Helsinki, Finland

Photo: Best Western Premier Hotel Katajanokka
Photo: Best Western Premier Hotel Katajanokka

The tram to Katajanokka Island drops you off in front of a high wall. A red brick building stands behind it. Inside, rooms line a long, narrow corridor. They have thick walls and iron bars on the windows. That’s right, bars. Your hotel in Helsinki was once a prison.

Hotel Katajanokka used to be a county prison and a pre-trial detention center. The older, white building, created in 1837, housed the second-oldest church in Helsinki. It’s original wooden floors are still inside. The main section, built in 1888, had late-Gothic architecture, 164 cells, and pioneering central heating and electric lights. The prison eventually closed in 2002. Five years later, it opened as a modern hotel in a unique historic setting.

You arrive to find that three former cells have been combined to create your premier room. Warm colors and black-and-white photographs are inside. The bathroom has white-and-gray tiles and a heated floor. While you have a view of Linnanpuisto Park—the old jail yard—and lots of shady maple trees from your windows. Those iron bars are the only reminder of what your room used to be.

Photo: Best Western Premier Hotel Katajanokka
Photo: Best Western Premier Hotel Katajanokka

After you settle in, explore the rest of the hotel. Breakfast—including traditional Karelian pirogs and porridge—is served downstairs. Relax in the sauna to loosen your tense muscles after traveling. Usually, men and women have separate sauna times, but you booked a private session in advance. Sip a cold beer at the brick bar in the Oluthuone Pub. Or, better yet, at a wooden table on the summer terrace. Then ride a bike to see Art Nouveau architecture, the harbor, and the coast guard station in Katajanokka, an upscale neighborhood.

Back at the hotel, the smell of meat grilling over charcoal lures you to the basement. Restaurant Linnankellari serves Finnish-Scandinavian dishes using local and organic produce. Order smoked duck with carrot mousse and salmon marinated with sea buckthorn berries to share. Then choose a reindeer roast over a lamb neck from the grill. A light Valpolicella pairs perfectly with the smokey meat.

Afterward, return to the terrace, where the beer is flowing and the live music is just beginning. Though you have the freedom to leave the old jail anytime you wish, you opt to stay behind the high walls and the barred windows for the rest of the evening. Your tour of Helsinki can begin tomorrow.

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