The thirteen days of this trip somehow lead to stays at seven different properties, plus an overnight flight. Of the five hotels I tried, my favourite was my very last stop, Hotel Katajanokka in Helsinki. This is perhaps surprising, as ‘guests’ here were traditionally more reluctant – until 2002, it was a prison!
Most famously, the former president Risto Ryti and seven government ministers were detained here and ultimately convicted of crimes against peace for their roles in the Continuation War of 1941-44. But the Katajanokka site has a long history: the Helsinki Crown Prison was constructed in 1749 and expanded in 1800; in 1837 it became Helsinki County Prison, the chapel of which still stands – making it the second oldest church in the city.
The current hotel building (Finland’s oldest) dates from 1888, one of a series of late 19th century prisons in a deliberately sinister brick gothic style. A group cell in the basement has been preserved, and confirms the original interior was even more depressing:
Not so today’s accommodations, which I found much more comfortable! After the last prisoners had been relocated it took five years to transform the facility, and there was a subsequent refurbishment a decade later in 2017. The result is a boutique hotel of around 100 rooms: mine (a superior king, thanks to an upgrade) spanned a space that would originally have been three cells. The furnishing was to an excellent standard, but the real delight is the sense of history and character that can so often be missing from modern properties. Instead of anonymous hotel corridors, rooms connect directly to the main hallway, with its distinctive stairwells, walkways and barred doors.
A prepaid rate of €165 included breakfast, which added to my already favourable culinary assessment of Helsinki. I had noted the spread at Katajanokka as one of the best hotel buffets I’ve ever experienced – although I also noted this might be a bit biased, as I had been awake for five hours thanks to jetlag!
I don’t think I’ll rush back to Helsinki – of the Nordic capitals, I definitely prefer Stockholm and Oslo. But if I do take advantage of Finnair’s convenient connections to Asia again, I would happily build in a stopover for another night at Hotel Katajanokka – and strongly recommend it if you’re doing the same.