Where to Stay in Downtown Chicago: The Loop vs. Magnificent Mile vs. River North

Trying to decide what hotel to stay at in downtown Chicago since it’s your first time visiting? I’ve gone to Chicago multiple times within the last year and had the opportunity to stay at many different hotels. In fact I consciously made the decision to stay at different places just so I can do a compare and comparison guide!

Many people probably will give me the side eye by even suggesting people to stay in downtown Chicago (kinda like when I give the look to someone who tells people to stay at Times Square in New York City). While there are other nice areas to stay in Chicago, coming from a tourist (not a Chicago local), I do see merits of staying downtown.

So I’m here to show you hotels that I’ve stayed at in Chicago to help you make that important decision on where to stay in Chicago if you are visiting for the first (or second) time. Also while you are here, be sure to check out my first-time-in-Chicago itinerary!

This blog contains occasional affiliate links, where I receive a small commission on sales of the products/hotels that are linked at no additional cost to you. In addition, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

What do I Mean by Downtown Chicago

When I say downtown Chicago, I mean the Loop, Magnificent Mile and River North areas. These neighborhoods are where most first time Chicago visitors spend their time doing touristy things.

  • The Loop: The loop is one of the most significant areas for tourists in downtown Chicago. It is the area south of Chicago river and here is where you will find museums, the Bean, and other cool things Chicago is known for.
  • River North: River North, as the name implies, is north of the Chicago river. There are a ton of restaurants and bars in River North, and it is easily accessible by buses (or simply walk across the bridges) from the Loop.
  • Magnificent Mile: Magnificent Mile is essentially Michigan Avenue, north of the Chicago River but east of River North. If you like shopping and a fancy vibe then you will probably like the Magnificent Mile area.

I love staying in downtown Chicago because it is super convenient to get everywhere, most of the things I want to do (as a tourist) are there, and there are a ton of restaurants and bars for me to choose from. I also find it easy to get around everywhere using the bus and train in downtown Chicago.

So if you are trying to determine if you should be staying in the Loop vs. River North vs. Magnificent Mile, just simply bookmark all the places you want to visit, and see which area has the most things you want and stay there. Honestly you cannot go wrong with any of these 3 downtown Chicago neighborhoods.

Where to Stay in Downtown Chicago: The Loop

As I mentioned above, the Loop is the most popular and touristy area to stay. You will find most of the famous architecture, museums, and parks in the Loop area.

Below is the list of attractions you can find in the Loop:

Cloud Gate (The Bean) at Millennium ParkFree
Maggie Daley Park: Awesome playground for kidsFree
Grant Park with Buckingham FountainFree
Art Institute of Chicago*Ticket Here
Chicago Cultural CenterFree
Skydeck at Willis Tower (Formerly known as Sears Tower)*Ticket Here
Chicago Theatre for shows or tours*Ticket Here
Adler Planetarium (South Loop in the Museum Campus)*Ticket Here
Shedd Aquarium (South Loop in the Museum Campus)*Ticket Here
Field Museum (South Loop in the Museum Campus)*Ticket Here
* Attractions are included in the Go City Pass or Chicago CityPASS

Why I Recommend Staying in the Loop?

  • Great for sightseeing, as it is closer to all the museums and parks
  • Great for families for the same reason
  • Tend to be quieter, especially at night. Perfect for those looking for some quietness
  • Easy to get around with CTA trains and buses

Hotels to Stay at the Loop

I’ve stayed at a number of hotels in the loop, and while deciding where to stay, I also did a lot of research on hotels there. Below you will see hotels that I recommend through my personal experience as well as through my research.

HotelMy RatingWhy I like itWebsite
LondonHouse★★★★★Location, view, serviceBook here
Palmer House★★★☆☆History, lobby, on-site food optionsBook here
citizenM ★★★★☆Location, room, view, vibeBook here
Staypineapple★★★☆☆Location, free drink & cookies, pet-friendlyBook here

Where to Stay in Downtown Chicago: Magnificent Mile

Magnificent Mile is essentially Michigan avenue north of Chicago river. It is one of the most well known areas in Chicago, known for luxury hotels, high end shopping, tourist attractions and a vibrant nightlife and restaurant scene.

I stayed at the Magnificent Mile the first time I was in Chicago due to its proximity to everything (and the fact that it is so famous). However I did debate between staying in the Loop or Magnificent Mile so I did a ton of research.

But now that I have stayed in both areas, I can easily show you the difference between staying at the Loop vs. Magnificent Mile. To me, the main difference between the Loop and Magnificent Mile include:

  • Different Vibes: the Loop can be more quiet whereas Magnificent Mile is more vibrant. You can constantly hear ambulances/ fire trucks when staying on the Magnificent Mile
  • The Loop is better for access to museums whereas Magnificent Mile is better for shopping, eating, and access to Lincoln Park and Gold Coast/ Beaches
  • The Loop has more CTA “L” train stops whereas Magnificent Mile only has buses. You will need to walk a few blocks west or south to get the “L” trains

Things to do near the Magnificent Mile

Now that you know the biggest difference between the Loop and Magnificent Mile in downtown Chicago, I can show you some of the attractions on the Magnificent Mile so you know what you are close to!

  • Shopping: There are so many stores on Michigan Ave. north of Chicago River and you can also find high end boutiques like Chanel and Hermes just north of Michigan Ave. I always love window shopping on Magnificent Mile even though I never actually buy anything (sales tax is like 10% there!)
  • Starbucks Reserve Roastery: This is the largest Starbucks Reserve in the world! With 5 stories (including a rooftop terrace), this Starbucks Reserve is an attraction itself. Even if you don’t like coffee, you can still go inside to look. I actually can’t believe how often I went there since we stayed right across the street!
  • Navy Pier: If you are traveling to Chicago with kids, then you absolutely cannot miss Navy Pier (I mean even if you are not with a kid, you can still enjoy it). Navy Pier is the home of Chicago’s Children’s Museum as well as the giant ferris wheel and a few amusement park rides. We walked to Navy Pier from our hotel on Mag Mile and it was pretty convenient.
  • Chicago Architecture Tour: Before I went to Chicago, everyone told me I had to do this architecture tour so I did! I have to say this tour is pretty awesome (and relaxing), and I learned a lot about the history behind different buildings. You can easily access the architecture tour (there are several spots) from Magnificent Mile area.
  • 360 Chicago: You definitely know Sears Tower (now called Willis Tower) but the other famous Chicago observatory is 360 Chicago on Michigan Ave. Read my blog on the difference between Skydeck vs. 360 Chicago
  • Lincoln Park Zoo + Gold Coast (and beaches): Although Lincoln Park Zoo is not on Magnificent Mile, it is just north of it. You can easily bike or take a bus to the zoo (which is free) or just check out the fancy neighborhood or go to the beach. This is absolutely my favorite neighborhood in Chicago and I secretly wished I live there.
  • Other Attractions include the Wrigley Building, Museum of Ice Cream, NBC Tower, and part of Riverwalk

Hotels to Stay at on the Magnificent Mile

Out of all the Chicago downtown neighborhoods, I know Magnificent Mile the best, considering I spent numerous hours walking around window shopping and checking out different restaurants. Another reason I know that area well is that I have stayed there (in different hotels) a few times.

HotelMy RatingWhy I like itWebsite
Intercontinental★★★★☆Location, room size, Starbucks on-siteBook here
Marriott Downtown Chicago★★★☆☆Location, service, view, on-site convenience storeBook here
Hyatt Centric★★★★☆Modern and big room, service, location, poolBook here
The Gwen★★★★☆Terrace, large bathroom, comfy bedBook here
Courtyard Magnificent Mile★★★☆☆Indoor pool, quiet room, Starbucks on-siteBook here

Where to Stay in Downtown Chicago: River North

River North is just west of Michigan Ave and north of Chicago River. It is an area known for its art, bar and restaurant scene. There are a ton of art galleries in River North and you will find the most number of bars and restaurants there (good ones too)!

While there are some attractions in River North, such as House of Blues and Riverwalk, River North is not really known for “attractions” like the loop or Magnificent Mile. You stay there for the access to restaurants, bars and simply to not be staying on the Mag Mile like every other tourist.

But honestly in my opinion, River North and Mag Mile tend to blend into each other since they are both north of the river. Unless you have a strong desire to stay on the busiest street in Chicago, River North is totally fine and may even be slightly cheaper at times.

Hotels to Stay at in River North

HotelMy RatingWhy I like itWebsite
Moxy Chicago Downtown★★★☆☆Unconventional modern vibe and decor, restaurant and bar in the lobbyBook here
Courtyard River North★★★☆☆Room size, Microwave & Fridge in room, pool, terraceBook here
The Royal Sonesta Chicago River North★★★★☆Access to the red line, indoor pool, outdoor terrace, best Italian restaurant 2 blocks downBook here

The Loop vs. Magnificent Mile vs. River North Summary

Below is my summary of the major difference between the 3 downtown neighborhoods and which areas are better for whom. All opinions are based on my personal experience!

Is Downtown Chicago Safe?

I had always wondered about safety in Chicago. After several trips to Chicago within the last year, I can confidently say that I felt pretty safe in Chicago, especially downtown Chicago most of the time.

I usually travel solo to Chicago for business and often walk around the hotel by myself to go to restaurants and attractions. There has not been a single incident that made me feel unsafe during all my visits. However, I do tend to take public transportation during the day and Uber back directly to the hotel at night so I don’t randomly walk around outside at night much.


Tips For First Time Visitors to Chicago

Having been to Chicago as a first (and second and third) time visitor, I have a few tips to offer to help make your trip smoother:

  • Consider an attraction pass to save money: The first time I went to Chicago, I used a Go City Pass to visit all the observation decks and museums. I can truly say it helped me save some money. If you know you are going to those attractions, do the calculation to see if it’s worth getting a pass.
  • Use CityMapper for directions: While Google Maps work ok for walking directions, I think CityMapper is way superior when it comes to buses and trains. I loved using CityMapper to time the bus and it is always so accurate.
  • Get a Ventra App and Ventra Card to pay for CTA bus and the “L” train. You can top up on the app and add the card to your Apple Wallet to tap and pay.
  • Lyft is often cheaper than Uber in Chicago based on my experience. Curb app also works well for getting a licensed taxi (especially if you are traveling with children with no car seat).
  • Restaurants charge 3% tip and many restaurants automatically add 20% service charge.
  • Go to West Loop for the best food and explore neighborhoods such as Wicker Park, Bucktown, Logan Square and Gold Coast outside of the usual touristy attractions.
  • Sales tax is over 10% in Chicago; unless absolutely necessary, do your shopping at home.
  • Wear comfortable shoes as you will be walking A LOT in Chicago.

Read My Other Chicago Blogs

Hope you found this post useful in deciding where to stay in Chicago. If you are planning your first trip to Chicago, be sure to check out my other Chicago blogs.

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