Chicago: Urban Oasis
The restored Hotel Burnham in downtown Chicago offers a quiet respite from the bustle of the city.
Photos courtesy Kimpton's Hotel Burnham
In the 1890s, Daniel Burnham was the rock star of architecture. His name was attached directly or through his firm, Burnham and Root, to some of the most astounding architectural feats of the day, including the 1893 Columbian Exposition and Chicago’s Reliance Building, a convention-defying airy skyscraper glittering with enormous windows and planted on prime real estate.
Just 118 years after its construction, you can sleep in what is now regarded as the precursor to the modern skyscraper. Not that there’s anything antiquated about a stay at the Hotel Burnham, where guests gather in the evenings for an hour of wine and conversation (and the occasional treat sent up from the acclaimed Atwood Café on the first floor).
The Reliance was a decrepit, nearly abandoned building in 1993 when the City of Chicago began renovating it. Five years later, a developer and Kimpton Hotels joined in on the renovation and gave the building new life as a 122-room boutique hotel.
The renovation restored or painstakingly recreated many original aspects of the building, including an intricate mosaic entrance floor. The mahogany-lined lobby has the feel of a clubby, cushy living room, its fireplace surrounded by lounges and soft chairs. Hints of the building’s history are everywhere, from the Reliance-branded knobs and hinges to the metal keys given to guests to access the original doors of offices-turned-hotel rooms.
“It’s definitely a unique experience to stay in a converted office building,” general manager Tonya Scott says. “The effect is like being transported to another time—as soon as you step into the hotel, the hustle and bustle of the Loop seem miles away.”
The guestrooms are the real beneficiaries of the original architects’ vision: Wide windows give guests a truly bird’s-eye view on downtown Chicago from the busy corner of State and Washington streets. Across State Street is another Burnham building, the former Marshall Field’s and its famous green-patina clock. Guests staying in the oft-requested Millennium Lake View Suites can spy Millennium Park, Lake Michigan and the city’s downtown theater district.
Guest rooms are classically designed with navy, gold and cream color schemes and a touch of the whimsy (blue velvet headboards, sheer gold bed canopies) that Kimpton injects into each of its properties. Room TVs broadcast a yoga station. The hotel even offers a “pillow library” of eight varieties of pillows for the discriminating sleeper.
A pampering spa treatment is a phone call away; in-room treatments are available daily 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and include massage, body treatments and hand and foot treatments. Treatments emphasize “wild” plant ingredients, including eucalyptus, lavender and even spirulina. An 80-minute Chamomile Mani Kur & Pedi Kur includes a chamomile foot soak and buffing of hands and feet with a chamomile scrub. The Calm Mind Massage, redolent of peppermint and lavender oils, might be the thing to get a real getaway started.
Hotel Burnham goes out of its way to make sure pets feel at home, too. Pet guests get a welcome treat and are listed on a register in the lobby. And the hotel puts a hilarious spin on its “Forgot it? We’ve got it!” toiletries offerings with a “Furr-Got It? We’ve Got It!” program for essential, though forgotten, pet travel items.
Eats & Treats
Tattooed chef Derek Simcik oversees the Atwood Cafe kitchen, which puts out fresh twists on American comfort food—and includes surprises for more adventurous eaters. A pheasant crepe is on a starters menu that also includes a more conventional arugula salad and a domestic cheese plate. Simcik puts a fun riff on the classic hamburger every month—a recent menu listed a lamb burger with habanero hummus, avocado and queso fresco.
Simcik has a sweet spot for dessert, too. A Persimmon Bread Pudding is served with crisp black-pepper brittle, and the restaurant serves its own take on an apple toaster pastry (served a la mode with gelato, of course).
The hotel seems to plant treats around every corner for guests. Coffee and tea are served every morning in the lobby, and in cold-weather months, guests can concoct something sweet at the hot chocolate bar loaded with toppings. A hosted wine hour, 5 to 6 p.m. daily, is in the lobby and occasionally includes local craft beer selections and hors d’oeuvres from Atwood Cafe.
Five Things to Do in Chicago
See a big Picasso show in the town with The Picasso
The relationship between artist Pablo Picasso and Chicago began in 1913, when the Art Institute of Chicago became the first museum to exhibit Picasso’s work. The Picasso and Chicago exhibition (Feb. 20-May 12) at the Art Institute honors that history, bringing together more than 250 paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings and ceramics borrowed from private collectors in Chicago and from the museum’s own collection. If you’re not a Picasso fan, visit the Art Institute later in the year for a major exhibition of impressionist artists (June 26-Sept. 22) that explores the relationship between art and fashion in the late 19th century. Works by Degas, Manet, Renoir and Seurat are included.
Catch “Book of Mormon”
Chicago is a thriving theater town (heavyweights include The Second City, Goodman Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre Company and Chicago Shakespeare Theater), but “Book of Mormon” is the can’t-miss-it show of the year. The unorthodox take on Mormonism from the makers of “South Park” won a slew of Tony awards on Broadway and has charmed critics and audiences. For mature (and satire-approving) audiences only. “Book of Mormon” is scheduled to be in Chicago until June, but smash hits have a habit of winning extensions in the Windy City.
See the city through a native’s eyes
The Chicago Architecture Foundation is famous for Chicago River tours that take visitors through a gleaming canyon of architectural and engineering feats. On a beautiful day, there might not be a more perfect way to see the city. The foundation has other tours, too, that satisfy curiosity about the city’s buildings, elevated train system and even its underground life. Walking tours take visitors to specific buildings (including the Reliance, home of the Hotel Burnham) or tell the story of how an architectural style is etched in the Chicago skyline. A ride on the ‘L’ takes visitors around the Loop or to the city’s diverse, culturally rich South Side. There’s even a tour of the city’s extensive underground Pedway, used by locals to stay out of the elements while traveling block to block in the Loop.
Frolic on the lakefront
Lake Michigan might be Chicago’s eastern edge, but it can look like the center of the universe. The lakefront—along with its paths, parks and beaches—is the city’s playground in all seasons. If you’re game for a long stroll, head south along the lakefront pathway to reach the Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum of Natural History or the Adler Planetarium. Hear a free or low-cost concert at the Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. See yourself in the beloved Cloud Gate, aka The Bean, a few steps away. In summer, Grant Park hosts mega-events including the Chicago Jazz Festival, Chicago Blues Festival, Lollapalooza and Taste of Chicago.
Shop ’til you drop
The Magnificent Mile (400-900 blocks of North Michigan Avenue) has earned its name—we just can’t think of a more distinguished stretch of retail royalty in the country. Department stores Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus are milestones along this stretch of Michigan Avenue that also includes a massive Apple store, American Girl Place, and one of only three standalone Topshop stores in the U.S. You might spot Oprah or another Chicago luminary dining at RL, the restaurant adjacent to Ralph Lauren’s flagship Polo store. Just north of Chanel (935 N. Michigan Ave.), hang a left at Oak Street and find a quiet enclave of boutiques that includes Hermes and Barney’s New York.
Dine & Sip
Randolph Street, west of North Canal Street, might be the hottest dining strip in the city right now. “Top Chef” star Stephanie Izard’s casual breakfast-lunch joint Little Goat Diner (820 W. Randolph St.) is the newest addition. Visit Au Cheval (800 W. Randolph St.) for sophisticated comfort food, ample craft beers and potent cocktails. The neighborhood is home to many of the city’s meatpacking houses, so Paul Kahan’s carnivorous emporium Publican Quality Meats (825 W. Fulton Market) fits right in. Have a sandwich in the cafe and pick up some cured-in-house charcuterie to go.
Chicagoans adore the food and the romantic patio at Piccolo Sogno (464 N. Halsted St.) in warm months. The restaurant fronts a busy, commercial slice of Halsted Street, but the brick-walled patio ensconces diners in tranquility. Here, Tony Priolo serves Italian food Italian style: First-class ingredients, prepared simply.
Get a taste of second-generation Chicago culinary talent at The Purple Pig (500 N. Michigan Ave.), conveniently located near the long walk you’ll take shopping along Michigan Avenue. Jimmy Bannos Jr. is one of four powerhouse chef-partners at this restaurant (dad Jimmy Sr., also a partner, is the founder of Heaven on Seven) whose motto is “Cheese, Swine and Wine.” The menu leans heavily Italian, but there are ample nods to Southern cooking, too (see: Pig’s Ear with Crispy Kale, Pickled Cherry Peppers & Fried Egg).
Buck the trends—every single one of ’em—and visit the 72-year-old Gene & Georgetti (500 N. Franklin St.). A visit to Chicago isn’t complete without a steakhouse experience, and this is one of the classics. The service is famously curt, and the walls have heard generations of conversations among politicians and celebrities. If “old-school” isn’t in your vocabulary, skip it.
å For a little nightlife in the neighborhood, visit Andy’s Jazz Club (11 E. Hubbard St.), a throwback to a time when River North wasn’t synonymous with luxury living and dining. It started out in 1951 as a saloon for pressmen who worked on the city’s daily newspapers. Today, it’s a neighborhood stalwart that puts local jazz musicians on stage twice nightly. The lights are dim, seating is cabaret-style and the Wall of Fame gives just a taste of who’s graced this stage. n