CHICAGO -- I grew up in Chicago and still go there often. But since I’m visiting my family, I rarely stay in hotels.
Friends post on Facebook about their weekends at the historic Burnham or the boutique James, the bargain Days Inn or the glitzy Wit; it all sounds very “downtown” and exotic compared with my mom’s suburban townhouse.
Recently, overcome with envy — and “on assignment” — I booked rooms at three Chicago hotels, all opened within the last year. Each of these newcomers has its own style, price point and charm.
It was a hectic trip, what with changing hotels each day, but it turned out to be a great way to experience three distinct parts of the city — Lincoln Park, with few hotels; the east Loop, which is thick with ‘em, and the walkable River North district.
Vital stats: 1816 N. Clark St., at the bottom of the “V” where Clark and Lincoln converge, across the street from Lincoln Park and its famous zoo; 184 rooms. 312-254-4700; www.hotellincolnchicago.com.
Vibe: Retro, with a healthy splash of kitsch. Garage-sale paintings adorn a lobby stairwell, and Chicago-specific photos and art decorate the rooms.
Details: The lobby, which adjoins Elaine’s coffee shop and Perennial Virant, chef Paul Virant’s farm-to-table restaurant, makes an appealing hangout.
My 10th-floor room was small but nicely appointed, with zillion-thread-count white sheets, 27 pillows, flat-screen TV, Wi-Fi and comfy rolling office chair. Its single window overlooked Lincoln Park and the lake. A gorgeous Sunday afternoon lured me outside, where the hotel has free bikes for customer use.
Pocketbook issues: Total bill for one night in my single-king-bed room was $406, with no room service or minibar raiding. I’ve seen online offers at about half that rate, which is more in line with what it’s worth. At $406, it’s drastically overpriced, especially for a non-Loop location.
RADISSON BLUE AQUA
Vital stats: 221 N. Columbus Dr., just east of the Loop and south of the river in the massive Lakeshore East development above the old Illinois Central rail yards; 334 rooms. 312-565-5258; www.radissonblu.com/aquahotel-chicago.
Vibe: Spare and clean, with sizable splashes of elegance and contemporary design.
Details: Bribe someone to get yourself booked here for an expenses-paid convention. Or simply splurge for a couple of nights with your sweetie. It is the first Blu in North America; the second is set to open at the Mall of America in Minneapolis next March.
The hotel occupies the first 18 floors of an 82-floor apartment tower by Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang Architects, one of the more beautiful tall buildings in a city with an outsized share of the world’s tall buildings. You will run down your camera’s battery shooting the wavy, shape-shifting balconies of the exterior from every angle and in every light.
A sleek blue-and-white check-in area at street level gives way to a giant bronze-and-gold fireplace lobby that doesn’t seem to fit with the hotel’s name, but which makes a lot of sense in a city with long, blustery winters.
My corner room had floor-to-ceiling windows and a walkout balcony with views of both the city and Navy Pier. Inside, the bare wood floors, blond built-in cabinets and giant, glassy, white bathroom made me think I was in a luxe condo in Copenhagen. You’ll need to fight the temptation to stay in your handsome room.
Hit the second and third floors for a fitness complex that includes indoor and outdoor swimming, a half-basketball court, sauna and steam rooms, locker rooms, cardio rooms and weights. A massive outdoor seating and walking area includes barbecue grills and windproof love nests. I did my morning run on the 1/5-mile cushioned outdoor track, with unmatched views of tall buildings and sun-struck Lake Michigan.
Pocketbook issues: Total bill for one night in a corner room with walkout balcony was $458, which included a lavish, so-worth-it, room-service breakfast priced at $26. For Chicago, this is an expensive option, but it’s a splurge you won’t regret.
Vital stats: 15 E. Ohio St., in River North, two blocks from the Magnificent Mile shopping district on Michigan Avenue; 130 rooms. 312-894-0800; www.acmehotelcompany.com.
Vibe: Funky, arty, with lava lamps in the lobby and logo bathrobes fit for the boxing ring.
Details: This old-building conversion was the least expensive of my three hotels, and it showed in things like an AmericInn-style breakfast and a “workout center” that was a cage in the basement with a vending machine nearby. My room, though small, had a comfy bed and was nicely decked out in the now-common “Ace-like” manner: masculine, industrial fixtures mashed up with retro lamps, midcentury office chair, Wi-Fi, flat-screen TV and non-corporate artwork. Location-wise, however, the Acme puts you in a very desirable and walkable area.
Pocketbook issues: Total bill for one night in a room with a king bed was $221, which included no extras.