If you imagine a Virgin hotel and spa would be full of red plastic furniture and female staff dressed in red skirt-suits, you’re probably not alone.
But the brand’s first hotel in the world – in the heart of Chicago – is actually quite stylish, and a lot of fun.
The building is a former bank, complete with that classic Chicago gothic-type architecture, high ceilings and a sense of grandeur. The reception desk is in the Old Dearborn Bank’s original cigar bar, and other original features have been respectfully left intact.
Of course, even in the art deco setting, there are not-so-subtle Sir Richard Branson reminders and London influences everywhere.
There is a British bull dog ornament at the bottom of the imposing staircase, a red phone box outside the main restaurant, and red Smeg fridges in every room.
It’s all about a little bit of old school glamour at competitive prices.
The rooms (sorry, “chambers”)
The walk-in dressing room-come-bathroom with dressing table and waterfall showers, along with big sliding doors into the bedroom, feels just a little bit special. The aim is to appeal to guests who want somewhere with a bit more personality than the average slick city hotel.
Apparently the rooms were designed with female clientele in mind (hence all the wardrobe space and dressing table), because Virgin felt many hotel rooms for people in town on business seem more masculine.
Some rooms are pet friendly, marked with a porcelain dog outside. And Sir Richard has his own room here (a large, ever so flashy suite) – which you can stay in if that’s your thing.
Eating and drinking
Miss Ricky’s, a classic American diner with a mocked up red telephone box doorway and packed with 70s Brit pop memorabilia, serves a pretty epic breakfast in a trendy setting. You need to try their famous buttermilk pancakes served with a bourbon maple syrup, and chicken waffles.
Just outside is a wall of cut off ties, just because Sir Richard hates when his employees wear them.
One of the bars, the Commons Club, offers all guests free drinks for an hour every night, so sitting at the impressive almond-shaped bar with a cocktail is the perfect way to start a night on the town, or hang out at until you’re ready for a tattooed steak (yeah that’s a thing) in the restaurant.
On the rooftop is Cerise, with a terrace stretching the length of the building, where you can sip some (very strong but delicious) cocktails and nibble Izakaya tapas while taking in the city’s skyline by night.
Sir Richard’s take on international travel is all about old school glamour and a bit of cheek, and there are little touches of this everywhere.
To enter the speakeasy bar Upstairs, you have to go through a locker room marked “the gym”, and some of the toilets are marked “blokes and birds”. If you don’t mind a bit of novelty along with your style, you’ll appreciate the little touches.
A little haven in the bustling city centre of Chicago is the hotel’s spa. There’s a hamman and treatment rooms (no pool, alas), with Swedish massages, jet lag massages, breakout and anti-ageing facials on offer by lovely therapists.
It’s a welcome retreat after a day exploring the city and sampling ALL of the American sized meals.
Eyebrows were raised when Sir Richard chose the Windy City as the first destination for the Virgin hotel (New York is next in the pipeline), but apparently it was the draw of the perfect property that did it.
And why not? The Virgin Hotel is set between the slick business and shopping districts, a short walk to the lake, Michigan Avenue and Millennium Park – home to “Cloud Gate”, that famous mirrored bean where it’s mandatory to take a selfie. The Museum of Contemporary Arts is close by too.
The city is famous for its modern architectural backdrop, and the best way to see this is with a boat tour by the Chicago Architecture Foundation with talks by volunteers (who just do it because they love the city) while you take in the impressive mixture of buildings, monuments and history. The water tower and pumping station are symbolic reminders of the city’s rebirth after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
Getting a good view of a city is sort of mandatory on holiday, so head up the 360 Chicago one thousand feet above the ‘Magnificent Mile’ – the cosmopolitan downtown centre – to see it all on a clear day. Although this sleek area is packed with boutiques, department stores, theatres, galleries and museums, it’s worth exploring other areas like the trendy Wicker Park, west of the city centre.
At night, head out of the hotel and try one of the tikki bars Chicago is famous for – like the popular Three Dots and a Dash where strong cocktails come in unnecessarily big vessels. Warning: The Zombie Punch contains four types of rum.
Three nights at the hotel with Virgin Holidays, including flights from Heathrow and accommodation, starts from £679pp, based on two adults sharing. To book call 0344 557 3859.
Rooms only at Virgin Hotels Chicago start from £109 per night. To book call +1855 946 6600.