At the rooftop of Trump International Hotel & Tower is The Terrace at Trump restaurant, featuring contemporary seafood and farm-fresh ingredients. // © 2014 Choose Chicago
Feature image (above): Chicago’s tourism scene is burgeoning with a boom in restaurants and hotels. // © 2014 Choose Chicago
There is probably no other city in America that has seen a dramatic growth spurt in tourism like Chicago. It’s as if the “Windy City” changes with every blink of the eye, banging out a roster of new hotels, attractions and other developments faster than most U.S. cities have ever achieved.
The paper trail goes back to the not-so-distant past when, in 2012, Choose Chicago replaced Explore Chicago as the official tourism organization of Chicago. This proved to be a successful gamble, with results such as a splashy new online portal featuring Chicago Like a Local Blog and a new mobile app, as well as a 93 percent increase in web traffic in January 2013.
The new website was just a fraction of what Choose Chicago had up its sleeve: It was determined to make Chicago among the top five U.S. cities for inbound international travel by 2020. Hotel occupancy increased 4 percent in 2012, and there are now 4,500 more hotel rooms in Chicago compared to just six years ago. In fact, 2013 saw a record-breaking 75.28 percent hotel occupancy, and there’s no signs of slowing down any time soon.
Chicago is also becoming more accessible and eco-friendly. In line with many top cities in America, Chicago launched a bike-sharing program called Divvy in June 2013. Bike stations are now ubiquitous, and getting around Chicago has become substantially easier.
The biggest commitment to growth is the number of luxury hotels that have opened in the past few years alone. While The Peninsula Chicago, Four Seasons Hotel Chicago and Waldorf Astoria Chicago have reigned as some of the top hotels not only in Chicago but in the world, new properties are giving them a run for their money.
The Langham Chicago has effortlessly become an affluent traveler’s favorite since opening in 2013. Inside a modern high-rise, Langham Chicago is the only hotel in a Ludwig Mies van der Rohe-designed building, taking over floors two to 13 out of the 52-story building. There are 316 rooms and suites, 15,000 square feet of event space, a pampering spa and a sense of new-world glam.
Ian Schrager’s Public Chicago made headlines when it opened in 2011, and the 16-story The Godfrey Hotel opened in 2014 with modern boutique accommodations. W Chicago Lakeshore received a massive, $38 million renovation with a brand-new restaurant, Current, and pristine guestrooms.
Thompson Hotels made a huge splash with Thompson Chicago opening last year in the busy Gold Coast neighborhood. The hotel, which embraces music, art and design, has been a hot spot for hipsters, millennials and young celebrities alike (everyone from interior designer and television personality Nate Berkus to musician Nick Jonas has checked in).
The most recent opening this summer, Soho House Chicago is destined to become a stomping ground for the elite, a watering hole for the locals and a crash pad for design lovers. Taking over a six-story, historic warehouse from 1907, it’s the largest Soho House to date and, unlike the other Soho Houses where only members are allowed, it is the first Soho House to offer public facilities for non-members. These facilities include two restaurants, Cowshed Spa and a gorgeous, expansive lobby that doubles-up as a lounge and coffee shop with high ceilings and comfy furnishings. It also boasts an outdoor deck with an 80-foot swimming pool, atypical for hotels in Chicago.
But the mushrooming of hotels is not anywhere near complete. In 2011, Richard Branson announced his first Virgin Hotel will open in Chicago. The 250-room Virgin Chicago is scheduled to debut this September, but the Virgin team has been tightlipped about the opening.
Also, the Chicago Motor Club Building, an art deco skyscraper, will become a new, 144-room hotel to open in 2015. Other hotel projects in historic buildings (such as an unnamed, 281-room hotel in the New York Life Building) are in the works.
While great neighborhoods abound in Chicago, the West Loop is making the quickest strides to gentrification. Top Chef’s Stephanie Izard put the neighborhood on the map with her renowned restaurant Girl & the Goat, which opened in the formerly dilapidated neighborhood in 2010.
But soon enough, other restaurants, bars, coffee shops and even the Soho House followed suit, giving the neighborhood a massive hipster makeover. It’s now chockablock with cool boutiques, old warehouses converted into pizza joints.
Speaking of top chefs, the culinary movement continues to thrive with notable and local chefs adding to the restaurant scene with new ventures. Last year’s opening of The Terrace at Trump (atop the Trump International Hotel & Tower) gave highbrow diners a fresh contemporary dining experience, courtesy of executive chef Michael Fiddler, who specializes in farm-fresh ingredients and hearty portions of seafood.
Local restaurateur Amy Morton and executive chef Nicole Pederson opened Found Kitchen & Social House, which has become a buzzing hot spot since it opened in 2012. It’s notable for its all-female kitchen crew and new American dishes inspired by cultural pioneers such as Gertrude Stein.
Do-Rite Donuts & Coffee has equally garnered a cult following with its handmade gourmet doughnuts (such as the Valrhona chocolate cake and candied maple bacon options) and fried chicken sandwiches to boot. It’s a new venture by notable chef Jeff Mahin.
Thompson Chicago’s signature restaurant Nico Osteria by local chef Paul Kahan serves authentic Italian and seafood in a lively setting, with its own street entrance. Don’t expect to get a seat without a proper reservation.
Famed local chef Doug Psaltis is on to a new venture, RPM Steak, the sister restaurant to RPM Italian, which opened this summer. The former New York Rising Chef had various stints with household names including Thomas Keller and Alain Ducasse.
And how long can a celebrity chef go without regularly opening a new restaurant in Chicago? Not very long. Rick Bayless’ new Xoco Wicker Park opened this past summer, offering his famous tortas, Mexican hot chocolate and 17 craft beers on tap. It’s just one more reason why tourists are choosing Chicago for their U.S. vacations.