With its soaring skyline rising up next to Lake Michigan, few cities pack the visual punch that Chicago does. And these buildings aren’t just tall, they’re beautiful too — the Midwest metropolis is a real trove of architecture, with hotels some of its most prized treasures. Chicago’s hotel scene has undergone a surge in recent years, and not just in cookie-cutter hotel chains; among the new openings are several innovative renovations. Many of them are architectural landmarks in their own right, including a skyscraper from the halcyon era just after the 1893 World’s Fair, or a former American Football team’s building with spectacular views over Grant Park and the lake. And while room rates can rocket as high as the hotels themselves, many of the city’s vibrant, atmospheric digs are well worth checking out, even if you don’t check in.
For deco decadence: The Gwen (£££)
This hotel is loosely themed around sculptor and designer Gwen Lux, who created the art deco bas-reliefs of the building that once stood on this spot. And it goes big on art installations; some are Lux originals, some replicas, others are something else entirely. The open-plan lobby sparkles with Gatsby-esque glamour, giving way to a terrace that has a mini curling rink in winter. The rooms are decadently deco, with shimmery curtains and Lux’s designs adorning the walls. Rooms: Doubles from $201 (£158), room only.
For fun & games: Chicago Athletic Association (£££)
In a city full of staggering lobbies, the Chicago Athletic Association’s trumps the lot. A gothic symphony of dark wood arches, ornate fireplaces, intricately tiled floors and stained glass, it leads through to the Game Room. Way more fun than a hotel bar has any right to be, it offers shuffleboard, bocce, table football and pool. Many of the guest rooms, meanwhile, contain pommel horse-style seats — a further nod to the hotel’s origins as home to one of the city’s American football teams. Rooms: Doubles from $139 (£109), room only, plus $25 (£20) amenity fee.
For geek chic: Hotel EMC2 (£)
You know your hotel’s a bit different when a robot brings towels to your room. Inspired by a vintage laboratory, the EMC2’s lobby has microscopes converted into lamps; guest rooms feature test tube-style night lights and a metallic horn amplifier that converts your phone into a gramophone. Meanwhile, Amazon Alexas perform a supplementary concierge service, and the front desk responds to requests via text message. Rooms: Doubles from $107 (£84), room only.
For making a splash: InterContinental Chicago Magnificent Mile (££)
When it opened in 1929, the Medinah Athletic Club was a gentlemen’s club that was opulent even by the standards of the day. The hotel that now occupies the site has kept this spirit alive, retaining the original 14th-floor pool, surrounded by tile art, stained glass windows, viewing terraces and classical sculptures. Rooms: Doubles from $125 (£98), room only.
For high-rise hijinks: Staypineapple, An Iconic Hotel, The Loop Chicago (££)
The Reliance Building was one of the world’s earliest skyscrapers before becoming a hotel. It’s retained the original marble floors and staircase, as well as the doors on the upper storeys. Thankfully, though, the vibe is fun rather than fusty. Expect big pineapple-shaped decks of plugs and USB sockets, bright yellow umbrellas and ‘do not disturb’ signs that read: ‘I’m Naked (Please Go Away)’. Rooms: Doubles from $119 (£93), room only, plus $10 (£8) amenity fee.
For rooms with a view: The Robey (££)
Located in the hip Wicker Park hood, The Robey is set within a former office building dotted with 1920s flourishes. Original frosted glass doors, deco mirrors and old-style clock radios combine to create a vintage feel, but it’s the phenomenal views that are the true highlight. This is doubly the case from the rooftop bar, which has a ludicrous-but-cute, belfry-style seating booth that’s definitely worth nabbing. Rooms: Doubles from $135 (£106), room only.
For brooding boudoirs: Viceroy Chicago (££)
It’s clear from the 30ft tableau of Marcel Proust quotes in the lobby that the Viceroy does things a little differently. The brick-and-terracotta facade from the hotel’s days as the Cedar Hotel has been retained in front of the new glass tower. Inside, rooms are rich and moody with polished wood, custom furniture and gold tiled walls that wouldn’t look out of place in an Aztec palace. The rooftop pool is compact, but great for a quick dip on a hot day. Rooms: Doubles from $149 (£117), room only.
For neighbourhood vibes: The Willows (£)
Close to the iconic Wrigley Field baseball stadium and Lincoln Park, Lakeview East is dotted with unpretentious neighbourhood hangouts. In among all this is The Willows, set within a charming old mansion full of art nouveau flourishes. The lobby features an open fire and bizarre old-fashioned pictures of animals in suits, while rooms are suave affairs, full of leather and dark wood. Rooms: Doubles from $67 (£53), B&B.
For cheap & chic: Club Quarters Hotel – Wacker at Michigan (£)
Located on the upper floors of a building that was once Chicago’s tallest, Club Quarters’ rooms are rather drab and functional, but the location is sensational. Sitting on a kink on the Chicago River, opposite architectural icons such as Marina City, the Tribune Tower and The Wrigley Building, it’s at least half the price of most neighbouring hotels. Rooms: Doubles from $71 (£56), room only.
For park life: Hotel Lincoln (£)
Opposite Lincoln Park — Chicago’s biggest, home to such attractions as a zoo and the Chicago History Museum — Hotel Lincoln exudes a boisterous, fun vibe. One wall of reception is given over to ‘bad art’, images of Abraham Lincoln hang above the beds, and seats are covered in fabric printed with poster designs. The free-to-use bikes in the warmer months are a nice touch. Rooms: Doubles from $89 (£70), room only, plus a $15 (£12) amenity charge.
All hotel rooms have an additional tax of 17.4%
Published in the April 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)