By Aimee Heckel
It’s the home of the skyscraper and where the ferris wheel was invented. There’s always something exciting happening here.
With one of the world’s most architecturally fascinating skylines, patched around more than 150 miles of peaceful canals, it’s no question that Chicago is one of the best cities in the world to visit — and an easy place to find inspiration.
Chicago is also a supreme destination for a luxurious and relaxing getaway.
Yes, relaxing. Even amid the crazy traffic and nonstop excitement, the key is going VIP. We found a way around all of the stress and straight into the highlights of the city, a way to experience all of Chicago’s best features with no single hitch.
Here’s how to vacation in Chicago, SpaTravelGal style.
Start with Michigan Avenue
The city is big. So if you’re from out of town, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and not know where to even start.
Start on Michigan Avenue. Make it your home base. Specifically, the historical Magnificent Mile, which is considered the Champs-Elysees of America. This wide boulevard is lined with some of the best shops, museums and restaurants in the city, all within walking distance. You’re a few blocks to the Navy Pier, too, and you can gaze out over the canals and Lake Michigan for a peaceful break from the bustling sidewalks.
The Navy Pier is a surprisingly open expanse of more than 50 acres of parks, restaurants and amusement rides, right in the city. It attracts more than 9 million visitors every year, and for good reason. An architectural cruise (complete with a full bar) through the canals is a relaxing way to see the city from a different viewpoint.
Stay at the InterContinental Chicago Magnificent Mile
Again, with so many options, it can be hard to make a hotel selection, but one stands out from all the rest. The InterContinental Chicago Magnificent Mile, at 505 N. Michigan Ave., has one of the best locations in the city.
It’s the only downtown hotel with a front entrance onto the Magnificent Mile, and it’s a quick walk to the pier and exclusive shops and stops that a savvy traveler will want to visit, such as the Museum of Contemporary Art, the aquarium and Water Tower Place.
The hotel itself is a stunning historical landmark, and you’ll sense that as soon as you walk through the dramatic gold entrance into the four-story lobby. Its roots date back to the ‘20s, when it was originally built as a men’s club. Word is, women weren’t allowed inside, except in designated areas with blue-painted ceilings.
Today, it’s much more welcoming to all. In fact, the service is what truly distinguishes the InterContinental. From the valet to the housecleaner, expect to be treated with cheerful respect and care.
The hotel greeted us with the most impressive spread of cupcakes, fruit, meat and cheese and even a bucket of chocolate milk and American Girl-themed gifts for my daughter, and then returned later with a plate of impressively decorated cookies (even a perfect fondant rose that was hard to eat, it was so beautiful) and a bottle of wine.
Although many elements of the historic building are preserved (down to replicated drapes, carpets and more), and the views right over Michigan Avenue and the canals have not changed, the guest rooms are modern and sleek. We stayed in a two-bathroom suite with a separate living area, multiple flat screen TVs and Agraria luxury bath amenities.
This hotel boasts a long list of awards and honors, for its architecture, as well as service, which back up our experience that a stay in Chicago could not possibly be better.
Rent a Silvercar
Although much of what you’ll want to see in Chicago is within walking distance from the InterContinental, and you’re better off taking a Taxi or Uber to farther destinations, rather than fighting the traffic and paying for parking, you will inevitably want to explore the area. Tip: A 45-minute drive to the historic Patrick Haley Mansion in Joliet is any luxury traveler’s dream.
The only way we road trip is with Silvercar. It aims to reinvent the rental car experience by taking away all of the obnoxious parts — lines, paperwork, horrible cars, upsells — and makes it simple.
Every car is a gorgeous Audi A4. They all have onboard wifi, a GPS, satellite radio and are smartphone enabled.
Instead of waiting in line at the rental car counter, just text or contact Silvercar through the app and they’ll pick you up. You check out the car by scanning a code with your phone. The receipt is sent to your email. And when you’re done, drop off your car at the Silvercar location, close to the airport, but separate from the chaos, and an employee will drop you off at passenger check-in.
Chicago has a lot of tolls, and Silvercar doesn’t charge transponder fees. Just pay for the tolls you use. Same goes for gas. If you don’t want to drive circles to refill before bringing it back, just pay a $5 fill-up fee and the local pump price, only for the gas you use.
It’s the way renting a car should be, and is surprisingly not that much more expensive than a regular rental. Plus, when you roll up to the valet at the InterContinental, you won’t feel the least bit out of place.
Enjoy the historical spa
The spa is the icing on the cake at the InterContinental.
First, there’s the famous, historic, junior Olympic-sized swimming pool. This ornate pool is like no other hotel pool we’ve ever seen, and completely unexpected to find in downtown Chicago. When it was built in the ‘20s, it was an engineering marvel, because of its size and location above ground on the second floor.
It is surrounded by multi layers of seating reminiscent of high-end stadium seating, adorned by statues, stained glass windows and blue Spanish Mojolica tile. A dramatic Neptune fountain is the jaw-dropping focal point of the room.
The fitness center itself is also excellent, spanning three floors.
Make sure you sign up for a massage at the spa. You can select from a variety of styles, such as hot stone or deep tissue, or ask for a personalized massage tailored to meet your body’s needs. For something special, try the sugar honey polish with your treatment, and make sure you arrive plenty early to soften up in the sauna. Especially after traveling and walking the pier all day, your body will thank you.
I asked for a personalized massage, focusing on the knots in the back, and two hours later, I woke myself up snoring. I have never been so relaxed in any spa treatment in my life. The combination of my therapist’s expert and attentive hands, the relaxing, dim atmosphere and the combination of my therapist’s expert and attentive hands, the relaxing, dim atmosphere and the previous hour-long swim in the pool were the ingredients to bring my body and mind into total, perfect relaxation like never before.
See the Willis Tower VIP style
If you can see only one quintessential tourist site in Chicago, make it Willis Tower (still often called Sears Tower), the second-tallest building in the United States.
Back when it was built in the ‘70s, this incredible, 108-story skyscraper earned the title of the tallest building in the world, an honor is boasted for more than two decades. Today, it’s the 14th tallest in the world, but it is the tallest in Chicago and provides an above-birds-eye view of the city and the lake.
More than a million people visit the tower every year. But what this also means is the lines to get in are long. You can wait several hours to get in, where you’ll be crammed in an elevator with a ton of people and then have to fight the crowds on the 103rd floor, and then wait in more lines to use the telescopes (more money) and to stand on the all-glass Ledge balcony.
There’s a better way to do it.
Book a VIP lunch in the tower via Viator.com. Walk right around the line to your own beautiful entrance, where you will be guided alone (or with your group) into a private elevator. Your personal guide will bring you to the 99th floor, which you will have all to yourself. If there are other guests, you may share the floor with a few of them, but we were fortunate to have the entire floor to ourselves.
No lines. No crowds. We walked round and round the panorama windows, using free telescopes and taking tons of pictures, until our server brought us our salad. We sat down at a private table overlooking the city and leisurely enjoyed a gourmet Chicago-style pizza, made to order, and Italian dessert: tiramisu and mini cannoli with ricotta cream filling. Chicago-style pizza is super thick with the sauce on top of the cheese, which delighted me, as sauce is my favorite part of pizza. We topped ours with bacon, green peppers and pepperoni.
When we were done, our server brought us to the 103rd floor on a private elevator, so we could experience The Ledge (well, my daughter and I did, but my husband looked over the edge and backed away, repeating, “Nope, nope, nope”).
After that, we didn’t have to wait in the lengthy lines for the elevator to get back down. We were escorted straight to the front of the line and took the next elevator.
This is the only way to do Willis Tower — with the added bonus of a lunch. And for less than $100 a person, the price absolutely worth it. How many people can say they had an entire floor on one of the most famous buildings in the world all to themselves? Viator could charge $1,000 and that wouldn’t be unreasonable for this kind of once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Viator offers a long list of other tours and activities in Chicago (as well as in other cities around the world). You can also take a foodie tour through the city or do VIP at the other traveler hotspots. In fact, finding those special VIP offerings is what Viator specializes in. The company carefully hand-selects just the best experiences, and then hooks you up with special treatment, such as private viewings, behind-the scenes access and VIP tours like ours, with no crowds or lines. Many of Viator’s offerings are exclusive and you can’t find them anywhere else.
They made it completely easy, and even accommodated our request on a short notice. We felt like royalty, and everyone agreed it was one of the most incredible experiences we’ve ever had.
Indulge on the best steak in the city
Thick Chicago-style pizza will fill you up for lunch, but when it comes to dinnertime, we are Michael Jordan’s biggest fans. The Michael Jordan Steakhouse Chicago, featuring chef Craig Couper, is not just another restaurant with a celebrity name on top. It’s quite possibly the best steak in the city, and the restaurant’s long list of awards attests to its flavor.
The atmosphere feels exclusive, as you walk across an illuminated bridge above the bar to access the restaurant. Although the atmosphere is sophisticated and the food is top notch, however, there’s a cheerful, playful undertone to the service that makes you feel at home.
Food here is all locally sourced
The star of the show is the restaurant’s dry-aged, hand-cut beef. Its bacon appetizer was named the best bacon in the state. Thrillst named MJ’s the Best Chicago Steakhouse for Every Occasion and the best place to watch the game and eat steak. Chicago Magazine ranked it among the best steak houses, too.
Although this menu has no wrongs, the expert way to start your night is with the Nueske’s double-smoked bacon and the garlic bread (smothered in Wisconsin Roth Kase blue cheese fondue) — together. Stack one on top of the other, and experience the mouthwatering combination of the blue cheese with the sweet, maple-glaze meat. The Colossal Crab Cake is another hot appetizer; it’s way more crab than cake, and nearly big enough to be a meal, in and of itself.
For a lighter fare or dose of freshness, the beet salad with pistachios and burrata or the tomato salad, made with local tomatoes and topped with that delicious bacon, are two slam dunks.
For the main course, the USDA prime Steak Frites is what earns Michael Jordan’s its reputation. But the seared tuna is another solid main meat. Enjoy either with chile-lime butter corn, the mashed potato trio (including lobster mashed potatoes!) and roasted asparagus served in brown butter, tarragon and lemon.
Ask your server for cocktail recommendations or a wine pairing. Wrap up the night in the most dramatic way possible: a 23-layer chocolate cake. Which exists.
It’s the perfect splurge for a gloriously luxurious getaway in Chicago.
This article was written by SpaTravelGal.com’s Assistant Editor Aimee Heckel.