As guidebooks slowly go extinct with the rest of print media, travelers are turning to guidebook apps and TripAdvisor. But we’re left wanting.
Guidebook apps are just reformatted text. They don’t use your smartphone’s features to do anything novel. Most are memory-intensive so you have to download the guides before leaving.
If you will have a data plan or WiFi access, I have a much better solution for your “What should I see/eat/do?” questions. My favorite app for exploring a new city isn’t even a travel app. It’s Foursquare.
If you aren’t familiar with Foursquare, you may have heard the associated jargon: check-ins, mayors, badges. You can safely ignore these buzzwords.
Foursquare began as an app for checking into locations and seeing where your friends had checked in. Nothing to do on a Friday night? See who’s at what bar. Having a great time at a neighborhood festival? Check in there and tell your friends to join you.
As a private person who isn’t much for stalking, I had little interest in this early version of Foursquare. As Foursquare has grown and gathered more data, it has become a great source of recommendations.
Looking for a restaurant around noon? Foursquare will show you the best spots for lunch. Found a pastry shop to try but can’t decide what to get? Read the tips left by fellow users to see what’s popular.
This article details how to use Foursquare to find places to eat, drink, shop, and sightsee in a new city.
After signing up, you can add your friends to see where they’ve been and to read their tips. You can also follow lists of places. I follow a “Top 25 Burgers in SF” so I’ll know whenever I’m near one.
Like Facebook, Foursquare also has business accounts. I like to follow newspapers, magazines, and websites to get local tips. In San Francisco, I follow SF Weekly, a weekly newspaper, and 7×7, a popular food, fashion, and culture magazine. Before you visit a new city, figure out the influential publications and follow them on Foursquare.
After you’re set up, the home screen will show your friends’ check-ins and what’s happening near you. The latter includes friends who have checked in nearby, places on your lists, and newly-opened places.
Start with the search box at the top. Tap there then search for something specific or choose a broad category to explore.
The categories include food, nightlife, coffee, shopping, sights, and the arts. Or if you’re really flexible, you can choose Best Nearby or Trending. Use the Trending category to see which places are busier than normal. Maybe a museum has a popular new exhibit or a theater has a hit show that you should see.
Searching on Foursquare
When you’re looking for something specific, type it into the search box. Suggested terms will auto-populate to make your search easier.
If you type “thai,” you will see suggestions including the category ‘Thai Restaurant’ and names of specific restaurants.
You can search for something specific like a favorite dish (margherita pizza) or drink (margaritas). When you do, Foursquare will show you a list of places with your search term highlighted in a tip like “Have an awesome 5 spice margarita!”
Filtering Your Foursquare Results
Searching will yield a list of results based on location, rating, and your social connections.
To narrow down the list to something more manageable, tap ‘Filter’ in the top right corner of the screen.
Here you can choose to sort by Best Match (ratings, connections) or Distance.
You can filter the results by what’s open now, places you’ve saved to lists, price range ($ to $$$$), and places offering specials (usually a discount or free add-on for checking in).
After searching and filtering, choose a specific place to see more info and tips about it.
A place’s page will show you its hours, whether or not it takes credit cards, if it has WiFi, its phone number, its menu, and where it is on a map.
Below all of this information are the tips. Foursquare will highlight three tips and bold phrases that are commonly used in tips. This box is a great snapshot of what people talk about when they talk about that place.
If you’re looking for more, tap “View All X Tips” to see what everyone has said. I love using this feature when visiting a restaurant for the first time. From the tips, you can find the most popular dishes and narrow down your choices for what to order.
Sightseeing with Foursquare
While I love to eat, you may want to use Foursquare to find sights to visit.
Choose the category ‘Sights’ after tapping the search box.
Most of the sights to see are obvious ones. You could find the same list in any guidebook or with a quick Google search.
What makes Foursquare so special is that you can find sights near you and get great tips on each one. If you find yourself exploring a neighborhood that guidebooks don’t cover, you can still find interesting stuff to do.
When I searched in San Francisco, I found obvious suggestions like Coit Tower and Alcatraz, but Foursquare also suggested the Musee Mechanique, a collection of “mechanically operated musical instruments and antique arcade machines.” Foursquare also listed the Walt Disney Family Museum, which is way off of the normal tourist track.
Best of all are the tips. Every guidebook will tell you to visit Coit Tower. Foursquare highlights tips like “Come on Saturday at 11 a.m. for a free mural tour and access to the PWAP stairwell murals (normally off limits).” Or, “Look for the parrots. Not always around, but they’ll be in the trees.”
Foursquare will help you find the best sights and tell you how to have the best experience at those sights.
Checking in isn’t necessary to use Foursquare, but it will help you get more out of it. When you check in to places and rate them (with a heart or a broken heart), Foursquare will learn what you like then suggest similar places as you travel.
To share your list of places, use IFTTT (If This, Then That) to link your Foursquare account to other web apps. You can use IFTTT to share your check-ins on Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr. Or you can email yourself or someone else every time you check in. One IFTTT “recipe” will email your mother every time you check in with the hashtag #mom.
For record-keeping, you can tell IFTTT to add every check-in to a Google Doc. Then, when you get home, you’ll have a list of everywhere you went. Delete the places you didn’t like, and you have a readymade list of hot spots to share with your friends or to have for reference next time.
That’s how I use Foursquare to find food and activities in a new city and to catalogue my travels. The Explore feature is a great way to find interesting destinations nearby and to see what the locals recommend.
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