Visiting Eastern State Penitentiary: Philly’s Haunting Abandoned Prison

Not far from Center City, it’s hard to miss the towering, castle-like structure right on Fairmount Avenue. Or is it more like a fortress? Either way, the high walls and slit windows of Eastern State Penitentiary call attention to themselves along the street that is otherwise lined with restaurants. It is an imposing building. And that’s by design.

The self-guided tour we took is a walk through the history of the world’s first penitentiary and a look at the stories of people who were imprisoned here. Opened in 1829, this hulking structure housed an experiment—rather than punishment, would penitence through isolation change prisoners?

View down the cell block at Eastern State Penitentiary.
The main cell block looks like the famous prisons from movies

Nearly 200 years later, this ambitious prison that was once one of the largest and most expensive buildings in the United States is a preserved ruin. It housed inmates until 1971 and was abandoned for 20 years before it began to take shape as a museum. During those decades, walls cracked, ceilings collapsed, and plants grew inside. It’s still the same today.

This unusual place is a popular site for its history, significance, and the intriguing stories behind its walls. Now a National Historic Landmark, it showcases an important and bleak phase in American history. As photographers, we enjoy it for the remarkable, eerie scenery that always seems to change no matter how many times we visit.

Self-guided tour

Barber chair in debris-filled room.
The barber’s chair is a top photo spot

From the moment we stepped into Cell Block 1 for the first time, we got a feel for what isolation really meant. Each cell has only a skylight and a small hole for receiving food. The corridor of single cells seemed to stretch almost infinitely. That, too, is by design.

Architecturally, this structure is historically significant. It has seven cellblocks radiating from a central rotunda, a first in a building of incarceration. The design enhanced security and control for the guards and added to the prisoners’ isolation. Ultimately—as actor Steve Buscemi narrated for us on the audio guide—over 300 prisons all over the world followed in Eastern State’s footsteps by adopting its design and concept of isolation.

Prison guard tower.
Guard tower over the stone cell blocks

As we passed through the corridors, we heard narrations of prisoners recounting their lives in the institution. They talked about the effects of isolation and survival in such a grim place. Many prisoners passed the time with the Bible they were given (they were supposed to be penitent, after all) and engaged in jobs like weaving and shoe-making.

The prisoners’ lives were severe. They were barred from meeting relatives or friends. Even talking to the guards was restricted. Many spent years without meeting a soul. Guards also tried to keep inmates from understanding the building’s layout, so they were hooded when they left their cells. The harsh conditions continued for 80 years and led to lots of stories.

Abandoned prison cell with furniture covered in concrete dust.
Ruins of a solitary cell block
View down an abandoned prison cell block.
The scale of the prison is imposing

Listening to the narration, we stopped along the way to photograph the ruined cells. The natural light casts shadows throughout the abandoned spaces and on overturned furniture. The crumbling walls, wide-open yards, and plants growing in spaces where they normally wouldn’t make for intriguing scenery.

There are 10 main stops on the audio tour with dozens more to choose from based on your interests. Topics range from religion in prison to escaping to experiences in the barber shop.

Weeds growing in abandoned prison.
Some of the cell blocks are in ruins

In stark contrast to the dilapidated cells, Eastern State has a recreation of the cell that belonged to one of its most famous inmates, gangster Al Capone. He was imprisoned for the first time for having a concealed weapon and was given a grand cell right inside the main entrance.

Capone’s cell had a cigar stand, radio, and an additional bed for his cellmate. On the tour, his recreated cell gives a glimpse of his 8-month stint here in the 1920s. It is located in the “Park Avenue” section of the prison and is a favorite on the tour for its realistic looks.

Furniture in fancy prison cell of Al Capone
Al Capone’s prison cell

The cellblock tour ends at the yard. You might want to take a break here for fresh air before visiting other sections of the prison. We enjoy sitting on the park benches that are added during the summer.

There are two more sites of interest – the morgue and death row. The morgue looks gloomy, but it’s death row that receives more attention. No execution was conducted at the penitentiary, but death row inmates were held here before their day came.

Medical cross in prison cell bars.
Entrance to the medical ward
Dental chair in an abandoned prison.
The dental chair has seen better days

If you want to see the medical facilities in the prison, visit the Hospital Block. Medical artifacts that are displayed here are among the most interesting objects in the whole prison. You can see the remains of the laboratory, operating room, x-ray lab, dental office, and psychiatric department.

The main portion of the audio guide takes about 40 minutes. We listened to many of the additional tracks and explored on our own. (As audio guides go, it’s quite well done, and we recommend using it.) If your visit is similar, expect to spend about 1.5 to 2 hours.

Visiting Information

Debris in abandoned prison
Spooky abandoned corridors lurk around the corner

Here are some tips if you plan to visit Eastern State Penitentiary:

Tickets: Daytime admission (10am-5pm, last admission at 4pm) for the self-guided tour plus audio guide is $21 for adults, $19 for seniors (age 62+), and $17 for students and children. Tickets can be purchased on the Eastern State Penitentiary website, and you’ll save $2 per ticket by buying them in advance. Prices are the same for the guided tour, which is available at noon on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday and at 11:00am on Saturday and Sunday.

Parking: Parking near Eastern State can be a bit of a challenge. There is a lot of on-street parking in the Fairmount neighborhood, but it requires excellent parallel parking skills and patience to find spots. Check Wallace Street just south of the penitentiary for on-street parking (we’ve had good luck there before). The most convenient parking lot is located just one block away at 2201 Fairmount Avenue.

Portraits in art exhibit.
Art exhibit featuring the portraits of inmate’s victims

What to wear: The site hasn’t been restored. You’ll experience an abandoned prison in its raw form. The floors are stone and concrete, and there is dirt in the courtyard. You should wear comfortable, safe shoes. Avoid sandals and open toed shoes that don’t offer protection.

In some sections, walls have collapsed and are open to the elements. It can be cold and windy in the winter, so consider bringing a sweater or jacket.

Nearby restaurants: There isn’t a restaurant on-site at Eastern State, so we recommend eating in the adjacent neighborhood. La Calaca Feliz for Mexican food and A Mano for handmade pasta, both located along Fairmount Avenue, are good options.

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