5 Philadelphia historic sites off the beaten path

Go beyond the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall with our guide to offbeat historical sites.

by Holly Riddle

Philadelphia is known for its history, which stretches back before the founding of America. If you’ve seen all the top spots and had your fill of Colonial Era architecture, opt for one of these attractions to add a little of the strange, unusual, and sometimes downright creepy to your Philly itinerary.

Tour the world's first penitentiary
2124 Fairmount Avenue

Founded centuries ago, this haunting, now dilapidated structure was the world’s first penitentiary. Today, it sits hulking in the middle of a Philadelphia neighborhood, where unsuspecting tourists may never happen to stumble upon its quite possibly haunted halls. It’s definitely one of the city’s strangest spots and you can spend an entire day exploring. During the Halloween season, the venue is home to a popular haunted house, but you can still take an audio tour, which is somehow appropriately narrated by Steve Buscemi. A big plus — the penitentiary was once home to Al Capone, and his former cell is preserved almost perfectly.

Eastern State Penitentiary
Medical oddities for the morbidly curious
City Center West

This attraction may rival Eastern State in creepiness, or at least the wall of centuries old skulls will. The museum, which is located within part of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, began in the mid-1800s and is dedicated to medical oddities and artifacts. Interesting items guests can see there include sections of Albert Einstein’s brain, a nine-foot colon, the shared liver of famous Siamese twins and more. It’s definitely not for the queasy.

Mutter Museum
Visit the home that inspired a murderous tale
532 North 7th Street

Sadly, Edgar Allan Poe is one of Philadelphia’s most often overlooked former residents. The National Historic Site is where Poe lived for about a year with his wife and mother-in-law, and also where he wrote "The Black Cat". Some say that the home’s basement was the inspiration for the eerie short story. See exhibits on Poe, his family, and the literature he inspired, as well as recreated furnishings and decor.

Wagner Free Institute of Science
See science through Victorian eyes
1700 West Montgomery Avenue

This institute was established in the mid-1800s as well, in order to provide free science education to Philadelphians. Since then, the space has barely changed or evolved, and stepping inside is like a step back in time, to what Victorian-era museum-goers would have seen. Historical significance aside, the exhibits are still riveting, despite how far science has come since the institute’s founding. Guests find everything from dinosaur bones to insects on display, including the first American saber-toothed tiger to be discovered.

Wagner Free Institute of Science
Cave of Kelpius
Fairmount Park

Fairmount Park is worth a visit all on its own, as it’s one of the largest inner-city parks in the world, as well as a beautiful setting for hiking, biking, sports or just enjoying great views of the river and skyline. However, one very odd and little-known historic spot contained within the park is the Cave of Kelpius. It’s believed this partially manmade cave was home to an apocalyptic cult in the 1600s. Those who settled in the area believed the world was going to end in 1694, and were waiting for inevitable doom. As they did so, they used the nearby area to study nature, create music, and practice medicine. Despite their religious fears, the settlers were relatively progressive, and it’s believed they may have built the first astronomy observatory in the western hemisphere.

Cave of Kelpius
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