Bright, colourful, chic: going to prison in Helsinki was a striking experience. The old jail at Katajanokka, a few minutes' walk from the historic harbour and market square in Finland's capital, opened as a stylish hotel in May last year. And it is a triumph of imaginative transformation.
As I was shown to my room – a small double, fashioned from two cells – an enthusiastic staff member explained how the 1830s redbrick building had been an outmoded remand centre. For decades it was scheduled to be shut down, but it finally closed only in 2002. The current owners acquired the property a few years later, literally lock, stock and barred windows, and converted it into a fully functioning 106-room outfit in an astonishing 12 months.
The bars are gone; the gates to the building's small park area are open. Light from large windows streams into the once grim landings that are now clad in bold orange and black carpets, the ground floor offering sitting-out spaces complete with Wi-Fi. The basement has become the focus of entertainment in winter, housing a wine bar and the Jailbird Restaurant. An elegant terrace offers summer dining under shady linden trees. Meanwhile, the bedrooms are furnished in creams, oranges and black, with added texture provided by silk cushions and old prints.
Should the idea of sleeping in a lock-up be disquieting, there are other accommodation options: some of the rooms are in former offices more generously sized than the cells, with three suites offering private saunas. In fact, the only stumbling block here is the branding. Although independently owned, for marketing purposes the Hotel Katajanokka is part of the Best Western group and heavily labelled as such, which seems at odds with its quirky boutique style.
"The Helsinki hotel market is still largely driven by the Finnish corporate world," explains Steve Hart of Helsinki-based tour operator The Travel Experience. "And for the business community in Finland branding is very important. They like their well-known chain hotels, of which there are several in each town and city across the country. But that said, the Helsinki hotel industry is in the throes of enormous change."
Over the past three years, the Finnish capital has seen a record number of new hotel openings, from the 246-room Hilton near the airport, to the 151-room Sokos Aleksanteri, set in neoclassical splendour in the city centre. And there are more openings in the pipeline. Hart points out that within all this change and development, the Best Western Hotel Katajanokka is one of a sleek new breed of Helsinki accommodation, emphasising cool design and originality.
The city's first boutique-style hotel opened in 2005. Hotel Klaus K (revamped from the former, unremarkable Klaus Kurki Hotel) is set on the edge of Helsinki's design district and is inimically Finnish, its decor drawing on the national epic, Kalevala, a strange myth about the creation of the world from a broken duck egg. Lines from the epic are woven into the carpets and even the nightclub and bar feature mythical emblems in their fittings. The 137 rooms are themed in four funky styles and celebrate all things Finnish, down to the glassware and the chocolates and bottled water in the minibar.
Over on Helsinki's smartest shopping street, Hotel GLO was completed in March last year. It is part of the Palace Kamp group, and is set next door to the luxury flagship Kamp Hotel. GLO is younger, hipper, more playful. The bright lobby-lounge with low red seats and a leather-coated reception desk sets the scene. There's a tapas bar opposite, with the Spanish theme continuing on the first floor at La Cocina restaurant – and even in the toilets there, where Spanish language tapes start up when you open the door. The 144 rooms are generously sized and cleverly lit. Thoughtful touches include guitars you can borrow.
The latest of the smaller, contemporary-chic hotels is Sokos Hotel Albert, which opened in the boho area of Punavuori last August. Decor in the 95 rooms is pleasingly pared down, while facilities include a lively Italian restaurant with a laid-back bar alongside.
Sokos being the biggest hotel chain in Finland, this is perhaps the least flamboyant and most corporate of Helsinki's new hotels with a hip edge. But right now you'll find few business guests here. Summer is low season in the capital; the corporate world is on holiday – and the price of hotel rooms falls. All of which makes this an opportune time to check into one of Helsinki's new offerings.
Where to stay
Best Western Premier Hotel Katajanokka, Vyokatu 1 (00 358 9 686 450; bwkatajanokka.fi). B&B from €95.