Gracefully separated from Lake Michigan by an unbroken string of parks, beaches, marinas and museums, Chicago is a textbook of 20th-century architecture and one of the country’s loveliest metropolises. Visitors discover a clean, cosmopolitan city with excellent shopping, unique restaurants and a thriving cultural scene. The talented labor pool wasn’t the only reason I chose to open the Andrew Harper Travel Office in Chicago. It’s simply one of my favorite cities in the world.
Conveniently, many top attractions cluster in the Loop, a skyscraper district around which all “L” train lines circle, and the adjacent River North neighborhood, home to the shopping of Michigan Avenue and Oak Street, as well as all of my recommended hotels. It would be possible to enjoy a rewarding vacation without ever leaving these areas. The neoclassical Field Museum of Natural History has an endlessly diverting collection, and the neighboring Shedd Aquarium ranks as the largest indoor aquarium in the world. Families flock to both, making it wise to purchase tickets in advance, especially on weekends. Nearby, the world-class Art Institute of Chicago contains an array of Impressionist masterpieces (including Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”), plus iconic American works by the likes of Edward Hopper (“Nighthawks”) and Grant Wood (“American Gothic”). A Renzo Piano-designed wing that opened in 2009 added space for a collection of modern pieces, temporary exhibitions and a fine café. A pedestrian bridge arcs from the Art Institute to Millennium Park with its well-tended gardens, dramatic fountains, Anish Kapoor’s wildly popular “Cloud Gate” sculpture, and a Frank Gehry-designed bandshell. In the summer, it’s bliss to bring a picnic and to listen to a classical concert as the sun sets behind the magnificent skyline.
Despite all of these riches downtown, it would be a shame never to venture into the neighborhoods beyond.
Despite all of these riches downtown, it would be a shame never to venture into the neighborhoods beyond. To the north, Lincoln Park contains the graceful Conservatory with exotic plants from around the world, as well as the Green City Market, Chicago’s best weekly farmers’ market. Farther on, in Lakeview, devoted baseball fans endure repeated disappointment at historic Wrigley Field, home to the beloved Cubs. And cozy Andersonville draws connoisseurs to its microbrewery, craft distillery and delightful storefront restaurants. To the west, the Loop gives way to a lively nightlife district along Randolph Street, and a little-known gallery district along Grand Avenue. Logan Square has emerged as an unlikely gourmet and craft cocktail destination. Continuing west, Oak Park contains notable Frank Lloyd Wright architecture, including his former home and studio. And to the south, the gentrifying neighborhoods of Pilsen and Bronzeville lead down to Hyde Park, dominated by the neo-Gothic architecture of The University of Chicago and the immense Beaux Arts Museum of Science and Industry. Fans of “The Devil in the White City,” Erik Larson’s dark best-seller about the 1893 World’s Fair, will no doubt want to stroll along the nearby Midway Plaisance.
Three of my favorite Chicago hotels, the Four Seasons, The Peninsula and the Waldorf Astoria, cluster near the northern end of Michigan Avenue. I’ve revisited each of these properties within the last year or two, and I continue to wholeheartedly recommend them. The recently renovated Four Seasons has fine views from most of its rooms and a beautiful new collection of contemporary art in its public spaces. The Peninsula has maintained its immaculate accommodations and glamorous indoor rooftop pool. And the Waldorf Astoria has the same chic ambience and tucked-away location that first drew me to the hotel when it opened in 2012.
A 10-minute walk south stands the newest addition to Chicago’s luxury hotel scene. The Langham occupies the first 13 floors of a landmark black Mies van der Rohe tower, a former IBM office building on the north bank of the Chicago River. Here, the décor emphasizes clean lines and simple, dramatic forms, enlivened by touches of opulence. In the two-story lobby, for example, a bronze bead curtain surrounds white cubic armchairs, cylindrical floor lamps and an elongated marble bust by Jaume Plensa. Similarly eye-catching contemporary art decorates every public space.
A cheerful greeter showed us to the elevators and directed us to the club floor lounge, an amenity that distinguishes The Langham from competing Chicago properties. Guests who reserve club-level accommodations, set in the highest floors of the hotel, have a private check-in and checkout, as well as access to a complimentary hot breakfast buffet, midday snacks, teatime pastries and finger sandwiches, and evening canapés and cocktails. The lounge proved to be a delightful space in which to relax, with comfortable contemporary couches and armchairs in creams and grays and punctuated by dramatic midcentury modern chandeliers, built-in bookshelves and room dividers. Its view of the river from the 13th floor makes it an ideal place from which to observe events such as the water being dyed bright green for St. Patrick’s Day, and the new Great Chicago Fire Festival, which culminates in the burning of large model buildings floating in the river.
We were escorted to our Executive Club Room one floor below, and were delighted to discover a bright, expansive and thoughtfully designed space, with the floor-to-ceiling windows found throughout the building. Touches of black and olive green accented the neutrals of the exceedingly comfortable room, which had a love seat, writing desk, armchair and ottoman, in addition to the king bed. Dual vanities done in spectacular Alaskan white granite centerpieced the bath, which provided a soaking tub contained within a large travertine walk-in shower. With the flip of a switch, the glass wall next to the tub would change from cloudy to transparent, providing either privacy or views of downtown Chicago.
A beautifully presented room service lunch arrived within 30 minutes as promised. Another staffer picked up our pressing at the same time as the lunch delivery, so we were only disturbed once. The only occasion service faltered was after dinner, when we were settling into an already turned-down bed. A staffer knocked on the door and asked whether we needed anything else, an unnecessary if well-intentioned gesture that seemed rather intrusive at the time.
I was left in no doubt that The Langham is well able to compete with the best of Chicago’s luxury hotels.
Dinner in Travelle, The Langham’s Mediterranean main restaurant, was pleasant but inconsistent. The prime river view is allocated to the stylish bar, leaving Travelle overlooking the spiral parking garages of the Marina City towers. Even so, the midcentury décor and low lighting made for a romantic atmosphere. Some dishes left us overwhelmed, such as the “Zaatar Tartar” appetizer, an immense portion of tangy beef tartare accompanied by thick slices of toast slathered with bone marrow. But others, like the perfectly cooked lamb chops with carrot-caraway yogurt and sumac-dusted onions, and the sea trout with heirloom sweet potatoes, watermelon radishes, shishito peppers and mustard jus, were memorably delicious.
The Langham has one of the loveliest spas in Chicago, the 22,000-square-foot Chuan, with a range of treatments inspired by traditional Chinese medicine. We didn’t indulge in massages during our stay, but spent a very pleasant couple of hours taking advantage of the saunas, steam rooms and relaxation lounges. Past the well-equipped fitness room, a 67-foot lap pool is illuminated by a constellation of small crystal lights in the ceiling and surrounded by translucent windows and ginkgo-leaf bas reliefs on the walls. Service here, too, was friendly and helpful. Overall, I was left in no doubt that The Langham is well able to compete with the best of Chicago’s luxury hotels.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: The relaxing club floor lounge; the immaculate spa; the stylish décor; the cheery and anticipatory service.
DISLIKE: The inconsistent cuisine in the Travelle restaurant.
GOOD TO KNOW: My other recommended hotels are closer to the best shopping, but The Langham is nearer to better restaurants.
The Langham 94 Club King Room, $815; Club Executive Suite, $965. 330 North Wabash Avenue. Tel. (312) 923-9988.
The eclectic style fits with the Soho House’s mission, which aims to “assemble communities of members that have something in common: namely, a creative soul.”
I have long been in search of a boutique alternative to the city’s larger properties, so on my recent visit, I also checked into the new Soho House, which opened last September. This 40-room hotel and private club occupies a converted early 20th-century belt factory in the heart of the leading restaurant district. (Favorites such as Girl & the Goat, The Publican, Next, Sepia, avec and Blackbird are all within easy walking distance.) The warehouse setting gives guest rooms and public spaces high ceilings and broad expanses of window. The property’s cozy décor is an unorthodox but successful mix of midcentury modern and steampunk. This eclectic style fits with the Soho House’s mission, which, according to its website, aims to “assemble communities of members that have something in common: namely, a creative soul.” Business attire is discouraged, and the club lounge is populated largely by 30- and 40-somethings engrossed in their MacBooks.
Nevertheless, my initial impressions were positive. I quite enjoyed catching up on some reading in the large and comfortable club lounge, decorated with reclaimed wood floors, eclectic armchairs, midcentury light fixtures, Danish modern tables, a woodburning fireplace and an undulating green banquette. Our 600-square-foot Big Bedroom, the largest category in the hotel, came with a huge crystal chandelier and carefully selected furnishings that mixed late 19th-century and midcentury styles. I especially liked the bath, with its large round ottoman flanked by a chrome-legged dual marble vanity and a freestanding tub. In the spacious shower stall trimmed in brown glass subway tiles, we discovered no fewer than nine body washes, shampoos and conditioners from the Cowshed Spa on the ground floor. The gym, however, ventures into kitsch. With a leather-roped boxing ring, leather medicine balls and leather-clad pommel horse among other workout equipment, it seems better suited to Edwardian pugilists than to contemporary fitness buffs.
Alas, the service failed to meet expectations, and the staff’s friendliness became irritatingly casual at times. In the Italian grill, I enjoyed my kale salad and fresh salmon fillet with sofrito and cannellini beans, but the waitress addressed me throughout as “dear” and “darling.” In the more formal Tavern Restaurant, the waiters wear white coats and bow ties, but somehow their attire seemed more a costume than a uniform. The staff behave as though they are actors in a play about a smart hotel, rather than people actually working in one. Young-at-heart guests who wish to be in the thick of the West Randolph Street restaurant district might enjoy the Soho House, but most Harper subscribers will be happier at one of my recommendations in River North. The Langham, The Peninsula, the Four Seasons and the Waldorf Astoria may cost more, but the additional expense is entirely justified.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: The skyline-view rooftop pool; the location; the price.
DISLIKE: The casual and inexpert service.
GOOD TO KNOW: Though we saw guests in their 50s and 60s, the property is chiefly geared toward younger “creative” patrons.
Soho House 89 Medium Plus Bedroom, $440; Big Bedroom, $520. 113-125 North Green Street. Tel. (312) 521-8000.
A version of this article appeared in the March 2015 print edition of Andrew Harper’s Hideaway Report under the headline “Chicago's Enduring Appeal.”