Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel Mixes Quirky History With a Luxe, Modern Vibe

Past guests include Al Capone, John F. Kennedy and at least one Beckham

By Amy Mei
August 18, 2023 6:11 am
Exterior of The Blackstone
The Blackstone in Chicago
The Blackstone

American history, from the glamorous to the notorious, converges at Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel. Centrally located on Michigan Avenue in South Loop overlooking Grant Park and the waterfront, you’ll get all the lush surroundings and plush amenities you expect from an upscale hotel, plus some spectacular views you won’t get anywhere else. (Hot tip: there’s no better place to watch the action when NASCAR is in town.)

Guests are well-rewarded for seeking out the hotel’s wealth of history, which is guaranteed to impress. But if you’re rooted firmly in the contemporary world, fear not — there are ample opportunities to celebrity spot and sample Chicago’s restaurants and nightlife. Here’s what to know about one of Chicago’s most storied hotels, with tips from the Blackstone’s concierge, Lucy Camarador.

A Unique History

The ornate vaulted marble ceilings and rich wood paneling of the lobby say it all: this is a very old, very nice hotel. The Blackstone, established in 1910, joined Marriott’s Autograph Collection in 2017. Which means the consistency, economy of scale and brand loyalty benefits that come with a brand like Marriott, but with the quirks of a boutique property — one distinctive enough to serve as a location for films like Brian de Palma’s The Untouchables and Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money.

Lobby with lounge seats, wood walls and a painting overlooking scenic building.
The Blackstone Lobby
The Blackstone

This comes out quickly on a tour of the hotel with Camarador. It starts in the barbershop downstairs, where Al Capone used to have his hair cut because it didn’t have any windows — all the better for clandestine activity — and from which there are tunnels Capone used to escape and hide booze. At the other end of the guest spectrum, The Blackstone was known through the 20th century as “the hotel of Presidents” because of the large number of presidents who stayed there. Two of the hotel’s four suites call back to that legacy with heritage styling: The Suite of Presidents has housed Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy, who was staying at the Blackstone when informed of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The “Smoke-Filled Suite” is named for the cigar smoke that filled the room when party power brokers sealed Warren G. Harding’s presidential nomination in 1920. 

White guest room with light-colored furniture and bedding
A Blackstone guest room
The Blackstone

It’s only been out of operation as a hotel for a few years in its more than century-old history, when it was owned (from 1995 to 1999) by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Beatles’ sometime personal guru, who hoped to turn it into the “Heaven on Earth Inn,” “a holistic center for health-conscious living.” He didn’t succeed, but marks of his attempt remain: in the hotel’s fifth-floor Art Hall is a small staircase leading to nowhere, built because, per the Yogi, the spirits needed to have somewhere to go. Remarkably, all this is only a small fraction of what I learned during an hour touring the Beaux-Arts landmark.

An Unbeatable Location

When I ask Camarador what distinguishes The Blackstone from every other Chicago hotel, she tells me it’s the view: “It’s pure lake. No other hotels have this kind of unobstructed view.” There was an unmistakable serenity that settled into me during the days I stayed that came not only from exposure to the lake, but to some of Chicago’s prettiest and most iconic landmarks. From my corner room on the 17th floor, I had a perfect view of Grant Park, Buckingham Fountain, the Field Museum and the Shedd Aquarium. (Another tip: rooms ending with 18, Camarador told me, will have superior views because they’re corner rooms.)

Lake view from The Blackstone
Lake view from The Blackstone
The Blackstone

The Blackstone’s prime location means rooms are a hot commodity during NASCAR races because there’s no better place to watch cars bolt around the corner from Balbo Drive. Artists from Tove Lo to Bryson Tiller stay during Lollapalooza, held across the way in Grant Park. Da Baby had such a grand time talking to the hotel’s night auditor that he requested a pic with her and put it on his Insta story. And The Blackstone has a deal with the Chicago Fire soccer team to host all its opponents, so when Inter Miami has come to town, at least one Beckham has made an appearance.

Because of its prime location, the hotel draws a range of clientele, traveling for both business and pleasure. The weekend I was there, Beyoncé’s Renaissance tour took over Chicago, with Soldier Field visible from my window. During Taste of Chicago, the world’s largest food festival, Camarador tells me the hotel is always sold out. But you needn’t wait for the festival to dine. Mercat a la Planxa is a Spanish tapas restaurant — technically separate from the hotel but accessible through the lobby — that serves breakfast on weekends, drinks at the bar and dinner service Monday through Saturday. The Chef’s Experience menu felt like a good value for money, with each of the 10 courses delivering on flavor and quality. Particular highlights included the ensalada verde, asparagus and grilled Berkshire pork. Beyond the confines of South Loop, nearby Chinatown is great for food. And Camarador is full of recommendations for things to do nearby, from upscale cocktails at Arbella, Three Dots and a Dash or The Violet Hour to clubbing at Tunnel and Soundbar.

If you’re lucky, you might be gifted some of the hotel’s special treats for regulars or special occasions or great guests — like fleur de sel caramels from Katherine Anne Confections, a local vendor you might spot at the Logan Square Farmers Market, or whiskey from craft distiller KOVAL. “We get postcards from old guests who had their honeymoons and weddings here, or who visit and are surprised it’s still here,” Camarador says, adding that The Blackstone will be here for a long time yet, thanks to its historic designation. “They couldn’t tear this building down even if they wanted to.”


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