of the magnitude until you reach the rotunda, the central circle connecting all of the cell blocks. From here guards could keep an eye on all of the cells, doors, and prisoners.

Eastern State Penitentiary Eastern State Penitentiary Eastern State Penitentiary Eastern State Penitentiary

When you visit, be sure to take the time to follow as many of the guided excursions as possible. These short (20 minutes or so) side tours take you into parts of the prison you couldn’t see otherwise. The kitchens, operating rooms, chaplain’s office, and punishment cells all have stories and sights to build on the already fascinating history of the penitentiary. Other “must see” points of interest include Al Capone’s cell, the watch towers, and the escape tunnel. Finally, look out for “hands-on history” exhibits throughout the history. You can scan the exercise yard looking for breakout attempts, open a cell (it’s trickier than it seems), or take the keys to the prison to open the main gates. Just be sure to keep your eye on the time and make a good plan or you’re likely to miss something.

Eastern State Penitentiary Eastern State Penitentiary Eastern State Penitentiary Eastern State Penitentiary


Practical Information:

Open every day 10 am to 5 pm

(last entry 4 pm)

Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.
2027 Fairmount Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19130
Phone: (215) 236-3300

Visit http://www.easternstate.org/ for current times, prices, special events and schedules.

Would you like to go to jail?

Travel Photo Thursday

24 thoughts on “Eastern State Penitentiary – A Tour of Gritty Philly”

  1. Hi Corrine. Your shots are amazing. It’s nice to read how tourist friendly they have made this. The history always makes the visit more interesting. I visited the prison Toul Sleng prison in Cambodia, and it really is horrific, and not a place that I would ever go back to. Although, in a strange way, I am glad that I did.

  2. This place has a lot of atmosphere. I think it’d be good for letting kids visit and then threatening them with a life in jail if they don’t straighten up — ha ha. This is the type of place where you can picture a movie being filmed. Thanks for the tip about taking all the side tours. They seem interesting.

  3. Phoebe @ Lou Messugo

    I really like that this place hasn’t been tizzied up, the run-down look really adds to the atmosphere. It sounds interesting to be able to do the hands on stuff like opening doors. My boys would love this!

  4. Really Cool! I recently visited Alcatraz in San Francisco, which is a lot well maintained compared to Eastern State Penitentiary probably due to its popularity. Love the eerily forlorn mood that shone through your photography.

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