This post was sponsored and contains affiliate links. The windows behind me were creaking. It was windstill outside. The restaurant was about to close and no one was in sight. I was practically alone. All I wanted was to eat a traditional corn chowder such as Washington ate during his lifetime. But not just anywhere, but exactly where he had eaten. Too bad the house was said to be haunted. So this was Philadelphia. Luckily, I had been given a free CITYPass by the city to explore. But maybe I should have stayed away from the spooky.
I had made it my mission to see as much as I could with my CityPASS for Philadelphia in hand. Too bad I had fallen ill and wasn’t in full marathon sightseeing mode. Secondly, the pass allowed me access to 40 attractions. How was I to see them all in such a short time span? I couldn’t possibly, I had to admit to my ambitious self, and narrowed down my choices to haunting art and haunted sights. The Mütter Museum, that’s where my couchsurfing hosts said I needed to go. Fascinating insights into human physique, strange abnomalities and scary fairytale connections, jep, that sounded about right for me. I sometimes have a taste for the odd and eerie.
Into the Darkness of Human Medicine
Fittingly, the museum was located in an old church building and welcomed its visitors with balloon ghosts coming out of pumpkins next to an old study room in the entrance which could have sprung up from the Dracula novel. The first exhibition was about intricate etchings depicting neurons and synapses in all colours of the rainbow, creating wonderful art. Who knew brains could look so stunning? Moving deeper into the dark halls, I was lead to a huge study hall that had its walls lined with bones, skulks and preserved body parts on both floors.
A stair lead down for more. The exhibition was linked to the original grim versions of the Brothers Grimm’s popular fairy tales. Not many people know their dark origins (watch and reflect upon the play Into the Woods to get a better idea) and here they became even more visible and received scientific explanations. Fairy tales and horror stories just got real! I won’t go into detail here for the sake of those not keen of hearing of deformed limbs, tortured skulls and genetic defects, but it was certainly a sad experience seeing what tricks nature plays and how humans have to suffer from it not just physically but also mentally thanks to an unrelenting and cruel society.
From Bleak to Beauty in Philadelphia
Not wanting to spend too much time in one place out of fear of missing out on others in Philadelphia, I raced to the Barnes Foundation, which lifted my mood remarkably as here everything was just beautiful and far away from the grotesque. It especially had a collection with mainly impressionist paintings, one of my favourite times in art history. Wonderfully arranged on a dark green wall were delicate paintings with brisk strokes of pretty girls on warm summer days.
Unlike in many other museums, here there were no numbers or text boards distracting from the art. Instead, you could get free headphones if you wanted to hear about it. I was in a rush and after seeing what I came to see, I grabbed my jackets, bags, scarf and hat (why do I have so much stuff?!) and raced up to the Eastern State Penitentiary. (And of course lost one of my favourite scarves. I’m still mourning. #firstworldproblems)
Locked Up in Philadelphia
Now if you knew what a penitentiary was, you knew more than me. I figured it would be a ‘rectifying prison’ from its word stem alluding to penitence but was not aware of its worldwide significance on prison planning and development. Back in its day, it was built on the revolutionary notion of the essential good in people and designed to individually lock away criminals, no matter if they were convicted for petty crimes or serious ones.
Each convict was given a mini cell with a bed, basin and actual flushing water (not even the president had this back then!). They were let out into a tiny high walled yard for one hour of fresh air and vitamin D per day and otherwise laboured in their cells. As if that wasn’t claustrophobic enough, they would never see or hear another soul while in custody with the exception of the guards. The concept was based on complete physical isolation and mental immersion on reflection so as to help the inmates realise their good potential and refrain from crimes in the future.
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No records of the ones discharged were kept, so it’s not even clear whether it actually worked. However, with many cell buildings being added and the building altered over time, critics voiced their fears over it being closer to torture than penitence and when New York adopted the system of communal work, the penitentiary’s days were over. Now rescued from decay and neglect, it stands in ruins but as s memorial to innovating prisons and lessons in humane treatment. Besides all the fascinating stories you can hear here, the mere sight of its dilapidating walls and crumbling furniture in the dust of the former white washed walls is simply sublime. But that was not it.
Nightly Wanderings among Ghosts
I hadn’t encountered any ghost-like sightings so far in Philadelphia and thought I’d try with a Ghost Tour. It was dramatically called “Vampires, Sex and Ghost Tour” but basically just revolved around the founding fathers and what they liked to do for fun and how things can go wrong. Let me explain. We saw the Liberty Bell, the House were the declaration was signed and the Second Bank of America, for instance. We heard about how one of the founding fathers essentially founded the revolution, housed the president and did lots of other financial aiding, just to later end up in debt and being thrown in jail. (The irony.) Which was one big room full of rowdiness, scoundrels and people from all walks of life. He soon died after his release. Oh, did I mention he doesn’t get credit for his patriotic work? If there is a ghost, it surely must be him.
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Then, we heard about an incompetent doctor who loved the treatment with leeches so much, occasionally his patients died of blood loss and we saw the tavern in which a bridal party accidentally set the bride on fire and died collectively in the process. Jep, that’s where I ate. Are you still wondering about the vampires? Bram Stoker wrote his masterpiece here in Philly and you can see parts of his manuscript and Dracula writing attempts in the Bellevue hotel around the corner. Gotta love Dracula. I could picture Minnie strolling through the graves. Almost. And we’re still not nearly done.
Bonus: Horrendously Intriguing Sodas
I had discovered an intriguing soda and sweets shop on Philadelphia’s Market Street that had the most obscurely named beverages on display and was quite torn between Mud Pie, Buffalo Wing and Sweet Corn Soda. Ultimately, I followed my heart and decided on Martian Poop soda. If that doesn’t sound like a delicacy, I don’t know what would. If you want to find out what it is, watch the video down below.
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In case you want to experience Philly like this or the other dozens of attractions, feel free to copy me and get the Philadelphia Pass that includes entrance to 40 sites that would otherwise charge you (it adds up quickly!), including the ghost tours and BigBus for those who prefer to be chauffeured around after a long day of speed walking, like me. Now if you want to stock up on your own CITYPass (which you can use up to a year after purchase), click through the following affiliate link* to get to the booking page. Save up to 40% on Philadelphia’s 4 best attractions with CityPASS
Tell me: Have you ever considered visiting Philadelphia?
I would like to thank Visit Philadelphia for supplying me with the CityPASS so I can discover all these places for you. As always, my opinion is mine and my spooky stories real.
*PS: An affiliate link just means that I get a small commission if you buy from the link at no extra cost for you. Just imagine me affording half a chocolate on a long haul flight from this. And me being eternally grateful, of course.
I had no idea there was a spooky sided to Philly. In fact, my experiences there are based largely on a high-school field trip. I guess it’s time to give it another go. Your post was really informative, and your photos stunning. Thanks for sharing.
Travel on the Brain says
Hi Tara, yeah, I was surprised to find out about it, too. But with all these great tours highlighting this gloomy side, I was instanntly drawn in. I like a little morbid every now and then. I am very happy you found my post helpful and that you will give Philly another try. Where will you go next?
Thank you very much for sharing this – I will be visiting Philadelphia next year as part of our Lincoln Highway Drive. You have given me lots of help in deciding what to see in the short time we will have there
Travel on the Brain says
How are you? Your upcoming travel plans sounds exciting! I really want to do a traditional road trip in the future as well (this time it was just by bus). Philly has lots of offer and if you like meat, you should definitely try the Philly Cheesesteak. If you have any questions or need more inspiration on Philly let me know. Oh, and I will soon publish a little video with more sights to see as well. It will be part of my Advent calendar starting tomorrow.