More wonderful than its nickname suggests, Chicago the “Second City” boasts a first-rate travel experience. The city perched on the coast of Lake Michigan is known for its diverse and eclectic neighborhoods that all offer very different experiences. While there are two specific and historically LGBTQ neighborhoods (Boystown and Andersonville), many areas of town feature specifically LGBTQ-friendly bars, dance nights and events.
Despite the neighborhood-focus of the city, most hotel accommodations cannot be found within the neighborhoods, but instead in downtown Chicago. This can make for a very touristy feel to most areas of downtown and in addition can mean that city-center room rates can be quite cost prohibitive for younger and budget travelers. I was happy to discover Freehand, a hotel/hostel combo that offers a variety of shared and smaller private rooms that are priced well below the hotel average.
The holidays are a lovely time to see the downtown area and while the cold and wind might be discouraging to others, I was thrilled to have a weekend to take in the sparkling lights and festive atmosphere. And as a bonus, Freehand offered a full daily calendar of activities to do both in downtown and in the nearby and very happening neighborhoods.
Even from the outside of the hotel, the vibe is very on-trend. The lobby is filled with art and design books, mid-century furniture and loads of live plants. It is very Pacific Northwest US with Pendleton blankets and rugs on nearly every surface. The Broken Shaker, the hotel’s cocktail bar and lounge is nestled snugly behind the lobby. The space is intentionally dark with a tiki-speakeasy vibe. Late in the afternoon, the bar and lounge are already buzzing with folks enjoying cocktails around the fire, playing large-scale Jenga and chess. Travelers felt welcome coming in and out alongside other tourists and locals enjoying the super inventive mixed drinks (including a series of Chicago-inspired cocktails) and delicious food.
Accommodations and Location:
Freehand is located in River North – very close to the Gold Coast/Magnificent Mile. Access to the 24/7 L Red Line is only a few blocks away and bus transit is available on nearly every block. The Ventra card will allow rides on both and I recommend it, especially for getting to the neighborhoods. As someone who enjoys the less touristy experience overall, I was thrilled to see that Freehand recommended some of my favorite neighborhoods like Logan Square and Wicker Park in their list of events. Both major airports are accessible by the L train, but are each about a 30 minute ride. There are loads of things to do if staying downtown is preferred such as shopping on the Magnificent Mile, Millennium Park, The Art Institute and the Museum of Contemporary Arts – all within walking distance or a very short ride on public transit.
Our queen-size room on the 12th floor immediately greeted us with the warm scent of cedar wood along with a bag of fresh coffee beans from Café Integral downstairs and a bottle of wine. The bed is a raised platform with comfortable blankets (Pendleton again) and lots of built-in spaces. Books appear to be a theme in hotel with a stack of vintage books on the shelves above the desk. The bathroom is small but lovely with striking blue clay tile, a standup shower and fresh warm robes and towels. Despite being in a bustling area of the city, the street noise was minimal and the room felt very cosy. While I did not utilize the shared spaces – the lower level provides communal kitchen and laundry.
Prices range from $45 for a shared quad space to $180 for a private king room with a city view.
LGBT Friendly Hotel:
My partner and I are a queer couple (trans guy, cis woman) and tend to not be read as visibly queer unless we are in queer spaces. While there is a level of “passing privilege” in the straight world – we do still prefer to be in spaces that are friendly and accommodating. This is especially true when we go anywhere with swimming or public bathing facilities because my partner prefers not to display his chest scars in non-queer spaces. This was not an issue at all during this stay – as our room had a private bathroom and there is no swimming facility. While the hotel did not specifically address any LGBT events or accommodations, we felt comfortable and welcome. Just down the street from the hotel is the long-standing LGBT bar Second Story, which is a great place to have some strong drinks and hang out with friendly faces nearby.