Eastern State Penitentiary Tour: Behind Eerie Walls in Philly

One of the most unique things to do in Philadelphia is the Eastern State Penitentiary tour. Go behind the eerie walls of the world's first penitentiary! #easternstate #penitentiary #tour #prison #philly #philadelphia #pennsylvania #activities #travel #destinations

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Of the many things there are to do in Philadelphia, none is more unique than the Eastern State Penitentiary tour. While I have visited several different prisons in various destinations, I’m not sure any of them have been as eerie as Eastern State. On a most interesting flip side, its eerie walls also make it the most photogenic of all the prisons I’ve visited.

A photogenic prison. That’s not something you hear every day, is it? In all seriousness, the same spooky feel that makes the penitentiary seem haunted is also the one that makes the walls and structures seem to “come alive for the camera”. Hey, that’s what you get from this travel photographer! 😜

I’m sure at this point you’re wondering if I was temporarily possessed while taking this Eastern State Penitentiary tour. I promise nothing of the sort happened, but it was a completely different experience from any other.

About the Eastern State Penitentiary

One of the most unique things to do in Philadelphia is the Eastern State Penitentiary tour. Go behind the eerie walls of the world's first penitentiary! #easternstate #penitentiary #tour #prison #philly #philadelphia #pennsylvania #activities #travel #destinations

In operation from 1829 to 1971, Eastern State Penitentiary or ESP is the world’s first penitentiary. Designed to inspire penance, it drove its prisoners insane instead.

Why?

Originally, ESP followed the system of separate incarceration where the prisoners couldn’t talk to each other or the guards. They did everything alone and if they left their cells, hoods were placed over their heads so they weren’t able to learn the layout of their surroundings. So instead of reflection on their wrongdoings, the inmates were said to have been driven insane.

At the time of its completion, the ESP was considered the most expensive public building ever constructed in the United States. It maintained the separate incarceration system until 1913 when it became a congregate prison until its closing in 1971.

The prison reopened to the public in 1994 as a museum conducting tours of its history.

Eastern State Penitentiary Tour

The self-guided audio tour is narrated by Steve Buscemi-can’t you hear that haunting voice now? Steve’s voice is the perfect choice to create the scene and set an eerie mood.

On average, the tour takes 1.5 to 2 hours depending on individual pacing and costs 14 USD for adult general admission.

One of the most unique things to do in Philadelphia is the Eastern State Penitentiary tour. Go behind the eerie walls of the world's first penitentiary! #easternstate #penitentiary #tour #prison #philly #philadelphia #pennsylvania #activities #travel #destinations
One of the most unique things to do in Philadelphia is the Eastern State Penitentiary tour. Go behind the eerie walls of the world's first penitentiary! #easternstate #penitentiary #tour #prison #philly #philadelphia #pennsylvania #activities #travel #destinations
One of the most unique things to do in Philadelphia is the Eastern State Penitentiary tour. Go behind the eerie walls of the world's first penitentiary! #easternstate #penitentiary #tour #prison #philly #philadelphia #pennsylvania #activities #travel #destinations

Left: View of the guard tower from the inside walls

British architect John Haviland designed the prison giving it a neo-gothic look to inspire fear in those thinking about committing a crime. He drew his inspiration from 1780s prisons in England and Ireland.

One of the most unique things to do in Philadelphia is the Eastern State Penitentiary tour. Go behind the eerie walls of the world's first penitentiary! #easternstate #penitentiary #tour #prison #philly #philadelphia #pennsylvania #activities #travel #destinations
One of the most unique things to do in Philadelphia is the Eastern State Penitentiary tour. Go behind the eerie walls of the world's first penitentiary! #easternstate #penitentiary #tour #prison #philly #philadelphia #pennsylvania #activities #travel #destinations

Hallway where the audio tour begins

When the design was completed in 1836, it housed 450 prisoners.

Each cell was lit only by a single source of light usually a window or a skylight. This was considered the “Window of God” or the “Eye of God” in hopes that the light of God would shine down on the prisoners and help them to reflect on their crimes.

One of the most unique things to do in Philadelphia is the Eastern State Penitentiary tour. Go behind the eerie walls of the world's first penitentiary! #easternstate #penitentiary #tour #prison #philly #philadelphia #pennsylvania #activities #travel #destinations

To me, the design of the lighting contributes to the prison not only feeling eerie but also gives it the perfect lighting to be quite photogenic. Anyone else agree?

Keep that bit of info in the back of your mind as you read the rest of this post.

One of the most unique things to do in Philadelphia is the Eastern State Penitentiary tour. Go behind the eerie walls of the world's first penitentiary! #easternstate #penitentiary #tour #prison #philly #philadelphia #pennsylvania #activities #travel #destinations
One of the most unique things to do in Philadelphia is the Eastern State Penitentiary tour. Go behind the eerie walls of the world's first penitentiary! #easternstate #penitentiary #tour #prison #philly #philadelphia #pennsylvania #activities #travel #destinations
One of the most unique things to do in Philadelphia is the Eastern State Penitentiary tour. Go behind the eerie walls of the world's first penitentiary! #easternstate #penitentiary #tour #prison #philly #philadelphia #pennsylvania #activities #travel #destinations

The cell blocks were considered advanced and lavish for their time. Each cell had its own toilet with a uniquely designed system where every flush went straight to a central sewer. This prevented the inmates from sending messages to each other. The design wasn’t perfected on the first try and had to be redesigned a few times before proving successful.

Individual cells also featured faucets with running water and pipes up against one wall where hot water ran to act as central heating during winter.

One of the most unique things to do in Philadelphia is the Eastern State Penitentiary tour. Go behind the eerie walls of the world's first penitentiary! #easternstate #penitentiary #tour #prison #philly #philadelphia #pennsylvania #activities #travel #destinations
One of the most unique things to do in Philadelphia is the Eastern State Penitentiary tour. Go behind the eerie walls of the world's first penitentiary! #easternstate #penitentiary #tour #prison #philly #philadelphia #pennsylvania #activities #travel #destinations

Although no one seems to know for sure, speculation on why the doors are so small includes making it harder for the prisoners to escape, minimizing the risk of an attack on a guard as well as making a prisoner bow when they enter their cell.

One of the most unique things to do in Philadelphia is the Eastern State Penitentiary tour. Go behind the eerie walls of the world's first penitentiary! #easternstate #penitentiary #tour #prison #philly #philadelphia #pennsylvania #activities #travel #destinations

The original design of the prison was “radial” calling for seven one-story cell blocks extending like spokes on a wheel (or sunbeams) from a central tower. This made it easier to monitor the prisoners in their individual exercise areas.

One of the most unique things to do in Philadelphia is the Eastern State Penitentiary tour. Go behind the eerie walls of the world's first penitentiary! #easternstate #penitentiary #tour #prison #philly #philadelphia #pennsylvania #activities #travel #destinations
One of the most unique things to do in Philadelphia is the Eastern State Penitentiary tour. Go behind the eerie walls of the world's first penitentiary! #easternstate #penitentiary #tour #prison #philly #philadelphia #pennsylvania #activities #travel #destinations

The entrances to cell blocks 2 and 3

One of the most unique things to do in Philadelphia is the Eastern State Penitentiary tour. Go behind the eerie walls of the world's first penitentiary! #easternstate #penitentiary #tour #prison #philly #philadelphia #pennsylvania #activities #travel #destinations

As you may have guessed from the red cross on cell block 3, it was the Hospital Block. As of 1907, the block was dedicated entirely to healthcare and had its own operating room, recovery ward, kitchen, pharmacy, and lab. The second story was expanded to include x-ray, a treatment room for tuberculosis and a mental health area.

One of the most unique things to do in Philadelphia is the Eastern State Penitentiary tour. Go behind the eerie walls of the world's first penitentiary! #easternstate #penitentiary #tour #prison #philly #philadelphia #pennsylvania #activities #travel #destinations
One of the most unique things to do in Philadelphia is the Eastern State Penitentiary tour. Go behind the eerie walls of the world's first penitentiary! #easternstate #penitentiary #tour #prison #philly #philadelphia #pennsylvania #activities #travel #destinations

The entrances to cell blocks 10 and 11

One of the most unique things to do in Philadelphia is the Eastern State Penitentiary tour. Go behind the eerie walls of the world's first penitentiary! #easternstate #penitentiary #tour #prison #philly #philadelphia #pennsylvania #activities #travel #destinations

Due to overcrowding, a total of 15 cell blocks were ultimately built with blocks 4-15 constructed with second stories. This is the downstairs of one of those two-story cell blocks.

One of the most unique things to do in Philadelphia is the Eastern State Penitentiary tour. Go behind the eerie walls of the world's first penitentiary! #easternstate #penitentiary #tour #prison #philly #philadelphia #pennsylvania #activities #travel #destinations

And, this would be the view from the upstairs of that same cell block. Once again, notice the lighting and how it creates a haunting yet somewhat fascinating photo.

One of the most unique things to do in Philadelphia is the Eastern State Penitentiary tour. Go behind the eerie walls of the world's first penitentiary! #easternstate #penitentiary #tour #prison #philly #philadelphia #pennsylvania #activities #travel #destinations

This is one of the outdoor recreational areas between the cell blocks. Originally during the separate system (also known as the Pennsylvania System), the prisoners had individual outdoor recreational areas with 30-foot high concrete walls. To prevent communication, the inmates’ recreation times were synced so that next-door neighbors were never out at the same time.

One of the most unique things to do in Philadelphia is the Eastern State Penitentiary tour. Go behind the eerie walls of the world's first penitentiary! #easternstate #penitentiary #tour #prison #philly #philadelphia #pennsylvania #activities #travel #destinations
One of the most unique things to do in Philadelphia is the Eastern State Penitentiary tour. Go behind the eerie walls of the world's first penitentiary! #easternstate #penitentiary #tour #prison #philly #philadelphia #pennsylvania #activities #travel #destinations

One of the corridors at Eastern State. Creepy!

One of the most unique things to do in Philadelphia is the Eastern State Penitentiary tour. Go behind the eerie walls of the world's first penitentiary! #easternstate #penitentiary #tour #prison #philly #philadelphia #pennsylvania #activities #travel #destinations

Here’s another look up at what seems and looks like an intricately cool castle in Ireland but is in fact, one of the most famous United States prisons of all time.

ESP Fun Facts

  • Concept conceived in the home of Ben Franklin
  • Most famous inmate was Al Capone who had a lavish cell complete with Asian-style rugs and oil paintings
  • Said to have cost $770,000 making it the most expensive public US building of its time
  • Number of Cells: 1,000
  • Featured indoor plumbing and central heat before the White House
  • Over 300 prisons took their inspiration for design and operations from ESP
  • 80,000 is a rough estimate of the number of inmates who served time at ESP

ESP Tour Info

2027 Fairmount Avenue
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19130

  • Open Wednesday through Monday 10 am to 5 pm (closed Tuesdays and Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Years Day)
  • Average time needed: 1.5-2 hours
  • The audio tour, guide-led tour, hands-on interactive tour, art installations, and history exhibits are all included in your ticket price but are subject to availability.
  • During the fall (select dates September-November) try the nighttime Terror Behind the Walls tour and truly get your spook on!
  • Buy your tickets online ahead of your trip to save money and guarantee your chosen date and time.
  • For more information including directions, parking, and FAQs, see the ESP Plan Your Visit page.

PIN IT!

One of the most unique things to do in Philadelphia is the Eastern State Penitentiary tour. Go behind the eerie walls of the world's first penitentiary! #easternstate #penitentiary #tour #prison #philly #philadelphia #pennsylvania #activities #travel #destinations
One of the most unique things to do in Philadelphia is the Eastern State Penitentiary tour. Go behind the eerie walls of the world's first penitentiary! #easternstate #penitentiary #tour #prison #philly #philadelphia #pennsylvania #activities #travel #destinations
One of the most unique things to do in Philadelphia is the Eastern State Penitentiary tour. Go behind the eerie walls of the world's first penitentiary! #easternstate #penitentiary #tour #prison #philly #philadelphia #pennsylvania #activities #travel #destinations
One of the most unique things to do in Philadelphia is the Eastern State Penitentiary tour. Go behind the eerie walls of the world's first penitentiary! #easternstate #penitentiary #tour #prison #philly #philadelphia #pennsylvania #activities #travel #destinations

Now, do you see what I mean? Quite fascinating, right? It’s one of the top things you can NOT miss when visiting Philadelphia! There just isn’t another prison quite like it (that I’ve visited) including Alcatraz which is probably the closest with a similar feel. However, Alcatraz isn’t nearly as “photogenic”. Back to that photogenic prison thing…ugh! 😂

After you finish your Eastern State Penitentiary tour, pair one of these unique places to eat in Philadelphia with your unique prison experience and make it a completely unique day! Also, I highly recommend where I stayed in Philadelphia for the level of service, especially the concierge.

Have you toured Eastern State Penitentiary? If so, what were your thoughts? How did it make you feel? If you haven’t been, would you want to visit?

‘Til next time…

Trimm Travels,

Heather

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16 Comments

  1. This looks like a really interesting tour! So creepy and eerie and perfectly in time for the Halloween season! I feel like I would have chills for the whole tour!

    1. Hi Sam-Yep, that is pretty much how I was half the time during the tour. The other half of me was like “oh that’s so pretty for a photo”. I felt like Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde! Great for Halloween for sure! LOL! Thanks for reading! 🙂

  2. It seems like the entire design is contrary to humane treatment. I hope, as a society, that we have learned from the ESP model and focus more an rehabilitation than punishment. Despite (or perhaps because of) the atrocity, it looks like a fascinating place to visit.

    1. Hi Ed-I agree and I think we have learned a lot since then. It does, however, make for a very fascinating tour! Thanks for reading! 🙂

  3. I’ve never visited a prison, but this one sounds so interesting and at first, I would have never guessed it was a prison from its castle-like structure. I can’t believe it’s one of the most expensive public buildings and I can see why their prisoners went insane having no communication at all with other people. I also was surprised that Steve Buscemi did the audio for the self-guided audio tour. I wonder when they approached him to do it if he was all for it or thought it was weird. lol

    1. Hi Candy-That is a very good question about Steve Buscemi. I wonder how that went down too. I’m guessing he was all for it and made a funny, sarcastic remark! But yes, it’s easy to see how people went insane there. Thanks for reading! 🙂

  4. I have never visited prison as it creates with many mixed emotions to me. It is sad to see how prisoners were kept in solitude and the construction was such that they could not meet or talk with each other. Visiting Eastern State Penitentiary tour looks somewhat very emotional tour for me.

  5. I wonder what the appropriate treatment for prisoners really is. Clearly, this was a bad idea if the prisoners were driven insane. Gracious. Have we progressed since then? ( I am no expert on the treatment of prisoners…. just pondering!) Glad the tour was interesting. I bet there are a few ghosts floating around there.

    1. Hi Alison-I’m not either, I assure you! I think from what I’ve read we have progressed, but like you, I don’t know what the right or appropriate treatment is and I’m glad I don’t have to decide. Thanks for reading! 🙂

  6. The modern world’s fascination with 19th century prison is really odd, isn’t it? Australia is really big on prisons, due to its convict history. I find it both depressing and fascinating. But you’re right, this prison is photogenic and it’s an interesting change from pretty scenery! Well done on the photos…

    1. Hi Delphine-I do find it interesting our fascination but then I’m one of the ones fascinated! Thanks for your compliment on the photos. I’m glad you enjoyed them and the post. Thanks for reading! 🙂

  7. Wow, it must have been a very interesting visit. I visited only one jail in Romania, now turned into the Memorial of the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance. It was overwhelming to learn what the prisoners went through. Like any dark tourism destination, a visit to prison takes an emotional toll.

  8. First of all, I LOVE that photo of the entrances to cell blocks 2 and 3, excellent shot! Alcatraz in San Francisco is the only prison I´ve visited, but I do like visiting eery spots like abandoned water parks and theme parks. The Eastern State Penitentiary definitely looks like it´s seen its fair share of history, I would love if they had maintained a replica of the Al Capone cell complete with rugs and paintings!

    1. Hi Erica-Thank you! There actually is/was a replica of the Al Capone cell. I didn’t see it while I was there but a friend of mine did the year before I was there. I was looking for it but never saw it. Not sure if I missed it or it isn’t still maintained. I love eerie stuff like what you mentioned too! Thanks for reading! 🙂

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