First in series that updates “downtown” Chicago hotels

 

Chicago is high on the list of travelers destinations. (Photos by J Jacobs)
Chicago is high on the list of travelers destinations. (Photo by J Jacobs)

As a Chicago-based  travel writer I’m constantly receiving notices of new hotels going up, remodeling taking place at older, established hotels and changes being made regarding check-in conveniences, a TV’s room information and hotel  restaurant options.

They range from comparatively inexpensive to high end, large, convention-sized lobbies and meeting rooms to boutique size with small lobbies and little meeting space. And from casual, pick up and go breakfast bars to open-kitchen designed trendy-food emporiums.

There are about 25 ot choose from just in the Loop, another 13 hotels on and near the Mag Mile (Northern Michigan Avenue from the Chicago River to Oak Street (Oak is also considered the Gold  Coast). Another 25 hotels are in the River North Area just west of Michigan Avenue.

All of that means Chicago visitors have an abundance of choices.  Some travelers may consider that good news. Others might find it overwhelming. Fortunately, Choose Chicago, the city’s tourism website the hotel category is broken down by area type and other options.

But travelers should be aware that even when supposedly speaking the same language, hotel and room descriptions translate differently to listeners and speakers.

Having unpacked in all sorts of accommodations in the US and abroad, I have found that words such as roomy, with a view and convenient to sights and shopping, may mean one thing to a traveler and something different to hotel managers and public relations or sales agents.

I found out that a view of the Eiffel Tower in Paris or Lake Michigan in Chicago meant if you walked out onto the balcony and craned the neck you probably could glimpse the famed structure or crammed into a corner of the room and stood on tiptoe you could get a glimpse of Lake Michigan.

The big question is – are new and remodeled hotels meeting the needs and wants of business and vacation visitors today? The first quarter of the 21st century saw big changes in electronic communications and food and exercise trends.

Please give input in the comment area or send an email to jjtravelsmart@gmail.comof what you look for in a hotel. Email addresses will not be shared. Comments will be helpful when looking at other Chicago hotels.

The hotel series will look at new and updated downtown Chicago hotels starting with Aloft Chicago Mag Mile and  Hotel Julian,  two boutique hotels that opened in October 2018.

 

Aloft Chicago Mag Mile and Hotel Julian

If looking for a new boutique hotel that is near some of downtown Chicago’s sights you will find two excellent options in Aloft Chicago Mag Mile and Hotel Julian.

I liked them both for different reasons but what surprised me when visiting them when they opened was room size. They both were what people in real estate use when describing small houses – cozy.

Compared to some hotel rooms I’ve stayed at in good European hotels, the rooms probably could be described as spacious but Americans might describe them as efficient. The room sizes and accompanying narrow desk and closet space are following a trend I’ve noticed in other recently redeveloped Chicago buildings turned into hotels such as the London House.

What the two hotels lack in room size, and size is merely a judgment call, they make up in good vibes and good location.

 

Aloft Chicago Mag Mile

Aloft Chicago Mag Mile goes for modern art decor (Aloft photo)
Aloft Chicago Mag Mile goes for modern art decor (Aloft photo)

The hotel sits where the Museum of contemporary Art resided before it moved a few blocks north. It does not overlook Michigan Avenue in spite of its title but it is a few blocks east so is within easy walking distance of the Water Tower Place (indoor shopping mall), the John Hancock Building’s 360 Observation Floor, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Navy Pier (Includes Chicago Shakespeare Theater), Lookingglass Theatre and the Dreihaus Museum.

Restaurants of all cuisines and price points are also nearby.

For” time-out” from running around, the hotel has a pool, an airy fitness center that has two Peloton Bikes, a lobby where board games are set out ready to use and a bar where people in the neighborhood stop by.

Meet Corgan, a robot "bowtler" at Aloft Chicago Mag Mile. (Photo by J Jacobs)
Meet Corgan, a robot “bowtler” at Aloft
Chicago Mag Mile. (Photo by J Jacobs)

Its restaurant, Re:Fuel, is basically a pick-up and go type, self-serve food bar available 24-7 and WI-FI is free throughout the hotel. A hotel guest looked comfortable working on his lap top in the food bar area.

The vibe here is fun. Corrigan, a robot “bowtler” instead of a butler, mingles with lobby guests, tells jokes and when programed at the desk, delivers items to rooms upon request. there is also music on Friday and Saturday.

Visitors who appreciate modern art and good design that incorporates light and bright colors in halls, nooks, rugs and in room and lobby spaces will find this hotel to be a comfortable home while in the city. Aloft Chicago Mag Mile is  at 243 E. Ontario St., Chicago, IL 600611

 

 

 

 

Hotel Julian

Hotel Julian room. (Hotel Julian photo)
Hotel Julian room. (Hotel Julian photo)

The hotel has moved into and risen in the historic Atlantic Bank Building on the west side Michigan Avenue just north of Millennium Park.

Designed by famed architect Benjamin Marshall and completed in 1916, it had just 12 of its originally planned 17 floors built.

Now, the Oxford Capital Group that recently redid the London House building as a hotel at Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive, has beautifully redone the terra cotta clad structure and added five floors with floor to ceiling windows.

Confined by the building original bones, public and private spaces are narrow but from the gourmet “About Last Knife” dining space to the contemporary-designed rooms the descriptive word could be “sleek.” High ceilings make the rooms look and feel larger than they are. The fitness room is small but has a Peloton Bike.

Some rooms at Hotel Julian have a partial view of Millennium Park. (J Jacobs photo)
Some rooms at Hotel Julian have a partial view of Millennium Park. (J Jacobs photo)

A side benefit of adapting needs to space is that instead of an ironing board rooms have steamers. In our family this means not having to hang clothes in the bathroom and turning the shower to hot.

Positioned in the market as a luxury hotel, it has Frette linen and robes and Panpuri bath products designed for the hotel.

Named for the patron saint of travelers, Hotel Julian is well situated for visitors who want to see the Art Institute of Chicago or Cloud Gate (The Bean) and activities in Millennium Park while in town.

It is also near the Theatre District’s shows at Goodman TheatreChicago Theatre and the Broadway in Chicago productions at the Ford Oriental Theatre, all a few  blocks  west of the hotel.

Hotel Julian is at 168 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Illinois 60601

 

 

 

 

 

 

Five top things to do now in Chicago

Chicago simply does not stay still long enough to make any experience old or boring.

It doesn’t matter if you have visited Chicago or are now thinking of putting the city on your summer vacation list. Chicago simply does not stay still long enough to make any experience old or boring.

A tourist notes the "Bean" arch and reflections
A tourist notes the "Bean" arch and reflections

Millennium Park, home to the city’s famed “Cloud Gate” (“The Bean”) and Jay Pritzker Pavilion, keeps adding and changing sculptures and concerts.

The Art Institute of Chicago, connected to Millennium Park by the Sky Bridge over Monroe, moves from one block buster exhibition to the next. The theater scene, home of 200 live stage companies including Goodman and Steppenwolf Theatres and Broadway productions, keep turning out Jeff and Tony award winners.

Just as important, new restaurants pop up weekly and new and remodeled hotels cater to today’s plugged-in generation and suburbanites who want to take advantage of Chicago’s downtown attractions.

With so much going on, planning a weekend can either be fun or a challenge. Here are five top Chicago destinations that can be centerpieces of a great vacation minus the confusing what-to-do part.

Look for Marc Chagall's windows at the east end of the Art Institute of Chicago
Look for Marc Chagall's windows at the east end of the Art Institute of Chicago
  1. You don’t have to know anything about art to find something fascinating at the Art Institute of Chicago.  The world-class museum happens to be showcasing French Impressionism from the Musee d’Orsay, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and its own collection now through Sept. 29, 2013. However, adults and youngsters ooh and ah at the miniature furniture and interiors in the Thorne Rooms and Medieval arms and armor.
  2. If you make it to Chicago before Aug. 18 you can still catch Goodman’s beautiful production of “The Jungle Book.”  Another hot 2013 ticket is the “Book of Mormon.” At the Bank of America Theater through Oct. 06, 2013. This is  the writers’ and director’s recently revised production which many critics think is even better than the original.
  3. Visitors often talk about and recommend the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s river boat tour. However if the price or times don’t match your pocket book or schedule you’ll do fine with the other boat companies’ architecture tours.  If you don’t mind walking you’ll like the Architecture Foundation’s tours that go inside buildings.

    If you can't ID these Chicago landmarks now you will be able to after you take the Film Tour or an architecture boat ride.
    If you can't ID these Chicago landmarks now you will be able to after you take the Film Tour or an architecture boat ride.
  4. Movie and television producers love Chicago. To see where some of the 80 movies set in Chicago were shot such as “Dark Knight” and “Blues Brothers” take the Chicago Film Tour. The guides are knowledgeable. You see parts of Chicago that even locals have not visited. And you see clips on the bus while traveling.
  5. You’ve heard of China Town, which is fun and interesting. But other Chicago neighborhoods also have their own character and unique restaurants. You can learn more about the city and explore some of its culinary scene with Chicago Tours and Sidewalk Tours.

Enjoy Chicago!

Photos (C) by Jodie Jacobs

For More endless summer ideas visit summer blogs

Three reasons to go to Navy Pier second weekend of August

Board a Tall Ship and sail on a schooner or watch an America’s Cup style race and see amazing Cirque aerial acts at Navy Pier

Imagine boarding a square rig warship like the one Commander Oliver Hazard Perry sailed when winning the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812.

Board Pride of Baltimore II seen here when it arrives at Navy Pier in Chicago
Board Pride of Baltimore II seen here when it arrives at Navy Pier in Chicago

Or, picture seeing exciting jockeying for position among boats from five countries in Match Races.

Add in a chance to watch amazing Cirque acrobatics on a 1.5 mile pier that once housed World War I regiments and World War II troops from several countries.

The events happen the second weekend in August at Chicago’s Navy Pier, a historic site that is also home to popular restaurants, a large Ferris wheel and other entertainment venues.

Tall Ships

Six tall ships from as far as Baltimore, Erie and Newport Beach and as close as South Haven and Chicago are sailing to Navy Pier for Taste of Tall Ships Aug. 11-14, 2011.

Board or sail out onto Lake Michigan on a Tall Ship the second weekend of August
Board or sail out onto Lake Michigan on a Tall Ship the second weekend of August

Two of them – Perry’s Flagship Niagara and the topsail schooner Pride of Baltimore II, will be available for boarding.

Friends Good Will, a square topsail sloop with a South Haven, Mich. port and Lynx, a square topsail schooner from Newport Beach, Calif., plus Chicago-based gaff schooners Windy and Red Witch will take passengers out onto Lake Michigan.

Boarding prices are $9 adults, $6 children. A combo ticket of boarding and three Navy Pier rides are $16 adults and $13 children. Boarding hours are 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Aug. 11-13 and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Aug. 14.

Sail away prices and times vary according to ship and length of sail. Sail-away tickets are also available on “Windy” in combination with boarding “Flagship Niagara” or “Pride of Baltimore II.” More ticket information

Chicago Match Race

At the east end of Navy Pier bleachers will be set up for free viewing of the Chicago Grade 2 Match Race. The competition is America’s Cup style racing to give 10 internationally ranked sailing teams match race practice. Qualifying rounds are Aug. 12 followed by semi-finals Aug. 13 and finals on Aug. 14.

Cirque Shanghai Extreme

Cirque Shanghai Extreme is at the Pier’s Pepsi® Skyline Stage® now until Sept. 5 . Go to the show to see  trapeze artists, aerial acts, motorcycle daredevils and Kung Fu sword fight displays.

More than a mile of attractions has made Navy Pier a top visitor destination in Chicago and Illinois
More than a mile of attractions has made Navy Pier a top visitor destination in Chicago and Illinois

About Navy Pier

Navy Pier was part of famed city planner Daniel Burnham’s 1909 “Master Plan of Chicago.” The 1.5 mile pier was built from 1914 to 1916. Originally called the Municipal Pier, it was renamed Navy Pier in 1927 in tribute to World War I Navy personnel. World War II military pilots trained at the pier as did sailors and technicians. After the war, the University of Illinois had a branch at the pier until 1965. However, the Pier was also designed to include entertainment venues.

Today, visitors can go to a Shakespearean theater, dine at famed Harry Caray’s or Billy Goat Tavern and browse a free stained glass window museum.

Getting there

Navy Pier is at Lake Michigan at the east end of both Illinois Street and Grand Avenue. Parking is available however CTA buses do go there from the Ogilvie Transportation Center (Metra) and Union Station.

Photos are courtesy of Navy Pier

Five ways to make the airport leg of your trip more fun

The flying portion of your holiday trip can be enjoyed instead of merely endured.

Yes, security lines will probably be long this holiday season and you will have to adjust your packing to what can be brought on board. But that doesn’t mean the flying portion of your holiday trip is something to be endured instead of enjoyed.

DFW Ambassador Volunteer Nancy Baltimore watches for people who need help or look lost
DFW Ambassador Volunteer Nancy Baltimore watches for people who need help or look lost

Airports have changed over the past decade as they have become more aware of travelers’ needs.

Taking advantage of the changes is easier today than even a few years ago thanks to electronic devices that tell you where the good stuff is.

With a click of an internet link you can find out about an airport’s amenities before you leave home or from touch screens and information specialists when you arrive.

Here are five suggestions that can up the level of your airport experience:

1. It’s child’s play. If traveling with children, go to the airport’s website to see if and where there is a play area.

The Children's Museum area of O'Hare's Terminal 2 has models of familiar airport items
The Children's Museum area of O'Hare's Terminal 2 has models of familiar airport items

In Chicago, O’Hare International Airport has an airplane and other airport related build-outs for let’s pretend and role-playing. They are in the Children’s Museum area of Terminal 2 across from the Travelers Aid Office. The area is accessible to Terminals 3 and 1 after going through security.

The Dallas-Fort Worth Airport has a McDonald’s Play Area in Terminal D near gate D33 and another children’s play area at D10.  DFW also has a Pepsi Junior Flyer’s Club in Terminals B and C.

A touch screen directory at each end of The Mall at Minneapolis-St.Paul Airport helps travelers locate food, shops and services
A touch screen directory at each end of The Mall at Minneapolis-St.Paul Airport helps travelers locate food, shops and services

2. Sometimes it’s about the food.

Although this traveler does not miss the often strange and limited plane food service that once was part of the ticket price, now that airlines charge extra a good option is to plan to eat or buy food to go at the airport.

The problem is if you don’t know what food kiosks or restaurants are in your terminal  or near your gate you might merely snag something at hand and find out later there was a better choice.

Many airport websites list food kiosks and restaurants so you can think about options and know the locations ahead of time.

Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airportis so traveler friendly it has everything from food and shopping to parking options on its website and at vertical touch screens at the airport. It also has goHow, a free, downloadable application.

In addition, food coupons can be downloaded and printed for some choices.  The touch screens are at either end of the shopping and food mall in Lindbergh, the airport’s main terminal.

Airport stores are loaded with good gift items for the traveler who has run out of shopping time or who wants to have fun shopping while waiting to board a plane
Airport stores are loaded with good gift items for the traveler who has run out of shopping time or who wants to have fun shopping while waiting to board a plane

3. Speaking of shopping

It’s OK to leave some shopping to the last minute. After taking care of work deadlines you had to squeeze family and packing time into the few minutes left.

Fortunately, major airports and even mid-sized ones stock jewelry, clothes, books and sports items that make good gifts for others and yourself.

This veteran flier and shopper recently found Native American items at the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, electronic devices at DFW, CDs and Elvis memorabilia at the Sun Studio booth at the  Memphis International Airport, jewelry and books at O’Hare and an extra travel bag at the tiny John Wayne Airport in Orange County, CA.

4. Relax

Go to your airport’s website to see if it has a shoe-shine or massage chair station.

Sometimes merely treating yourself to a service you don’t have time for at home is all it takes to make a trip’s airport portion feel like the first leg of the holiday getaway.

The Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport has massage chairs near seven gates. It has shoe shine stations at The Mall and Concourses C and D.

A free down-loadable app by goHow makes finding restaurants and services easier at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport. It also keeps track of flight arrivals and departures there and at several other airports
A free down-loadable app by goHow makes finding restaurants and services easier at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport. It also keeps track of flight arrivals and departures there and at several other airports

5. Bring your electronic devices and their chargers and down load a free application. Several airports now have apps that have all the information travels need.

Airports also now have WiFi. At many of them the WiFi connection is free. Wait time before boarding or between connections is also a chance to go online to learn more about where to visit and eat when you arrive.

It is  also an easy opportunity to recharge your Blackberry or other devices so they will be ready to use at your destination. End tables in some of DFW’s seating areas have outlets.

Play with penguins

Sometimes the smart travel idea is not a city destination but a special museum experience

You can get up close and relatively personal with penguins at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium. By registering before visiting the aquarium, guests can sit with and even pet some of these cute aquatic creatures.

Shedd Vice President of animal collections and training Ken Ramirez answers guest questions while trainer Lana Vanagasem quietly talks to a Magellanic Penguin
Shedd Vice President of animal collections and training Ken Ramirez answers guest questions while trainer Lana Vanagasem quietly talks to a Magellanic Penguin

The program began midsummer 2010 as a training aid, according to Ken Ramirez, executive vice president of animal collections and training.

“We want them to be accustomed to strangers,” Ramirez said. He explained that the penguins saw their trainers daily but not their veterinarians.

The surprise to strangers is that the encounter room is warm, not wear-the-coat cold. Visitors are told that the Shedd’s penguins come from moderate climes.

On a recent Penguin Encounter, marine mammal trainers Lana Vanagasem and Maris Muzzy brought up two 14 month-old Magellanic Penguins. Named for Ferdinand Magellan, the penguins typically are found around Argentina and Chile.

Shedd trainer Maris Muzzy and her Magellanic Penguin are both curious about the guests at the other end of the room
Shedd trainer Maris Muzzy and her Magellanic Penguin are both curious about the guests at the other end of the room

Born and being raised at the Shedd,  these two penguins started out a bit shy. “They are wary of potential predators,” Ramirez said. But he added that they are also naturally curious.

To protect from sharp beaks curiously exploring our feet we donned high black rubber boots. We were also told the penguins were used to watches but were attracted to shiny, dangling objects so other jewelry was best kept away from a penguin’s reach.

When the penguins seemed comfortable with strangers in the room, the trainers moved the birds from their laps to an Astroturf type of floor covering that was scattered with colorful toys.

The penguins seemed more interested in their guests than their toys
The penguins seemed more interested in their guests than their toys

Just as good as watching the birds check out the playthings and our benches, was the chance to pet them. Visitors don’t touch the penguins until the trainers hold them and give the OK.

The “penguin encounter” lasted about 30 minutes, not counting hand-washing and boot preparation or instruction time which added another half hour. Our group would gladly have spent more up close time but it was an experience we won’t forget.

To add to the experience, some of us went downstairs where the penguins swim and hang out behind a glass enclosure.

Extend the penguin experience by enjoying them in their Shedd habitat
Extend the penguin experience by enjoying them in their Shedd habitat

Opposite the real thing is a wall with pictures and identification of what kind of penguins are at the Shedd.

We did not have any children in our group but if we did they probably would have enjoyed the penguin costumes they could have put on opposite the enclosure.

Penguin costumes hang opposite the habitat, ready to be tried out by humans
Penguin costumes hang opposite the habitat, ready to be tried out by humans

Penguin Encounter switches from daily to weekends and holidays after Labor Day. Cost is $25 a person. Children must be at least age 4 to attend and ages 4-10 must be accompanied by an adult. For more information or to register call 312-692-3355 and visit Shedd Aquarium Extraordinary. The Shedd Aquarium is on the Museum Campus opposite Soldier Field at 1200 South Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, IL 60605

Use free museum days to cut trip costs

Worries about jobs and the economy have people spending smarter. With discounts offered by the travel industry and tourism destinations there are savings to be had whether at a nearby attraction or further away. Freebies and cost-cutting passes exist if you know where to look.

Travel Smart is searching them out starting with Chicago.

Aside from its reputation as the “Windy City (it’s politicians, not the lake, really), Chicago is known for having world class museums such as the Art Institute. If your dates are flexible try visiting your museum of choice when the admission fee is waived. Just know that free admission is entry to the museum building, not to special exhibits and shows although the latter may be discounted on free days.

Free museum days remaining in 2010 as of Aug. 18

Chicago’s Museum Campus of The Adler Planetarium,  Shedd Aquarium and The Field Museum (natural history) stretches out into Lake Michigan from South Lake Shore Drive and Roosevelt Road.

Chicago's skyline is picture perfect from outside the Adler Planetarium
Chicago's skyline is picture perfect from outside the Adler Planetarium. All photos by Jodie Jacobs

For one of the best views of the city’s skyline without going out in a boat, walk east to the planetarium at the end of the road without looking back then turn around (bring the camera). The view is worth the walk even on a blustery day.

The Adler Planetarium, 1300 South Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, IL 60605, 312-922-7827.

General admission is $10 adults, $6 children. The Adler does not have any free days in August but does the rest of the year as follows: September 7, 13-17, 21 and 28, October 5, 12, 19 and 26, November 2, 9, 16 , 23 and 30 and December 7, 14 and 21.

On free days, the planetarium also offers discount show tickets: Theater -$7, Historic Atwood Sphere Experience – $3, Special Guided Tour – $3.

The Shedd Aquarium,  1200 South Lake Shore Drive, between The Adler and The Field, 312-939-2438. Shedd pass $24.95 adults, $21.95 ages 3-11 and 65 and older. The Shedd does not have any free days in August or December but does September through November as Community Discount Days.

General Admission is free: September 13-14, 20-21 and 27-28, October 4-5, 11-12, 18-19 and 25-26 and November 1-2, 8-9, 15-16, 22-23 and 29-30. Admission does not include the Oceanarium, Wild Reef and Polar Play but those attractions are discounted on free days.

T-Rex Susie and other dinosaurs live at the Field Museum
T-rex Sue and other dinosaurs live at the Field Museum

The Field Museum, 1400 South Lake Shore Drive, 866-343-5303. Regular general admission: $15 adults (all show and exhibit access pass $29), $10 children (all access pass $20). Free days, including Target Free 2nd Mondays: August 24, September: 13, 15-16 and 21-22, October 5-6, 13-14 and 19-20, November 2, 3, 10, 16-17 and 30 and December 1, 7-8, 13 and 15-16.

The Museum of Science and Industry,  south of downtown at 57th Street and Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, IL 60636, 773-684-1414. General admission $15 adults, $14 seniors, $10 children. Free days August 30, September 7-14, 20, 21, 27 and 28, October: 4-6, November 11 and December: 6.

A City Pass helps the budget when free days don’t fit the schedule. Chicago’s City Pass is a discounted way to see the Adler, Shedd, Field Museums and the Museum of Science and Industry plus the Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) or the John Hancock Observatory)at half price.  Regular combined admission to these popular attractions would be $134.62 adults and $114.50 for children ages 3-11. The City Pass cost is $69 adults and $59 children.


Art Museums

Art Institute of Chicago 111 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60603, 312-443-3600

General Admission: $18 adults, $12 children and seniors 65 and older. Free admission every Thursday 5 to 8 p.m. (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day) Times are subject to changes so please check ahead.

Visitors from across the globe put The Art Institute of Chicago on their go-to list
Visitors from across the globe put The Art Institute of Chicago on their go-to list

Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611, 312-397-2660.

General admission: $12, students with ID and seniors $7, free to children 12 and under. MCA has free Tuesdays 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. year-round.