Chicagoans may be bundled up today against the winter cold, but they have warm hearts. If you’ve not yet been to Chicago, just trust me when I tell you that lyricist Sammy Cahn got it right with the lyrics to My Kind of Town. The song (recently sung with a Norwegian twist by Steven Van Zandt) may be a half century old, but it rings true. I visited recently for the first time, and am already thinking about a return visit – perhaps during baseball season.
Extending from the shores of Lake Michigan, the city lives up to its reputation for architectural stunners; it’s not every city that boasts glass ceilings by Tiffany & Co. in both its Cultural Center (itself a former library) and a major department store. Nor do many cities have built-in icebreakers-cum-tourist-draws such as the massive Bean (aka Cloud Gate) sculpture by Anish Kapoor. The Chicago river, with a series of canals constructed beginning in the late 1800s as one of its early public health and economic measures, really is a lovely green.
Cahn was right, too, about Chicagoans smiling at you. There’s of course a business element to many such interactions, but I was repeatedly struck by locals’ friendly approach: the highly hospitable and efficient Will outside the InterContinental Chicago Magnificent Mile, the same hotel’s exemplary Chef Concierge, Kathy McClanathan (more on Kathy later), Dawn at Gino’s East Village, Jessica at Merz Apothecary, Alan, Brock and David at The Purple Pig, Concierge Hailey Fasse at the Fairmont Chicago, the highly hospitable Antonio at Palmer House, the crew at the Visitor Information Center at the Cultural Centre, the CTA’s friendly “L” attendant in the South Loop and the helpful bus driver I met while making my way back from Old Town and Lincoln Park to the Magnificent Mile … and many others.
ACCOMMODATION: InterContinental Chicago Magnificent Mile, Fairmont Chicago, Millennium Park and Palmer House Hilton
I began with InterContinental’s Chicago Magnificent Mile which, apart from providing visual treats and insights on the city’s storied past, has some very good people on staff. Arriving in town shortly after the sun and only slightly bleary eyed after the combination of two flights and then a cab ride that lasted longer than the flight from Toronto, I felt genuinely welcomed by Will, who hustled my bags in from the cold before returning at the ready for the next arrivals. Claudio, with a giant wall of live (and lively) streetscape images behind him, took care of registration and offered to text me as soon as an early room was available. Not realising he’d have a room in the Historic Tower ready before 9:00 a.m., I checked my luggage and did a brief spin through the hotel before checking with the Concierge on tour options.
I decided to start with the pool, situated on the 14th floor – and what a beauty. I later learned that the junior Olympic sized pool, with its elevated seating areas originally intended for race spectators (and now used for at least one wedding reception during my stay), is also known as the Johnny Weismuller Pool, given the athlete and actor’s use of this site for training purposes. Seeing the sun shining outside, I decided to pop down and ask the Concierge for sightseeing advice.
That’s when I met Chef Concierge Kathy McClanathan, who is a member of Les Clefs d’Or (Keys of Gold) USA. She gave helpful directions to this first time visitor and, over the course of a couple of subsequent encounters, it came as little surprise to learn that McClanathan also serves as President of CHCA, the Chicago Hotel Concierge Association. A wealth of knowledge, McClanathan is justifiably proud of her hotel and her city, and does them both proud. I’ve found that concierges can significantly impact a visitor’s experience in a new city, and have appreciated most I’ve met, but McClanathan truly shines. Over the course of two or three highly enjoyable conversations with this professional, I learned a good deal about the heart of Chicago.
Part of Chicago’s Michigan-Wacker Historic District, the hotel is listed on its country’s National Register of Historic Places and underwent a massive and highly respectful renovation not long ago. This hotel hosted one of the original docking stations (for a dirigible/blimp), and now boasts modern amenities alongside its sense of history. You can borrow an i-Pod from the concierge for an audio walking tour of the hotel, and return to a room outfitted with all the outlets you’ll need to keep your tech tools charged. With large windows overlooking the Chicago Tribune tower and the Wrigley Building, it almost didn’t matter that my room was spacious and inviting. Following in Esther Williams’ footsteps and starting the day with a swim in the hotel’s gorgeous pool was a treat in itself. The photos immediately below are just a sampling from my stay at InterContinental’s Chicago Magnificent Mile, and will give a sense of the character emanating from this gorgeous building that is nicely nestled on North Michigan Avenue, a great locale for shopping, dining and sightseeing.
At the Fairmont Chicago Millennium Park, I was housed in a generously sized room with great amenities, but this was not a typical Fairmont experience. We live a short drive away from the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, and have visited the chain’s Empress Hotel in Victoria. Having also been a guest at this brand’s Banff Springs in the Rockies, the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa, and the Royal York in Toronto, I arrived at the Chicago Millennium Park anticipating a hotel of substantial character. All other Fairmonts I’d visited to this point were proud reflections of the history of their respective areas, and I admittedly have a bias toward older hotels, even with their imperfections. Our meeting spaces at the Fairmont in Chicago were lovely and the food service was of high quality, but this hotel boasts a recent $60M renovation that – while likely appreciated by many – gave this guest no sense of place. If you stay here, you’ll be well positioned for a quick walk to Millennium Park, the Art Institute of Chicago and the shopping and sights of South Loop, so it’s really a question of your own travel preferences.
The Hilton chain has a gem in the Palmer House, which emanates romance, luxury and – as you’ll see if you stop by its lobby – style. The original Palmer House served as a wedding gift from businessman Potter Palmer to his bride Bertha Honore, but burned in the Great Chicago Fire within two weeks after its 1871 grand opening. The Palmer House you see today rose relatively quickly from the ashes of that fire, and this East Monroe establishment – not far from the establishment owned by Potter’s friend Marshall Fields – reopened in November 1873.
A LOOK AT THE CITY
You can enjoy the city’s buildings via a walking tour, but I also recommend starting with one of the river cruises; I went with Chicago Line Cruises’ architectural and historical tour. Have a look below at a few of the city’s numerous gems, with just some of my favourites listed here.
- Carbide and Carbon Building – How can one not admire a 40-storey art deco building said to be inspired by a champagne bottle? This is my favourite of the Chicago skyline, and not merely for its 24 karat gold accents; the bronze grills at the entry are also gorgeous.
- Chicago Magnificent Mile – A 42-storey extravaganza that opened in 1929, just before the devastating stock market crash, as the site of the Shriners’ (yes) Medinah Athletic Club. How many hotels do you know that are topped by a golden Moor-influenced dome originally intended as an early version of a helicopter landing pad? Yes, the building was designed with a rooftop docking port for dirigible airships – until, that is, the Hindenburg crash adversely influenced peoples’ views on travelling by blimps.
- Marquette Building – Completed in 1895 and on the US Historic Register, the Marquette Building lobby at 140 S Dearborn is a piece of art and you’ll find yet more Tiffany & Co. craftsmanship inside.
- Marshall Field and Company Building – Now a Macy’s department store on State Street, all of its almost two million feet were astutely protected from “refurbishment” by virtue of 2005 designation as a Chicago Landmark. This building is also on its country’s National Register of Historic Places, and I can just imagine Delia Elizabeth and her grandchildren enjoying a festive lunch in the Walnut Room.
- Palmer House – Whether or not you’d like to stay here as a guest, enjoy a drink in the lobby, or simply stroll through, make the time for a visit.
- Tribune Tower – I admired this building for the stones, inserted around the exterior, that are fragments from a range of international landmarks. Think of The Alamo, Angkor Wat, the Berlin Wall, the Colosseum, Dublin’s Old General Post Office, Edinburgh Castle, the Great Pyramid of Gaza, the Great Wall of China, London’s House of Commons, Notre Dame de Paris, the Parthenon, Semair de Quebec, Suleiman Mosque, the Taj Mahal … and on and on the list goes. Then I stepped inside, and was truly in love.
- Wrigley Building – Apart from being a Chicago icon and, yes, associated with the chewing gum, its plaza entrance is clearly a popular spot for wedding photos. This skyscraper is also on Michigan Avenue, across the street from the Tribune Tower. You’ll see I enjoyed capturing images of its clock tower.
WHILE YOU’RE THERE …
You’ll want to visit Millennium Park with the Bean and the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink. Stroll down to Navy Pier and, while you’re in the area, take in a river cruise. Make time for the Museum of Contemporary Art, and more. I tried Blue Chicago for its jazz, but would make a point of visiting Kingston Mines on another visit. Old Town, much of which was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1871, makes for an interesting walk with an eclectic range of homes and businesses, including The Spice House; I brought home a few internationally derived spices that are named for Chicago neighbourhoods. Next, I popped in to Nookies on Wells (there are four locations) for a late brunch before leaving for Lincoln Park. I’d not heard of the diner before, but correctly read the line up as an indicator of its popularity.
Shake Shack, which originated in Manhattan, opened in Chicago (Ohio at Rush) the week of my arrival and was packed; it made for a good quick bite in a lively atmosphere. My first night in town, despite having heard that Chicago Deep Dish pizzas are primarily a tourist thing, I stopped in to Gino’s East Village. While I returned with renewed appreciation for the pizza dough recipe on which we’ve relied for some time now, dinner was fine, and the service, atmosphere and company were great.
There’s so much to explore in Chicago that budgeting your time may be a challenge; be sure, though, to visit the Art Institute of Chicago, which proudly proclaims its (Trip Advisor) standing as the number one museum in the world.
Eno Wine Bar in the Chicago Magnificent Mile has a well deserved reputation, as does the Purple Pig (500 North Michigan Avenue, by East Illinois Street) across the street from the hotel. You’ll want to know that the Purple Pig, known for “cheese, swine and wine” along with communal tables, does not accept reservations; you can, though, leave your name with staff – who will give you a good sense of how much time you can shop or window shop along the Magnificent Mile while awaiting your table. It’s worth the wait, and I visited this spot – voted by Bon Appetite Magazine in 2010 as one of the top 10 best new restaurants in the US – twice. The city’s friendliness extends to fellow travellers, as well; although ostensibly dining alone on some occasions, I enjoyed those meals all the more for meeting fellow travellers from Dallas, New York and Washington, DC; you’ll see Wendy and Chris, below, with David of the Purple Pig.
Would I Stay There Again?
Oh, yes. A return visit to Chicago is in order, and I’d readily stay at the InterContinental Chicago Magnificent Mile, Palmer House Hilton or a couple of other older gems. I’ve yet to see Soldier or Wrigley Fields, or watch the Bears, Blackhawks, Bulls, Cubs or White Sox at play and, while able to pack in a fair bit of sightseeing during a short stay, there are more buildings to visit, music to enjoy, and great locals to meet.
Perspectives are entirely those of the Exceptional EA.
You may also be interested in …
Shelagh’s Lens travel photography, which also has images of this stay in Chicago
(Almost) Everything You Wanted to Know About Travel Planning (exceptionalea.com)
Travel Apps for Exceptional Assistants (exceptionalea.com)