Breaking Travel News investigates: Hotel Katajanokka, Helsinki
Views over the newly renovated Hotel Katajanokka in Helsinki, Finland

Breaking Travel News investigates: Hotel Katajanokka, Helsinki

As is sometimes the case with British travellers abroad, I ended up in a cell.

This time, though, there was no need to contact the Foreign & Commonwealth office as this particular lock-up formed part of Hotel Katajanokka.

Serving as a county prison and pre-trial detention centre for political prisoners in a former life, it was closed in 2002, following years of debate.

While it was felt that the prison no longer met the requirements of a modern correctional facility, no one wanted to leave the building to decay.

This, fortuitously, left new owners Prime Hotels free to step in and convert the property into what it is today.

Re-opening its doors in May 2007, it is certainly one of the more eccentric attractions in the Finnish capital, Helsinki.

Arriving in April this year, the air is certainly more luxury hotel than political gaol these days, but there are touches of the property’s notorious past.

The oldest part of Hotel Katajanokka was built in 1837, while the main part dates to 1888, with guests obliged to walk through the centuries old walls on arrival.

It creates quite an impression.

At reception, however, all appears normal, with the customary discreet, polite service expected of Scandinavian hospitality.


Sophisticated interiors at Hotel Katajanokka

Accommodation

Upstairs the property really comes into its own.

The rooms at Hotel Katajanokka are carefully reconstructed from original cell blocks.

Purpose-built for privacy, whether desired or not, the metre-thick brick walls make the rooms as quite as a tomb – certainly ensuring a good night’s sleep.

Tall ceilings and individually adjustable cooling system add to the airy and spacious vibe, while the triple-glazed windows keep the bustle of the city firmly outside.

These days, of course, decoration is modern, with the rooms having a design-led appearance, with all the extras expected of a property at this level; huge televisions, power showers and, somewhat uniquely to Helsinki, as much liquorish as you can eat.


Hotel Katajanokka’s former life as a prison is still clearly visible

History

Staying in the hotel is also something of a history lesson.

Alongside regular prisoners, Katajanokka has accommodated political leaders.

In the 1930’s, Hertta Kuusinen, a staunch left-wing politician, spent a lot of time here because of her communist views.

After World War II, many of the political and military leaders of Finland were sentenced to imprisonment.

The most famous included former president of the Finnish republic, Risto Ryti, and seven of his ministers.

Indeed, my room on the fourth floor was the former cell of Ryti, with his name plaque still displayed by the door.

In this regard, a stay is very realistic; it feels as though you are stepping into their shoes.

Whether that is an attraction for a hotel, I’ll leave you to decide.


Suomenlinna is one of the most visited destinations in Finaland. Image courtesy: Jussi Hellsten

Suomenlinna

Hotel Katajanokka is a perfect base from which to explore Suomenlinna, the UNESCO-recognised sea fort just a short trip out to into the Baltic.

From the front door of the hotel, catch the number four tram downtown, before boarding the ferry at the Market Square.

The journey takes a short 15 minutes before disembarking at the main quay.

Turned over to civilian administration in 1973, the islands now welcome nearly one million visitors a year, making the sea fortress one of most popular tourist destinations in Scandinavia.

Suomenlinna is unique in that although it is a bastion fortress, it is irregular in shape as a result of being built on a cluster of rocky islands with highly variable terrain.

This required a unique interpretation of the theory of fortifications developed in central Europe during construction.

A collection of six islands, some of which are closed to guests during the winter, it is down to visitors to do as much or as a little as they like.

There are a number of museums - covering everything from historic toys to the development of the fort through the ages - while the last submarine to be decommissioned by the Finnish navy, the Vesikko, also makes an interesting diversion.

The obligatory micro-brewery serves some seriously strong, and seriously pricey, local ales, while a fine dining restaurant caters to guests with a little more time.

It is a great place to spend a few hours, wandering alone with your thoughts and taking in the spectacular views over the surrounding seas.


Fine dining at Linnankellari, the converted prison canteen at Hotel Katajanokka

Nosh

A short ferry trip back to Hotel Katajanokka, and dinner is served in the Linnankellari restaurant.

Situated in the former canteen in the basement of the building, the jail-theme comes to the fore here, with guests able to eat from metal plates and cups, prison style; though the food is probably a little better!

The location is a must for fans of simple and delicious Nordic cuisine.

The à la carte menu is built from organic, seasonal ingredients, sourced from local purveyors and prepared in a hot charcoal grill, with the meal served Finnish-Scandi style in a mix-and-match fashion.

Guests can choose from numerous meats and fishes, as well as a good variety of side dishes.

In the summer, there is a sunny courtyard terrace.

Featuring live music and a more relaxed, friendly vibe, the charcoal-barbequed delicacies are a firm favourite.

Back downstairs for breakfast in the morning, a generous buffet, with a large selection of cold cuts, fruits, vegetables, cheeses, yoghurt, cereals and porridge is on offer - all included in the room rate.


Get married in the chapel at Hotel_Katajanokka

Activities

Making the most of the setting, Hotel Katajanokka adds a range of activities to entertain guests.

On offer is everything from a simple murder mystery, to more complex orienteering exercises, and the increasingly popular escape room-style challenge.

All can be added to a stay for a very reasonable price.

Upstairs Kirkko – a Finnish Church – sits in the beautifully restored 170-year-old chapel.

Featuring the original church altar, paintings, and a fully functional vintage organ, it makes for a perfect venue for a slightly off-beat wedding,

But of course, it is important to remember the best thing about staying in a former prison…

They let you leave in the morning!

More Information

Hotel Katajanokka is a privately-owned lifestyle hotel, renovated with loving care in the historic premises of a former Helsinki county prison.

Inside the red brick walls guests will find a magic world of contrasts – with serene comfort, stylish design and a hint of Nordic luxury.

Find out more on the official website.

Chris O’Toole