Travel to Chicago hotels

The Radisson Blu Aqua hotel features this modern lobby in Chicago, Illinois. (Claude Peck, Minneapolis Star Tribune, MCT / June 4, 2012)

CHICAGO - I grew up in Chicago and still go there often. But since I'm visiting my family, I rarely stay in hotels.

Friends post on Facebook about their weekends at the historic Burnham or the boutique James, the bargain Days Inn or the glitzy Wit; it all sounds very "downtown" and exotic compared with my mom's suburban townhouse.

Recently, overcome with envy - and "on assignment" - I booked rooms at three Chicago hotels, all opened within the past nine months. Each of these newcomers has its own style, price point and charm.

It was a hectic trip, what with changing hotels each day, but it turned out to be a great way to experience three distinct parts of the city - Lincoln Park, with few hotels; the east Loop, which is thick with 'em, and the walkable River North district.

-Hotel Lincoln

Where: 1816 N. Clark, at the bottom of the "V" where Clark and Lincoln converge, across the street from Lincoln Park and its famous zoo.

Rooms: 184.

Opened: Spring 2012.

Vibe: Retro, with a healthy splash of kitsch. Garage-sale paintings adorn a lobby stairwell, and Chicago-specific photos and art decorate the rooms.

Details: The lobby, which adjoins Elaine's coffee shop and Perennial Virant, chef Paul Virant's farm-to-table restaurant, makes an appealing hangout.

My 10th-floor room was small but nicely appointed, with zillion-thread-count white sheets, 27 pillows, flat-screen TV, Wi-Fi and comfy rolling office chair. Its single window overlooked Lincoln Park and the lake.

A gorgeous Sunday afternoon lured me outside, where the hotel has free bikes for customer use. I took one and pedaled through Lincoln Park, past the famous zoo that I visited as a child and out to the blue-green lakefront that makes Chicago one of the country's great summertime cities.

Turning north, I headed up to Belmont, where a big harbor was busy with pleasure boats. A few blocks to the west and I was in Lakeview, where I browsed at Unabridged Bookstore and drank coffee in the window of Intelligentsia, the best small-chain coffee place in town.

Nightlife seekers can head a few blocks south to Old Town, home of the Second City comedy club and chock-a-block with eateries.

Find a hearty breakfast at Nookie's on N. Wells, then stroll in the adjacent Old Town Triangle district, an old German enclave of quiet streets clustered around massive St. Michael's Church. With its narrow streets, small houses and apartments, shade-dappled sidewalks, birdsong and school playgrounds, it's entirely charming, the kind of place you would want to live in if you moved to Chicago.

Pocketbook issues: Total bill for one night in my single-king-bed room was $406, with no room service or minibar raiding. I've seen online offers at about half that rate, which is more in line with what it's worth. At $406, it's drastically overpriced, especially for a non-Loop location.

Phone and Web: 1-312-254-4700;

-Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel

Where: 221 N. Columbus Dr., just east of the Loop and south of the river in the massive Lakeshore East development above the old Illinois Central rail yards.