(Last Updated On: April 16, 2023)

Why Visit the Eastern State Penitentiary?

Even if your time in Philadelphia is short, a visit to the creepy and fascinating Eastern State Penitentiary is worthwhile. This crumbling prison was in operation from 1829 to 1971, so it has seen a lot of prisoners come and go through its iron bars. Once the most expensive and largest public structure in the USA, a visit here gives a completely different perspective to everything else you will experience in your time in Philly. Visiting the Eastern State Penitentiary is an eerie, captivating and truly remarkable couple of hours. If you’ve only got limited time, you could run through quicker, but a couple of hours is enough to wander at a relatively leisurely pace. 

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Getting There

Walk

If you’re staying in the Center City area, then I’d strongly recommend you walk, even though it is around 40 mins on foot to get there. The reason I’d suggest walking, is you’ll be able to meander through the city, past City Hall and JFK Plaza and along the tree-lined Benjamin Franklin Parkway which is a very pretty walk. Stop for coffee along the way if you need a break.

Public Transport

If walking isn’t an option, then you could catch a bus, however the bus still takes around 25 mins. It is, however, cheap at a mere $2.50 US per ride. There are no trains headed to the Eastern State Penitentiary, so if you’re wanting a cheap, non-walking option, then this is it.

Rent A Bike

Philly, like many cities, has bikes for hire and the ride is a short 15 mins from Center City. You’ll still see most of the things you would have seen walking, just at a faster pace. Just locate a bike dock, sign up and off you go. Expect to pay around $10 for a day pass. Do be wary that in the US they drive on the right hand side of the road – if you’re Australian, like me, and are used to the left hand side of the road, riding a bike in the USA could take a bit of getting used to. 

Ride Share

Finally, for the people who want to go visiting the Eastern State Penitentiary in comfort, there’s rideshares everywhere in Philly. Uber and Lyft are the big two and a trip will take around 13 mins (depending on traffic of course). An Uber Pool or Lyft Shared will set you back around $6-$9 and a private car will be more like $10. (Side Note: both Uber and Lyft are super handy apps to have downloaded when travelling in the USA, so I would recommend you grab both and just go with whichever app is offering cheaper prices).

Getting Tickets

Tickets at the Door

There are a few options for tickets if you want to go visiting the Eastern State Penitentiary. Firstly (and most simply), you can just turn up on the day and buy tickets at the entrance. This isn’t the cheapest option and entry is obviously subject to availability, but if you’re not an advance planner, are happy to take the risk and prefer to hand over cash on the day, then this is the option for you. $16 Adult/$12 Child.

Book Online

This is a good option to save a bit of cash as online ticket sales are $2 cheaper per ticket than at the door. To buy, simply head over to the Eastern State Penitentiary website, pop in your details and then just show your tickets at the door to gain entry. $14 Adult/$10 Child.

Buy A City Pass

If you’re planning on seeing a few other attractions in Philly, you might want to consider the City Pass. You can pick three attractions from a list that includes Philly staples like The Museum of the American Revolution and One Liberty Observation Deck. A 3 Attraction Pass: $49 Adult/$37 Child.

What To Expect

The Eastern State Penitentiary can be an unsettling place to visit, so be prepared for a relatively dark and disturbing wander through the jail corridors. When you arrive, you’ll be handed an audio guide narrated by actor Steve Buscemi, which will guide you around the prison cell blocks one by one. The prison in winter (when I visited) is cold and uninviting, and the cold weather really chills to the bone, so I’d definitely recommend coming dressed with a warm coat. 

Corridors that you can walk down are dimly lit and the cells that branch off each hallway are in various states of disrepair. Shells of bed frames, derelict drawers and rubble fill the tiny rooms that prisoners made their homes for their stay inside the Eastern State Penitentiary. In some cases, trees have even infiltrated the prison, with their roots busting through the concrete and stone floors. 

If you’re interested, you’ll be able to view infamous mob boss Al Capone’s cell from his time at Eastern State Penitentiary, although I do believe for a brief time the cell is undergoing restoration. According to the prison website, this work should be finished in Spring 2019. You’ll also be able to enter and learn about the restored Jewish synagogue that was built in the 1920’s, despite the fact that the prison never had more than around 80 Jewish prisoners in its midst. It’s a really interesting stop on the tour. 

Once you’ve finished inside the main prison, there’s a fantastic exhibit on contemporary prisons in the US compared to other countries which also raises some great points about rehabilitation vs punishment in incarceration. It’s a thoughtful and considered exhibit that provokes some serious questions. Finally, don’t miss the big display in the yard called ‘The Big Graph’ showing the statistics on imprisoned people per country (broken down into race) which shows the US right at the top. One of the things that I was most impressed with at the Eastern State Penitentiary is the willingness to recognise that the modern system in the US doesn’t seem to be affecting positive change and the disparity between imprisoned people of colour vs caucasians. Its a fascinating discussion. 

Once you’re done, hand your audioguide back to the entrance desk and exit the same way you came in. I hope you loved visiting the Eastern State Penitentiary as much as I did.

Where to stay to visit the Eastern State Penitentiary

I loved staying in the Rittenhouse Square area of Philadelphia, though it can be on the pricey side. The Eastern State Penitentiary is a leisurely long walk from there and a short ride share away, so you can’t lose by staying in the area. 

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4 Comments

  1. Natasha L

    What a comprehensive guide to the Eastern State Penitentiary. I never knew anything about it but I do love adandoned buildings. Thanks for the tips on it being freezing in the winter. I’ll be sure to bundle up if I visit then!

    Reply
    • Emma Jane

      I’m glad you liked it! Yes, definitely bring the winter woolies if you go in the cold months! 🙂

      Reply
  2. Amanda | Toddling Traveler

    I’m originally from the Philly area and never visited the penitentiary. This makes me want to go!

    Reply
    • Emma Jane

      Oh wow! You should definitely take a trip there then! It’s a very unique experience 🙂

      Reply

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