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Prison break: A gay weekend at Helsinki’s famous jail-turned-hotel

Attitude's Will Stroude volunteers for a stretch in Helsinki's Hotel Katajanokka. Stripey jumpsuit not included…

By Will Stroude

Words: Will Stroude

In late 2016, a banner was erected outside Helsinki airport greeting visitors to the Finnish capital which would quickly go viral for its no-hold-barred assessment of the city’s wintry reputation:  “Nobody in their right mind would come to Helsinki in November. Except you, you badass. Welcome.”

I’d soon come to learn that this brand of gallows humour was typical of the city’s warm yet hardy residents, who reside in one of the world’s northernmost metropolises (only St. Petersburg, which lies less than 200 miles to the east, boasts a greater number of people living closer to the North Pole).

Stepping off the plane less than three hours after taking off from London into a bracingly icy blast air it was hard not to momentarily envy fellow Attitude colleagues who’d found themselves in sunnier climes for similar recent assignments: but then again, to not to channel your inner ‘badass’ would be to miss all that Helsinki, perhaps the totemic city of two seasons, has to offer winter travelers.

While Stockholm and Copenhagen might continue to dominant the city-break spotlight for ‘Nordic-cool’, Helsinki still has the feel of a place on the brink of discovery – at least when it comes to avoiding tourists seeking a modish urban escape in neighbouring Scandinavia.

That’s quickly changing though, as more and more people being to cotton on to the archipelago’s unique allure of neoclassical architecture, chic design boutiques and stark (in winter at least) landscapes.

My base during my stay would be pretty badass in itself: Hotel Katajanokka; formerly one of Finland’s most notorious prisons; now one of its most quirky boutique hotels. Nestled in the middle of the quiet urban island of Katajanokka close to Helsinki’s famed Russian Orthodox Cathedral and a stone’s throw from the city centre, this imposing, history-rich 19th century red-brick saw its last inmates depart in 2002, before undergoing a radical redesign and welcoming guests of a more voluntary kind.

So striking is Hotel Katajanokka’s presence and cultural heritage that the former prison also serves as the backdrop for regular weddings, same-sex or otherwise, as local and occasionally international lovebirds sign up for a life sentence of an altogether different kind…

Protected by the Finnish National Board of Antiques, the striking three-floor prison corridor extension built in the 1880s now leads onto well-appointed rooms and suites created after former cells were knocked together – and with walls thick enough to once contain some of Finland’s most high-profile inmates, including former President Risto Ryti, who was imprisoned there following defeat by the Soviet Union during WWII, you know you’re guaranteed a quiet night’s sleep.

The sleek monochrome and wood design palette on display in Hotel Katajonnoka’s current guise might not be what those particular inmates would have been accustomed to back in the day, but my two-night stay in the clink remained longer than Li-Lo’s (well, the first time at least) and I was more than happy to soak up the novelty.

The site of Helsinki’s Hotel Katajanokka functioned as one of Finland’s most infamous prisons from 1837 to 2002

The food at the hotel’s relaxed in-house restaurant Linnankellari was most definitely not prison gruel either, serving a hearty Finnish-Scandi menu and local delicacies including char-grilled reindeer (sorry Rudolph). Throw in a prison chapel, gym and sauna facilities, and I was practically itching to find ways I could end up serving more time.

But venture outside the prison walls I do, taking in the awe-inspiring sight of Helsinki’s fleet of ice-breakers docked on Katajanokka’s north shore, before hopping over the tram lines to the already-Christmas-lit streets that flank the grand park of Esplanadi.

These days, Helsinki doesn’t tend to transform into a frost-capped winter wonderland until December  – thanks global warming – but when the blankets of snow do arrive the pavements around these particular streets will be kept clear by underground heating which keeps with the icy drifts at bay.


There’s still plenty of festive frolics to be had in Santa’s back yard before then, however, will mulled wine lining the picturesque Christmas market stalls in the cobbled square outside  Helsinki Cathedral, window shopping to be done in the trendy Kallio district and hearty meats and cheeses to be sampled at the Old Market Hall, a 19th century byzantine revival building from which you can watch the ferries complete their wind-battered journeys from Tallinn.

Such experiences would be unrecognisable during the height of summer, of course, when 18 hours of darkness is replaced with 18-hour days, and Finns spill onto the terraces to enjoy seafood and sunshine, or swap their home saunas for boat trips to take in the greenery of the 330 islands that make up the Helsinki archipelago. The 70-year-old Linnanmäki amusement park offers adventure during the summer months, but its empty metal skeletons twisted silently against the grey Helsinki sky takes on its own kind of captivating beauty during winter.

Being very much ‘gay for the stay’, I was also keen to sample Helsinki’s compact but vibrant LGBTQ scene. Finland consistently ranks among the world’s most LGBTQ destinations, while Helsinki Pride, which is celebrated in the last week of June, can boast that it is the largest cultural event in the entire country, attracting a record-breaking 100,000 people to the streets in 2018.

As such, Helsinki is a city where LGBTQ travellers are welcomed everywhere, but if you prefer to frequent an establishment with rainbow flag placed firmly over the door, a decent collection of cocktails bars and cafes are clustered around the city centre, as well as clubs Hercules and DTM, where you can escape the chill with a hefty blast of Euro-pop, vodka and a mixed crowd of edgy Finnish locals. For a more relaxed pace, there are also dedicated gay venues in the nearby hipster Kallio district, including Bar Fairytale and the aptly-named Bear Park Cafe.

Day release over, it was back to Hotel Katajanokka fo a final night in the slammer, where I as even presented with a pair of handcuffs as a memento of my time there.

It was only as I placed my bag on the airport security conveyor belt the next day that the horror struck: can you take a pair of handcuffs – aka potentially pilot-incapacitating metal restraints – into the cabin of a FinnAir aircraft in 2019? Because it feels like you definitely can’t. And if they were pulled out by a security guard in front of this busy queue of fliers, it was going to look like I’d had a very different kind of weekend.

A severe-looking blond officer’s eyes narrow as my bag passes through the X-ray machine. Oh god. She stops it, beckoning one of her colleagues over and pointing out something on the screen. Oh GOD. Is it too late to run?

The second officer marches over: “Is this your bag sir?”

“Yes,” I squeak feebly in reply.

“I’m going to need you to open it for me sir – the monitor shows you’ve got more than the one permitted cigarette lighter in there…”

The relief flooding through me nears euphoria. But is that a flicker of a smirk on her face?

Either way, it’s good to know that next time you head to Helsinki for a stay in the former cells of Hotel Katajanokka, you can bring your own ‘cuffs…

Hotel Katajanokka is a Marriott Tribute Portfolio Hotel. Rooms in December start at €169 (£145)/night.

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