Bastille Day at Eastern State Penitentiary is one of Philly’s most popular summertime events, and will return for its 22nd year this July 16th. A wild afternoon unfolds with extravagant song and dance, a live reenactment of revolutionary and royalist clashes, and the launching of 3,000 Tastykakes over the imposing wall of the centuries-old prison. Head to the penitentiary in Fairmount at 5:30 p.m. and check out all the weirdness.
Bastille Day celebrates French National Day, the commemoration of the beginning of the French Revolution and the famous storming of the Bastille in 1789. This turning point of the revolution is the centerpiece of the epic Philly celebrations, with the towering, neo-Gothic facade of Eastern State Penitentiary standing in for the French prison.
The Bearded Ladies, an experimental cabaret troupe, reenact the entire French Revolution in splashy fashion with an hour of song, dance, “beheading” by a real guillotine, and raining Tastykakes from the battlements (a witty local take on Marie Antoinette’s infamous phrase “Let them eat cake”). With an artistic mix of drag, humor, and sparkle, the Beards’ outrageously entertaining performance will feature appearances by Napoleon, Joan of Arc, Benjamin Franklin, and a six-foot French baguette. If you still don’t think the festival is over-the-top, enjoy the confetti canons, stilt walkers, cardboard horses, and blocks-long catwalking. While not required, visitors are encouraged to come in their revolutionary or royalist attire and bring water guns for the storming.
Pre-cabaret entertainment begins at 2:30 p.m. with OOLALA, a cosmological rock band, taking the stage for a free concert. The festival is also a chance to explore the abandoned-prison-turned-museum Eastern State Penitentiary, with tours running from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and rare, after-hours tours with discounted admission going from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. The National Historic Landmark was operational from 1829 to 1971, and housed notorious criminals like Al Capone and Willie Sutton.
The celebration is free and open to the public. For a $40 donation, guests can enjoy reserved VIP seating, complimentary Kronenbourg 1663, bottled water, and a French Revolution swag bag.
Once the guillotine has fallen and the fight for “liberté, egalité, fraternité” has concluded, the revolution will spill into the streets. Local Fairmount bars and restaurants will flourish with French-themed entertainment and food and drink specials, as well as alfresco celebrations throughout the night. Our top recommendations include:
– London Grill ‒ Stop by this New American spot for dancing onto the blocks to the sounds of The West Philadelphia Orchestra, French cocktails, and street fare. On the following morning at 10 a.m., head to the famous “Bloody ‘Marie’” Brunch and build your own Bloody Mary.
– Rembrandt’s ‒ Mussels with Pernod, short rib poutine and coq au vin with haricots verts and pommes puree highlight this fabulous French menu prepared specially for the celebration.
– OCF Coffee House ‒ Café-style eats are on hand, with specials like Canard Oeufs Benedicte (toasted baguette with poached eggs, chevre, chopped duck and bechamel sauce), sweet stuffed French toast, and a French Blonde coffee concoction (Elderflower syrup, grapefruit juice, and espresso over ice).