Blink and you'll miss it: Philadelphia's Motto by Hilton at Rittenhouse Square
"Did we pass it?" I asked my Uber driver.
A quick glance at the map on the phone told me we had indeed — not surprising once I saw the modest entrance at the Motto By Hilton Philadelphia Rittenhouse Square.
But that shouldn't stop you from considering this property for your next stay in the City of Brotherly Love.
A recent trip to check out the new property in my (also new) hometown turned up a trendy hotel with helpful staff, budget-friendly rooms and what looks to be two great options for drinking and dining once open for business.
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Motto is part of a "design-forward, centrally-located" urban lifestyle-category hotel expansion, according to Hilton. The brand strives to offer "efficient and flexible guest rooms, activated social spaces, locally inspired design, and a communal vibe."
In a time when headline after headline is all about high travel demand driving prices up, the Motto in Philly is refreshingly affordable.
I booked a night in a queen studio room less than a month out for only $119 total using the "Travel and Save" (formerly "Express Saver") rate option directly through Hilton. This discounted rate for Hilton Honors members gives you the option to change or cancel your reservation up to one day prior to arrival, waives the early departure fee (when relevant) and allows for early check-in and late checkout when available.
I used my Chase Sapphire Reserve to book for its 3x Ultimate Rewards points on travel and dining — points that can be transferred to 13 hotel and airline partners. Another card to consider using if it's in your wallet is the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card, which is currently offering a welcome offer of 130,000 Hilton Honors bonus points and a Free Night Reward after you spend $2,000 in purchases on the card in the first three months of card membership.
If you'd rather use points to book, a queen studio (considered a premium room reward) will set you back 62,000 points per night.
The Motto By Hilton Philadelphia Rittenhouse Square's location is prime for first-time visitors to the city, especially those arriving at or departing from the 30th Street train station, which is less than a mile away. Here, you're in the heart of downtown, blocks from the iconic City Hall and close to Philadelphia's incredible art museums all along Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Restaurants, shops and bars abound.
Related: Philadelphia is open for business: Here’s what you need to know to plan a trip
While you won't be far from the lovely Rittenhouse Square, don't come expecting park views — despite the property name. The hotel is on a busy downtown street in Center City West and, as mentioned above, the modest black facade, which blends in with the surrounding businesses, means it's easy to miss the entrance on the first pass.
When I arrived on a rainy Tuesday evening in early June, I tried to skip the front desk and head straight to my room using the contactless arrival option on my phone as prompted by the Hilton Honors app. After several unsuccessful attempts to enter my room, I headed downstairs where I was told by the staff that digital entry was not yet up and running during my stay, at which point the hotel had been open for less than a month.
Related: The award traveler’s guide to Hilton Honors
I was able to walk right up to the front desk without having to wait to check in. I was welcomed by the staff and upon pulling up my reservation, my Gold status was acknowledged. I was handed good old-fashioned key cards and a letter outlining the perks of my stay as a Gold member: free Wi-Fi, two bottles of complimentary water, late checkout upon request and a complimentary coffee and pastry at the adjoining El Cafe or 1,000 bonus points.
I wish the complimentary bottles of water advertised in the welcome letter would have been offered upon check-in or in the room. Instead, I had to return to the front desk later in my stay to retrieve them. I also ended up having to retrieve my breakfast token from the front desk the following morning as it was not in the welcome letter envelope as intended.
Prior to check-in, I was able to choose my room through the app. I had two options: Room 822 or Room 922. I went with the higher floor, hoping for an improved view. This turned out not to matter as the view was of the inner workings of downtown (no disrespect, Philly).
My room was minimalist in design with a handful of economy furniture pieces throughout. Trendy, youthful jewel tones and pastels matched the hallways.
The queen-sized bed was extremely comfortable and flanked by a side table that hosted a small pendant lamp, digital clock radio and a safe. A tray table on the other side of the bed turned out to be quite handy for propping up my laptop and getting work done. My only complaint was the lack of outlets in proximity to the bed. There was one wall outlet with two open sockets within reach but it was by no means convenient and had another guest been in the room (the room was advertised as sleeping up to four people), things would have gotten messy.
A large TV equipped with Netflix was mounted on the wall across from the bed.
A sleeper sofa, a storage bench perfect for resting an open suitcase, and a bistro table with two chairs were the other furniture in the room. Around the corner on the way to the bathroom was the world's smallest hanging rack (which fit four hangers) and a few small open corner shelves.
The bathroom was spacious and well lit. A large mirror overlooked a single sink with ample counter space and a shelf below for towels and appliances. Other than some tile work, there was not a single decorative item in the bathroom — or in the bedroom, for that matter. You don't realize how much you'll miss generic hotel art until it's not there.
Toiletries, which the website touts as "premium bath amenities," included one Malin+Goetz bar of hand soap near the sink, and three nondescript shampoo, conditioner and body wash dispensers on the shower wall.
The room's view was of an uninspiring downtown cityscape, but the window shades kept the light out and I couldn't hear a thing in terms of street noise. Coupled with such a comfy bed, it made for some heavenly sleep.
Hilton says that Motto rooms are equipped with smart room technology such as the ability to adjust the temperature and lighting through the app. If that's true, I totally missed it. Nothing about the light fixtures read smart technology, and the staff never mentioned anything.
The room was squeaky clean (it honestly felt like I may have been the first, or one of the first, to stay there) and sealed with a "CleanStay" sticker when I arrived.
My only gripe about the room other than the lack of accessible outlets was that the air conditioning vent blew directly down onto the bed. Obviously, this is not something the hotel has much control over, but it would definitely get old during a prolonged stay.
The only real amenity here was a compact fitness center located in the basement, and like the rest of the hotel, it was pretty utilitarian. There was a row of various cardio machines, a rack of miscellaneous equipment such as stability balls and resistance bands, and free weights.
Every other cardio machine was blocked off for social distancing purposes. I was told by a fellow gym user that guests were required to make a reservation for a one-hour slot in advance — something the front desk had not mentioned upon check-in.
When I inquired later about needing a reservation, the front desk staff confirmed the policy but reassured me that there was ample availability for reservations going forward. I'm still trying to figure out why every other machine was roped off given the one-at-a-time policy.
There were no towels on the towel rack or water in the water dispenser when I was down there, which I chalk up to the ongoing hotel staffing shortages. The added element of having to wear a mask during my workout had me really missing these two items.
Food and beverage
This is where the Motto will shine — if and when the spaces finally open.
Condesa is the bar and restaurant on the first floor, named after the hip Mexico City neighborhood. It's spacious (140 seats) and fun with contemporary hues, curved sectional couches and a fireplace off to the side — perfect for unwinding after a long day of sightseeing.
The hotel's website says the menu will highlight "regionally-inspired dishes centered around Mexican heirloom corn tortillas, traditionally made with volcanic-stone ground masa and done entirely on-premise each day" and that the bar will offer "mezcal- and tequila-based cocktails." All things I like. It lists the chef as Nick Kennedy, part of Philly's popular Defined Hospitality group, but Condesa's Instagram says it will be Alberto Sandoval, a Mexico City native. Given there's no shortage of incredible talent in the city when it comes to Mexican cuisine, I hope the latter is true.
When I asked at the front counter, I was told the lobby space would be opening in July. However, as of early July, the website says it's still closed.
The adjoining El Cafe on the first floor, where guests can redeem their breakfast credit, was pouring Stumptown coffee and had a surprisingly fancy array of pastries from local French bakery Au Fornil to choose from (a brief and possibly temporary departure from the hotel's Mexican dining theme and decor) — think ham and swiss croissants, blueberry tarts, and spinach and goat cheese quiches.
I ordered the croissant ($5) and a large coffee ($3) — the perfect breakfast if you're looking to fuel up before trekking to Independence Hall or a long day of business meetings. Guests could enjoy their breakfast at a few high-top tables nearby or in an adjacent lounge area.
I didn't get to check out the open-air rooftop restaurant, El Techo (listed on the website as "Condesa's taqueria"), due to it being closed but its Instagram page says it reopened as of June 17 on Wednesdays through Saturdays for walk-ins only, with Sandoval running the kitchen. I hope to make it back to check out the views and the menu.
Having made more trips to the front desk than I would have liked, I can attest to the fact that the front desk staff are extremely friendly and helpful. The extra trips made throughout my stay were for issues that hopefully will get worked out with time and experience.
Related: Should you stay at a new hotel right when it opens?
In terms of housekeeping, while the missing towels and lack of water in the gym weren't ideal, I was more than impressed with the cleanliness of my room. It was truly spotless.
The Motto By Hilton Philadelphia Rittenhouse Square is a great property for the price point. And as its on-site restaurants and bars reopen, it will be an even more attractive option.
I heard someone who looked to be there on business say how much they enjoyed their stay while checking out, and that they looked forward to returning — and I can see why.
The service is green yet friendly, and the common spaces are fun enough to make up for the basic rooms. Minus the bizarre decision to force guests to play a veritable "Hunger Games" of sorts with the bedside outlets, the hotel is extremely functional and knows its target audience (with the exception of the lingering clock radio — no idea who is using that).
If you're in the market for a centrally located, no-frills hotel where you can spend the money you saved on your room on cocktails at the bar, this is it.