Wherever I travel, I tend to look out for repurposed architecture, be it a trendy café in an old factory, or a re-imagined art museum in a former warehouse. And, if I can find a hotel that has taken a historic, abandoned building and made it whole again, saving it from ruin and turning it into something quirky, so much the better.
Now, you might think that prisons offer limited options when it comes to hotel potential, after all, the rooms would be tiny, views limited and en-suite facilities non-existent, but just look at the following places to stay, and think again.
During my travels, I have stumbled upon a few very unusual former prison hotels and wanted to share the best. My favorites (those on this list) tend toward the more luxurious, but I have also included a few options for lower budgets, but still stylish. Because, if you are going to prison, you might as well do it in style. Don’t you agree?
Boston offers an interesting mix of architecture, ranging from Georgian, super-modern to the “Boston Granite School” of architecture. One of the best examples of this school of architecture is the former Charles Street jail, built in 1851 by architect Gridley James Fox Bryant, which served as an international model for prison architecture for the second half of the 19th century. In use until 1990, when it closed due to overcrowding, the beautiful building is now a luxury hotel, ironically named The Liberty Hotel. Instead of jail cells, you can’t leave, you now have comfortable rooms with grand views that you won’t want to leave, and among the myriad of bars and restaurants, there is a stunning roof terrace not to be missed.
Pro Tip: There is a modern extension to the hotel, so if you want to stay in the old jail, you will need to ask for a jail room at the time of booking.
Four Seasons Sultanahmet
Mentioned in Graham Greene’s thriller Stamboul Train, the former Ottoman prison notorious for housing dissident writers, has long lost its horror and is now the luxury Four Seasons Sultanahmet, in one of the best locations in Istanbul. While steps away from attractions such as the Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque, and Aya Sophia, the hotel is on a quiet street, giving it a million-miles-away feeling while right in the busy city. The courtyard garden and the Aya Terrace restaurant with its stunning views of the Aya Sophia are especially perfect places to relax after a busy day of sightseeing.
Pro Tip: The tram number T1, just a couple of minutes walk from the hotel, takes you across the Golden Horn to the lovely neighborhoods of Karaköy and Galata.
The Malmaison Hotel chain is the one I go to first when traveling around the UK. It is famous for repurposing old buildings, from warehouses to churches, from a former postal sorting office to, reportedly, even a former brothel. I love that it not only breathes new life into abandoned buildings but also manages to create a great atmosphere and mix of old and new in each of its properties. In Oxford, Malmaison has taken the medieval prison that had been in use until 1996 and turned it into a gorgeous luxury hotel right next to the Oxford Castle dating to the 11th century.
Pro Tip: Ask for a room with views across from the castle, and you’ll have two sights in Oxford checked off in one.
In the heart of Covent Garden stands the impressive NoMad Hotel, the former Bow Street magistrate court. Not quite a prison, but the step before for many a famous defendant. Well-known names such as Emily and Christabel Pankhurst, Giacomo Casanova, and Oscar Wilde stood in this very court, defending themselves against charges mostly laughable today. The Grade I-listed building has been tenderly updated and turned into a luxury hotel and a superb restaurant in an amazing setting. The newest star on the London hotel and restaurant scene, NoMad combines history, architecture, and modern comfort in one of London’s best locations.
Pro Tip: The hotel is steps away from the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, so don’t miss this opportunity to see a fantastic opera or ballet.
Located on the peninsula that juts out from the picturesque old harbor of Helsinki, the oldest part of the Hotel Katajanokka dates back to 1837, with the main building built in 1888 as the Helsinki County Prison and investigative penitentiary called Skatta. The prison was a working prison until 2002 and has since been reinvented as a comfortable luxury hotel and restaurant. While the main lobby is easily recognizable as a former prison, the rooms are comfortable in the relaxed Scandinavian chic and come with complimentary access to the in-house sauna.
Pro Tip: To learn a little more about the hotel’s history you can book a tour, or, if you are traveling with friends, you can even organize a prison break.
Not officially a former prison, but something many probably thought of as one: This former quarantine station at the entry to Sydney’s harbor, was the stopping off point for migrant ships, defending the country/continent against the world’s major diseases. Located on the beautiful North Head peninsula the quarantine station has now been transformed into a dreamy place to stay — voluntarily. There are various accommodation options, from cottages to simple rooms. My personal favorite is the Deluxe Queen Harbourside Room, with a balcony offering such amazing views that you will want to stay in “quarantine” forever.
Pro Tip: This is a stunning part of the world, and there are walks along Sydney’s natural harbor which allow you to appreciate it even more. For an initial sample, try the Manly to North Head Walk, which will take you right past the hotel.
Lloyd Hotel & Cultural Embassy
This gorgeous Dutch-style building in Amsterdam has seen many reinventions. It was originally built by a shipping company in 1921 to house emigrants waiting for their boat to South America. After the shipping company, Dutch Lloyd went bankrupt, the building was used as a refugee camp for Jewish people. During WWII it became a detention center and continued to be a prison after the war until 1989 when it was reinvented as an artists’ residence. In 2004 the Lloyds Hotel opened, doubling as a Center for the Arts, with regular exhibitions in the stairwell. Today, each of the 115 rooms is different and the history of the building is still palatable and very much embraced.
Pro Tip: This hotel is reportedly the world’s only 1-to-5-star hotel, offering travelers of all budgets a great place to stay, from hostel to suite, all under the same roof.
Located on the island of Långholmen, one of the 30,000 islands that make up Stockholm’s archipelago, this former prison is nestled in a pastoral setting. Långholmen Island is a vacation or weekend break island full of walking and cycling trails, beaches, and parks, yet in the center of Stockholm and reached via two bridges. The hotel looks more like a large country manor from the outside but has many of the former prison features preserved inside, and offers team building prison break events, exhibitions of its former life in some rooms, and the typical prison central walkway with access to the rooms.
Pro Tip: Rooms are basic but with all the necessary facilities such as en-suite bathrooms, TV, and internet. There are a couple of bars and restaurants, and the hotel is perfect for those with a smaller travel budget who want to have access to the natural beauty of the Swedish islands, while within walking distance to all of Stockholm’s main attractions.
This is probably the most prison-like hotel of the lot. The quite basic and very affordable Alcatraz Hotel in Kaiserslautern, not far from Frankfurt am Main comes complete with bars around the lobby reception area, bars in front of the “cell rooms” and very basic facilities in those prison rooms, for that locked-up experience. However, for those who need some creature comforts, there are the so-called “comfort rooms” with en-suite bathrooms, TV, and a bit more space; and the hotel also has a nice suite, which comes without the normal steep suite price tag, where you can easily forget that you are in a prison.
Pro Tip: The hotel is located right next to the beautiful Japanese Garden, a gorgeous space to relax in.
More unusual accommodations around the world: