A Long Weekend in Philly – Eastern State Penitentiary & Pizza

Hi friends, welcome back to part three of our Philly adventures! In case you missed the first two parts, you can read part one here and part two here. After stopping at the Rocky Statue, Jon and I walked to one of my favorite parts of the trip, the Eastern State Penitentiary. This National Historic Landmark was at one time the most famous prison in the world, but is now an abandoned attraction fascinating the masses. During Halloween it transforms into a haunted house at night, but that was too spooky for me, so we went during normal daytime hours.

Included in the cost of admission, there’s an audio tour narrated by Steve Buschemi that does a great job explaining the history and different areas of the penitentiary. The full transcript of the tour is here, but I’ve summarized some interesting facts for you. Opened in 1829, Eastern State Penitentiary was the first true penitentiary in the world. The goal was to “change the behavior of inmates through “confinement in solitude with labor””. Doesn’t sound like a fun place to end up…

Eastern State Penitentiary looks like a castle and features thirty-foot walls surrounding the border that only about one hundred inmates were able to escape. Of the escaped prisoners, only one evaded recapture.

The prison was uniquely designed like a wheel where each cellblock was like a spoke and you could see down all cell blocks from the center area.

We started in Cellblock One, opened back when running water and electricity weren’t around. The founders believed that people needed time alone to “rediscover their good nature” so prisoners were put in solitary confinement so they could reflect and repent. Each prisoner had an 8×12 cell with a bed, workbench, and a toilet flushed with water once a day. The back of the cell led out to a slightly larger exercise yard that was walled off from other prisoners.

There wasn’t a door from the cell to the central hallway, only a small hole to pass meals through. Therefore, inmates literally didn’t see any other prisoners the entire time they were at Eastern State Penitentiary.  The only way to get in/out of each cell was through the back courtyard and they put a cover over the prisoners faces to prevent them from seeing anyone else or knowing their surroundings.

In 1913 the Pennsylvania System (silent solitary confinement) was abandoned and all prisoners had a cellmate and were free to talk to one another. To fit more prisoners, future cell blocks were designed to be two stories… extremely eerie.

Al Capone stayed here briefly in what they called “Park Avenue” and many claimed he had special treatment. This is what his room possibly looked like, pretty swanky if you ask me! Another famous prisoner was Slick Willie, a notorious bank robber in the 1930s, and he escaped Eastern State Pen through a tunnel but was quickly recaptured.

We saw the hospital cellblock where Al Capone had his tonsils removed.

In 1940, Eastern State Penitentiary became a maximum-security prison and held prisoners with a life sentence. Cellblock 15 was Death Row where the worst of the worst criminals stayed. I can’t find any pictures I took of this Cellblock, but it was extremely creepy. Here’s a non-creepy picture to lighten the mood 🙂

The prison eventually became too outdated and began shutting down in 1960, officially locking the doors in 1971. In 1994, tours of Eastern State Penitentiary began and visitors were required to wear a hard hat and sign a liability waiver. As Eastern State receives more funding, renovations are made to make the site safer for visitors and no waivers are currently required.

I’d HIGHLY recommend checking out the Eastern State Penitentiary if you’re in Philly, I found it incredibly fascinating! It’s such a unique site and like nothing I’ve ever seen before. We truly enjoyed learning about the history of this prison and exploring the abandoned ruins.

For dinner, Jon and I grabbed a pizza from Down North Pizza in Northern Philadelphia. I had read about this place in an Eater article featuring 38 Essential Restaurants in Philly, and Down North was listed at number four. They specialize in Detroit Style Pizza – sold! Not only do they serve great pizza, they also serve a mission. The founder solely hires formerly incarcerated individuals at fair wages after seeing the effects of mass incarceration in his community. Per their website, “Our aim is to help erase employment barriers faced by formerly incarcerated men and women, by providing culinary career opportunities. Down North also provides the crucial resources that returning citizens need such as reduced housing, legal representation, and transportation”. After seeing Eastern State Penitentiary and viewing an exhibit about the effects of modern day mass incarceration, we felt great supporting the mission. We have very high standards for pizza, and this pizza tasted good, but in my opinion was a little too doughy.

The following morning we stopped by the Liberty Bell and made a pit stop at a cider mill on the drive back to NYC. I hope you enjoyed this belated Philadelphia recap! Jon and I had a blast visiting so many historic sites that we had learned about in school. It’s crazy to think we have been in the same places as George Washington and so many other important people. We visited Friday – Monday, and I’d say one more day would’ve been perfect so that we could visit more of the museums, but now we have a reason to come back 🙂 Philadelphia has the perfect mix of history, art, and delicious food and I’d highly recommend spending a long weekend here!

22 thoughts on “A Long Weekend in Philly – Eastern State Penitentiary & Pizza

  1. I enjoyed your tour of the penitentiary as I’ve visited several former prisons both in the U.K. and overseas. Hopefully we’ll make it to Philadelphia before too long and be able to take your suggestions on board.

    1. Thank you! I’ll have to look into more penitentiaries when I travel, they’re so fascinating! I hope you make it to Philly soon too 🙂

  2. What a great ending to the trip! I would definitely do the penitentiary tour, it sounds fascinating. I toured the old Montana state prison last summer and it was really interesting… but this one looks much bigger and with even more history. You’ve made me really excited to visit Philly!

    1. Thank you, so glad you enjoyed! They are so fascinating and you’d never think so until you visit one. I can’t wait for you to visit Philly!

  3. Each time we visit a prison, it reaffirms why we would never want to be in one. The last one we toured was in Kingston, Ontario, built in a similar time period. The tours were given by former guards and staff and was fascinating and scary at the same time. They even recounted of one episode where someone broke into the prison. Thanks for sharing, Lyssy. Glad you managed to see the Liberty Bell. Allan

    1. I agree, spending a few hours touring is plenty of time for me to be in a prison. Oh wow I can only imagine all the stories and things they’ve seen. I bet they were great tour guides! Seeing someone break into a prison would be terrifying. Glad you enjoyed!

  4. I wondered why you’d spend precious touring time on a prison, but I wonder no more. Fascinating account, Lyssy. I find many parallels with Alcatraz in San Francisco (including the legend only one prisoner ever successfully escaped). The spokes-of-the-wheel design makes so much sense for operational security (if not building efficiency), and the philosophy of imprisonment/rehab takes solitary confinement to a whole new level. I will join you in NOT visiting Eastern around Halloween. Those high arching hallways somehow feel much creepier than if they were lower and more square.

    1. I never would’ve though prisons were worth visiting until we went in. When I was planning our trip I was like how can I convince Jon to do this haha but all the reviews were so great! I’l love to see Alcatraz one day, Jon went when he was a kid and enjoyed it. We went on a pretty gloomy day and that really helped set the eerie mood inside!

  5. Why is it that prisons are such popular places to visit? Are we playing with our fears or is it a morbid side to what we disapprove of but cannot help but be curious about. It must be said that the conservators do a good job of exploiting these numerous exhibition spaces. Thanks for your interesting review.

    1. I’m guessing it’s the curiosity, at least for me. It was definitely an interesting site to explore and learn about.

  6. Your photos of Eastern State are so good! I have not gone during the Halloween season at night either, that would be super scary, but I have heard from some of my friends that they do go all out. You definitely have to come back to Philly soon!

    1. Thank you! I can only imagine how stressed I would be there at night haha. I can’t think of a better setting for a haunted house. I will have to come back soon 🙂

  7. Omg! I love Detroit style pizza. I will have to check it out. Also my partner thought that was a prison we drove by. Not sure I need to check that out though but happy to live vicariously through your photos/blog post.

  8. Oh how interesting, I find old prisons fascinating but no idea why. I always imagine all the people that were there, what their stories were etc…Oh and Al Capone’s tonsils being removed is quite the claim to fame haha!!

    1. Prisons do have a lot of stories and secrets! It reminds me of this old show called “If Walls Could Talk”, they would have some interesting things to say, that’s for sure!

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