Historic Hilton: A Review of The Palmer House in Chicago
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To The Point
As one of the oldest hotels in North America, in many ways, the Palmer House is a bit past its prime. Pros: Low off-peak room rates, decent elite recognition, grand lobby and ballrooms. Cons: With 1,641 guest rooms, it’s a bit too big to handle — for guests and staff, alike.
I’ve stayed at many “brand-new” hotels over the years — as both a product reviewer and an average Joe, I tend to seek them out. Hotels that bill themselves as historic, meanwhile, remain an occasional curiosity, if for nothing more than a quick look.
Recently, however, I decided to book a three-night stay for my girlfriend and me at one of the most historic properties of them all, The Palmer House Hilton, Chicago’s first hotel to offer elevators, electric lightbulbs and phones in each guest room. And historic it is — in fact, in the case of some of the public areas and ballrooms, I doubt much has changed since Hilton took over the property way back in 1945. Aside from the lightbulbs, perhaps, and property-wide Wi-Fi.
We booked the first two nights of the stay via Hotels.com, so TPG could collect night credits and 10x miles with his Capital One Venture Rewards credit card, at a total cost of $322, including taxes and fees. Since I had a wedding to attend at the hotel over the weekend, I booked a third night directly with Hilton in order to maximize my Diamond benefits — a perk of the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card — and earn points within the Hilton Honors program, instead.
While the hotel was kind enough to add my Honors number to the Hotels.com booking — it never hurts to ask! — I wasn’t able to earn Hilton points for the first two nights of my stay.
With my Honors number attached, I did have access to my usual Diamond benefits, though, which was a very nice surprise! That meant executive-lounge access (or free breakfast downstairs), free Wi-Fi and a modest upgrade.
Smack dab in the middle of the Loop, the Palmer House’s location is just about as good as it gets.
While it can get unbearably cold in winter — as it certainly was during part of my mid-February visit — many of the city’s top attractions are just a short walk away.
Ideally, I’d avoid parking a car if you can, though, given the sky-high parking fees — $55 for self-parking, or a whopping $82 per night for valet.
With my Honors number attached, I was able to complete the check-in process directly through Hilton’s mobile app — or so I thought. Naturally, my first tap was the “Request Upgrade” button, which generated the following pop-up:
Next, I attempted to use Hilton’s superslick floor-plan tool to choose the largest, quietest room in my base Hip & Historic King category.
After not having much luck on the 21st floor, I headed down to 12, where I encountered an error every time, even though I added a valid credit card number.
The failed mobile check-in ended up working out in my favor, though, since I then used the chat tool to request an upgrade, landing myself an executive-level king room, free of charge. The hotel offered an upgrade to a Hip & Historic Suite for $100, and wouldn’t budge on the price, despite some Hilton properties offering suites to Diamond members without an upgrade charge.
While I was all prepared to have to check in the hip and historic way — in person at the front desk — a mobile key magically appeared on my day of arrival.
Fortunately, that made it possible to bypass the “happening” lobby scene and head straight upstairs.
As an executive-level guest, we had access to special express elevators. They were pretty funky — there was even a leather bench!
The hotel’s majesty diminished once the elevator doors opened up, leaving us in a long hallway that felt anything but hip.
Hilton doesn’t list the square footage for some room types, since they can vary significantly from one room to the next, given the historic nature of this particular hotel.
Still, our room felt decently large — I would have been a bit disappointed had Hilton decided to label this a studio suite, but as a standard guest room, it fit the bill.
The decor was certainly more historic than hip, but it was clear the room had been renovated at some point.
The bed was decently comfortable, and the room was quiet overall, despite overlooking a busy street.
I wasn’t a fan of the lighting, though, especially in the bathroom — the lights were fluorescent and a bit too bright, especially during visits in the middle of the night.
The hotel offered an array of Crabtree & Evelyn amenities, including soap, shampoo and body lotion, plus a hair dryer and plenty of washcloths and towels.
Back in the main room, there was a large almost-walk-in closet, along with an iron and ironing board.
Food and Beverage
My favorite thing about scoring a room on the executive floor was having easy access to the lounge.
I actually had to walk through the lounge to get to and from the elevators, which was fine most of the time, except when the space was packed for Sunday breakfast (not pictured).
Breakfast was included for anyone with access, and included a mix of fresh fruit, orange juice and coffee (that the staff didn’t seem in much of a hurry to replace whenever it ran out, which was frequently).
Hot dishes were limited to not-so-appealing eggs and toast.
The executive lounge offered an evening happy hour as well, including a full bar.
There was also a modest selection of food — lettuce wraps with chicken on the evening I stopped by.
As a Diamond member, I was entitled to a continental breakfast in the main restaurant, too, which I preferred, given the larger space and selection.
After checking my name off a list, the host handed me this fun HHonors Gold Member casino chip, which my server promptly collected before instructing me to head straight to the buffet.
The continental buffet included a variety of cold items — deli meats, fruit, pastries and a diverse selection of cereal.
I decided to upgrade to the full buffet, though, which got me access to hot dishes and made-to-order omelets for an extra $8.
Aside from the upgrade and free buffet, having the staff add my Honors number also let me text the hotel through the Hilton app — a great feature, at least in theory. I always received a response within a few minutes, but several confirmed requests never materialized, such as the robes I ordered and the Valentine’s Day welcome I confirmed before arrival.
Despite receiving confirmation in the app, our “Champagne” and chocolate-covered strawberries weren’t in the room as I expected and weren’t delivered later in the night. After a couple of follow-ups they finally showed up the next day, but with prosecco, instead of Champagne. While I normally wouldn’t complain about not receiving an amenity that isn’t guaranteed, I was excited about surprising my girlfriend on Valentine’s Day, so I was bummed that the spread hadn’t arrived as promised.
The room did have a well-stocked minibar. We ended up moving some of the snacks around to make room on top before noticing the automated sensors, but never ended up getting hit with a charge.
Wi-Fi was available free of charge to Hilton Honors members, or for $12.95 without an account. As a Diamond member, I received premium Wi-Fi for free, which worked well.
I also had a chance to check out some of the event venues, since I was at the hotel for a wedding. The main ballroom felt especially historic, but the staff was friendly and accommodating, and the catering was very good overall.
With a whopping 1,641 guest rooms, The Palmer House is big — gigantic, even. As a result, things tended to get lost in the shuffle, from the lounge coffee machine often being empty to staff requests (or even phone calls from the room) going unanswered.
Scoring an upgrade to the executive floor made a big difference overall, since we could use the express elevators, but the lounge itself was overwhelmingly crowded, especially toward the end of Sunday breakfast and throughout the evening happy hours. Ultimately, while it’s a decent business hotel, if a peaceful getaway is what you’re after, Palmer House is not your spot.
All photos by the author.
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