Any good hotel can offer high end amenities, plush mattresses, and fine linens. But to truly capture the tastes and textures, history and culture, and people and personalities of a city is a much harder feat. Sometimes, it’s impossible.
That is, unless the hotel is ingrained in the founding and very being of that city. Then the hotel is no longer just a nice place to sleep within it, but a living part of it and a representation of what makes that city what it is. Such is the case with Chicago’s Palmer House Hilton, a true Grande Dame hotel that is as much a part of Chicago as deep dish pizza and Wrigley Field — and is affordable to boot.
In 1871, when self-made millionaire Potter Palmer wanted to give the ultimate wedding gift to his beloved fiancée, he had one of the finest hotels in the world built for her. At the time, Chicago was not much more than wilderness, and the hotel would be its most significant transformation. By a stroke of bad luck, 13 days after its opening, the great Chicago fire destroyed the Palmer House and everything around it. Palmer’s wife-to-be Bertha insisted upon the rebuilding of her gift, so the second Palmer House was built (completely fire-proof, of course) for the unheard of sum of $1.7 million — about $88 million in today’s value.
Since, Palmer and his hotel have both literally and figuratively changed the course of Chicago. He had the entire city’s direction moved to run parallel to Lake Michigan, for starters. And over the years, the property saw many American firsts: it became the first hotel to use electric lighting, and it became home to the city’s first elevator. It also hosted countless dignitaries, presidents, celebrities, and members of royalty.
Today, following a $215 million renovation, Palmer House’s history and old-world elegance remains, now with a distinct 21st century hipness of its own. While the 1,641 rooms and suites are inviting and comfortable, it’s the hotel’s public spaces that provides the feel of a bygone area. In the lobby, whose ceiling fresco was restored by the same man responsible for bringing the Sistine Chapel back to life, guests can sip on modern mixology surrounded by Tiffany statues and 24-karat gold chandeliers. Old world elegance meets the city’s hottest, youngest chefs — and ingredients from the rooftop garden — at the onsite restaurant and two bars. That’s not to mention stately ballrooms and a 20,00-square-foot spa for special occasions.
While the Palmer House Hilton is a palace, this winter you don’t have to pay a princely sum to stay there. Their Chillcation package, which runs through April, starts at just $134 per night. The package includes breakfast for two, complimentary in-room internet, bottomless hot chocolate, and 30 percent off spa services. It also gives guests buy-one-get-one tickets for an interactive, lunch-inclusive History is Hott property tour with Ken Price, who was recently named Hotel Historian of the Year by Historic Hotels of America (typically $65 each).
Of course, simply strolling through the hallways also provides a window into the Palmer House’s connection to Hollywood history. Framed photographs of Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Louis Armstrong — all who performed in the legendary Empire Room — adorn the walls. Bonus: The living history can continue two blocks away at the iconic Art Institute of Chicago, where you can view Bertha Palmer’s collection of impressionist art, as well as along State Street and Michigan Avenue and throughout downtown location.