When I travel, I love discovering uncommon sites including historic hotels. So, when planning a stay in Helsinki, Finland prior to an Arctic expedition, the Hotel Katajanokka seemed like the perfectly quirky option. The boutique hotel in downtown Helsinki occupies a renovated historic prison that was active until 2002.

It’s hard conceiving of a more fascinating repurposing of a building on a city’s historic register.

When my friend and I landed in Helsinki, we hailed a taxi and headed to the (former) penitentiary. As the hotel’s motto states, our stay allowed us to truly “Escape the Ordinary.”

Helsinki prison becomes a hotel

In addition to the mainland, Helsinki includes numerous islands linked by bridges. Sweden once occupied the territory that is now modern Finland. Starting around 1749, the Swedes erected rudimentary prisons on Katajanokka Island.

After Russia wrested Finland from Swedish control in 1809, the Russians built a larger prison structure in the same space in 1837. In 1888, they added the current concrete and brick structure to the much smaller existing prison.

The Finns continued to operate the penitentiary after they gained independence in 1917.

Many prisoners – both men and women in separate wings – stayed in the Katajanokka prison during pre-trial detention or following convictions for minor crimes. In addition, at several points in time, the penitentiary held political prisoners.

By the late 20th century, the prison’s conditions were considered unacceptable and Amnesty International raised concerns about its overcrowding and dilapidated spaces. The prison finally closed in 2002 and was designated a historical landmark.

It reopened as a hotel in 2007.

Staying at the Hotel Katajanokka

Helsinki prison-hotel “cell.”
Helsinki prison-hotel “cell.” Photo © Michele Desoer

Hotel Katajanokka owners completely renovated the prison cells and administrative area, but because it is a historic landmark, kept the basic structure intact. The main hallway retains a cell block structure with metal stairs rising up to the next floors creating a large atrium flanked by walkways from which guests access upper-floor cells.

It reminded me of prison blocks I’ve seen in movies, albeit swankier and, of course, minus the barred doors… and guards!

After checking in, we rounded the corner from the lobby to head to our cells – I mean rooms.

These cell/rooms are chic and comfortable with hints of Nordic luxury. But it was humbling to remember that those same spaces at one time accommodated seven prisoners in two triple bunkbeds with the newest prisoner sleeping on the floor.

Because the renovations could not alter the original structure, the cell doors remain narrow and shorter than normal. Anyone tall had better duck down! The only windows are the original ones atop high walls installed to prevent escape. Don’t bother asking for a room with a view.

On the plus side, however, the super thick walls of concrete and brick result in particularly quiet spaces.

Downstairs, the cellar holds the exposed-brick Jailbird Restaurant and bar, and a sauna (since this is Finland), and meeting rooms. Each morning we gorged on a delectable breakfast buffet with everything including scrambled eggs and other hot foods, cold cuts, fruit, muesli, and pastries including Karjalanpiirakka, traditional Finnish rice pies. The Karjalanpiirakka are oval pastries whose edges fold over a rice mixture filling.

Coffee, tea, juices, and a daily smoothie are self-serve.

In the evening, the restaurant serves dinner with various regional options. Because we were too exhausted to search out a restaurant, one evening we ate there and enjoyed salmon – a Finish mainstay – and a reindeer burger. Both were scrumptious tastes of Finland.

The basement offers more than a chance to eat, sweat, and meet: the hotel has kept intact isolation and multi-prisoner cells accessible to visitors. The tiny isolation cell with a wire mesh side and door was dark and felt dehumanizing. The larger cell looks like a cave with low ceilings and an uneven, rocky floor. I have no idea how anyone could live in that space. My friend and I hoped it was just a holding cell.

What You Need to Know

Uspenski Cathedral, Helskinki Finland.
Uspenski Cathedral, Helskinki Finland. Photo © Michele Desoer

The Hotel Katajanokka is conveniently located close to Helsinki’s town center, within walking distance or a short cab ride of many of the city’s most famous sights including Senate Square and the Market Square on the water’s edge. The hotel is a short walk to the magnificent Uspenski Eastern Orthodox cathedral that dominates a nearby hill.

As a bonus for Marriott Bonvoy members, the Hotel Katajanokka has joined the Tribute Portfolio of the Marriott brand known for its boutique hotels around the world with a unique sense of character. Based on my hotel searches, it’s one of the most reasonably-priced Marriott properties in Helsinki, and incredibly fascinating.

What do you think?

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  • Mark Frampton
    July 20, 2023

    Fascinating story, well written and I felt I was almost there.

    • Noreen Kompanik
      July 21, 2023

      Good to hear, Mark. It’s quite a fascinating story indeed.