Hotel Katajanokka Helsinki review: Former prison turned luxury hotel

Iron bars. Holding cells. High fences. Not the typical features you’d expect to find in a high-end hotel, right?

When I was looking at my options for accommodation in Helsinki, Finland during a three-day stopover on my way from Chicago to Madrid, I was intrigued to find that not just Helsinki’s but the entire country’s most notorious prison, Katajanokka, had been converted into a luxury Marriott hotel.

Obviously, my interest was piqued, and I imagined it would make for a unique, eye-opening stay. Here’s why I wouldn’t recommend it.

What is the Hotel Katajanokka in Helsinki?

Helsinki’s Hotel Katajanokka is a former prison converted into a 106-room luxury Marriott property under the Tribute Portfolio. It is located on Katajanokka Island, a 10-minute walk from Helsinki’s central market. The former prison cells have been converted into modern rooms with Nordic design and sauna access.


Built in 1837, the hotel has a rich history and was known as Finland’s most notorious prison until its closure in 2002. There are many stories of overcrowding and dilapidated conditions, with the converted hotel rooms now designed to sleep one or two people previously cramming up to seven people in a single cell.

Marriott has done a great job at preserving the unique historical character of the prison while updating the interiors to the standards of a luxury hotel. Clicking through the gallery below shows you the before and after views.

The hotel decided to keep one former standard and one group cell intact, which is truly haunting that people would be kept in a cold basement in the throes of a Finnish winter.

Nowadays, you’ll find the original red-brick boundary wall and the property itself to feel cozy and approachable, with plush carpet throughout and Nordic design elements such as curved furniture and exposed light fixtures.

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How to book the Hotel Katajanokka in Helsinki

Cash rates, including taxes and fees, tend to sit around 150 euros ($164) per night. They can get down to 130 euros ($142) for off-peak dates and reach 240 euros ($253) during busier periods.

You can also book a stay using your Marriott Bonvoy points. Redemption rates tend to sit in the mid-20,000s, sometimes as low as 22,000 points and rarely above 30,000 points per night.

Remember that you can get your fifth night free with every four consecutive nights you book with points. The benefit is available to all Bonvoy members, not just those with elite status.

I booked my three-night stay in a base room for 583 euros ($640), equating to 194 euros ($213) per night. I got a higher return by using my Chase Sapphire Reserve® card to earn three Chase Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent (a 6% return, according to our valuations) rather than either of my two cobranded Marriott cards (which offer a 5% return).

Related: Which credit card should you use for Marriott stays?

Finally, as a Marriott Bonvoy Platinum Elite member, I got upgraded to a larger room (but not a suite), opted for complimentary breakfast as my welcome gift, earned a 50% points bonus and got a late checkout before my onward flight to Madrid, Spain.

Getting to the hotel is relatively straightforward

If you’re catching public transport from the airport, it will take you around an hour to get to the hotel. You’ll take a half-hour train to Central Station and then hop onto the 4 or 5 tram, which drops you right outside the hotel.


Or you can halve your journey time to/from the airport by taking a ride-hailing service or a taxi. Just keep in mind that there is a lot of construction in Nordic countries during the summer (getting ahead of the snowfall that comes in the winter), so be prepared for traffic and detours.

The room design is poor

Let’s start with the positives. My room was more spacious than I had anticipated. That’s helped by the fact that the original 164 cells have been converted into 106 rooms.

In your room, you’ll find a cozy king-sized bed with four comfortable pillows and light, breathable sheets. I did find it surprising that there was only one duvet rather than two separate ones, as you’ll find in many northern European countries. However, it is more common to find a two-duvet setup in Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Sweden and Norway).

Now let’s get onto the less-than-ideal design features. The lounge below is uncomfortable and wastes space that could be used for a more functional bench, reading chair or storage space. You’ll get a standard work table, but the chair sacrifices comfort for design — it was uncomfortable to sit here for several hours while I was working.

Moving into the bathroom, you’ll find a shower with weak water pressure that leaks water onto the floor due to the absence of a screen covering more than a third of the shower-bathtub. The shower products (body wash, shampoo and conditioner) are placed on the opposite side of the vanity, which makes no sense for using those products when you’re showering.

A small gripe, but only one tissue was left in the tissue box upon my arrival and no replacement box was readily available.

The water pressure is so weak that the bidet does not function correctly. And if you swipe to the final photo in the gallery below, you’ll see a lot of wasted space in the bathroom.

Now to the element of my stay that caused the most friction — and is a common complaint on aggregator review sites about this hotel: the lack of airflow.

Obviously, this is a former prison and, as such, has high-placed windows with little ventilation. Plus, it’s not as common to have air conditioning in Europe (especially northern countries) compared to here in the U.S. However, for a luxury hotel, it is poor not to have a strategy in place to ensure guests’ comfort when sleeping at your property.

Upon arriving to my room, I started sweating due to the lack of air conditioning or any ceiling or desk fans in the room. I called the reception and the friendly manager came to manually open the high windows. She said this was a common request, but I would’ve liked to have been proactively advised about it at check-in. It’s called expectation management.


The maximum daytime temperature during the four days I was in Helsinki was 77 degrees Fahrenheit and it dropped to a minimum of 65 overnight. I found it hard to sleep each of the three nights I stayed here, which would be the main reason I would not recommend staying at this hotel.

If you do end up staying here in the summer (or even in other seasons when it could still get stuffy inside), here are three tips to cool down your room:

  • Ask the staff to open your windows (but know that they often close with the wind and expose you to the sound of nearby trams while sleeping).
  • Request a small desk fan from reception (this did something but very little to rectify the problem).
  • Ask for a room facing east or north to avoid the afternoon and evening sun.

Or just don’t stay here. There are better-value properties in the city and you can always just walk in to tour the building and former cells as a day visitor on your own.

Rounding out the room, you’ll get a standard storage closet with one door that doesn’t open fully because the bed is in the way (who designed this hotel renovation?).

There’s also a minibar with instant coffee and tea (I would expect an espresso machine in a luxury hotel, especially one in coffee-obsessed Finland) and some soft drinks, beer and wine for purchase.

Delicious food is the hotel’s main draw

“One of the best breakfasts in town” is what one local I started chatting with while visiting the city’s central market told me. All the other locals I came into contact with during my stay knew about the prison/hotel’s history and had visited for a meal, too.

The breakfast highlight in the hotel’s sole restaurant, Linnankellari, are the drinks, with the most tea varieties I’ve ever seen at a hotel and a self-serve espresso machine. (Did you know Finns consume the most coffee per capita of anyone in the world, brewing over 26 pounds each year?)

In addition to the regular hot and cold options you’d expect to find at any standard chain hotel worldwide (like scrambled eggs, toast, cheeses and oatmeal), you’ll also find northern European elements like seeds, berries and darker breads like rye on offer, as well as a wide variety of options for those who avoid gluten and dairy.

Breakfast is served from 7-10 a.m. on weekdays and 8-11 a.m. on weekends. It costs adults 17 euros ($19) as a hotel guest (25 euros/$27 as a visitor) and 12 euros ($13) for children aged 4-11, and is free for children under 3.

While breakfast is served in the dark, dingy basement year-round (not the best place to start your day, in my opinion), you can take advantage of the beautiful terrace on warm summer days and nights by having lunch or dinner out there.


The summer weekly lunch set menu provides good value at 13 ($14) and 7 euros ($8) for adults and children, respectively, and the a la carte dinner menu is overpriced for just the food but worth it when you factor in the setting.

The highlights of my meals were a juicy salmon steak with crispy roasted potatoes, flavorsome halloumi cheese on flatbread, and ugly-but-delicious tofu skewers.

Service is friendly, but the amenities are hit or miss

Every staff member I interacted with during my stay was super friendly and warm, spoke great English, and quickly responded to requests. I appreciated that the waitstaff remembered me from the first to the last night.

This is a good place to work remotely or stream entertainment, as the Wi-Fi speeds were fast at 80 Mbps download/upload, and the signal was strong and never faulted.

A unique feature of this property and something that is very in keeping with Finnish culture is the (small) sauna in the hotel’s basement. It’s free to access on weekend mornings and is gender-segregated during that time, welcoming females from 8:30-9:30 a.m. and males from 9:45-11:30 a.m. I find it interesting that males get almost double the amount of time females receive.

At other times, the sauna can be booked for one-hour blocks for a flat 30-euro ($32) fee and can accommodate 1-3 guests at a time. Reservations can be made at reception.

There is a cramped gym with no airflow that is uncomfortable to work out in, so you’ll probably want to minimize your time here.

The location is quiet

This hotel is located smack bang in the middle of Katajanokka Island, a quiet, largely residential area located east of the city center. While there is a (expensive) supermarket a five-minute walk away, there is a complete lack of restaurants and shops in the area.

As such, you’ll want to venture out most of the time here, with Senate Square and the Esplanade a 10-minute walk away. You can also rent bikes from the hotel for 5 euros ($5.50) a day.

Katajanokka is a large cruise port, so you’ll contend with lots of cruise passengers along the waterfront just two blocks away from the hotel. However, the upside is that it is easy to get on a day cruise to Tallinn, Estonia (a very popular option when visiting Helsinki) or take one of the ferries traveling throughout the city.

The highlight by far for me was visiting the Allas Sea Pool on a stunning summer’s day. It’s a seven-minute walk from the hotel and features two outdoor pools and indoor saunas. Entry costs 18/22 euros ($20/24) for a weekday/weekend visit.


Checking out

Was it novel to stay in a former-prison-turned-luxury-hotel? 100% yes. Would I stay here again or recommend it to someone else? No.

The Hotel Katajanokka is an interesting relic from the past to visit for a meal and wander around the former jail cells. But that’s something you can do as a visitor coming from other (better-value) accommodations located closer to downtown. As a guest, I would’ve preferred to have just visited for a drink or a meal rather than feeling somewhat uncomfortable staying here for three nights.

As such, I would recommend using your Marriott Bonvoy points for a stay at one of the city’s more centrally-located and higher-rated Marriott properties, including Hotel U14 and Hotel St George.

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