Editor’s Note: During this period of social distancing, Group Tour magazine will continue to provide group travel inspiration. Many attractions and destinations are closed at this time; please contact them directly for updated information.

Once the world’s most famous prisons, Eastern State Penitentiary stands today in ruin. Crumbling cellblocks and empty guard towers present a haunting scene.

Eastern State Penitentiary
Tour, Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, Pa.
Credit: Jeff Fusco, courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary State Historic Site

The former prison’s vaulted, sky-lit cells once held many of America’s most notorious lawbreakers, including bank robber Willie “Slick Willie” Sutton and Al “Scarface” Capone. Known for its grand architecture and strict discipline, this was the world’s first true “penitentiary,” a prison designed to inspire penitence, or true regret, in the hearts of prisoners.

Located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site is a modern ruin and museum that interprets the legacy of American criminal justice reform.

Visitors explore the cellblocks of the penitentiary and discover the stories held within its walls, said Francine Schiffman, manager, group sales and guest support. “They can also step into a cell, open the massive front gate of the prison, learn how to open a cell door and participate in other interactive activities,” she said.

While guided tours last about one hour, groups should allow an additional 30 to 60 minutes to explore on their own.

Groups of 15 or more get a discount on tickets, and groups get one complimentary ticket for every 15 paid tickets. Private guide-led tours for groups under 15 are available for a flat fee.

Private guided tours explore the history of Eastern State Penitentiary and set the stage for conversations about criminal justice reform today.

An after-hours tour focuses on the Prohibition era. Participants learn about crime and scandal in the 20th century as well as the organized crime figures who spent time at Eastern State, including Capone. The tour includes a 1920s-style cocktail reception at Al Capone’s cell.

While there is no motorcoach parking at the historic site, Callowhill Bus Center offers 43 secured spaces and an air-conditioned waiting area with bathrooms, showers, televisions, sleeping lounges and vending machines.

For more information on Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site call 215-236-5111, ext. 240 or go to easternstate.org.

Article by Kathie Sutin