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22 July 2015

Exploring with Foursquare

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When abroad, we like to take a neighborhood-based approach to our activities rather than just work our way down a sightseeing checklist. This means that we select a neighborhood in a particular city, then we spend the day eating, drinking, and experiencing that neighborhood. We most recently applied this approach to our visit to New York City, spending our first day in the West Village and then our second on the Upper West side.

While we’ve used this approach for a while, we haven’t settled on a strategic way to plan what we do in these neighborhoods. Usually we pick a neighborhood out of a guidebook and do some web searching to educate ourselves about what is there. As we were preparing for this trip, we mused about how awesome it would be to have a custom-made map that allows us to have pins to note where we’d like to visit, a way for us to geographically search nearby places of interest. After looking for a while, Jeremy finally stumbled upon the answer, right in front of us: Foursquare!

We both regularly use Swarm, Foursquare’s check-in app, to track where we go, but neither of us had really bothered using Foursquare since it became more of a competitor of Yelp, Urbanspoon, Zagat, etc. But with this trip to New York City, we finally realized how Foursquare could be useful to us: it could enable us to travel and experience a city on our own terms, which is exactly how we prefer to travel. We’re fairly independent travelers so we like making our own decisions about what we do, where we go, and how long we spend there. However, even the most experienced travelers can benefit from some extra organizational help, recommendations, and experience from actual people.

Before we even left our house, we were able to use Foursquare to plan. We used the app to find “anchors,” or big draws to a particular neighborhood. This could be a building, museum, bar, or, as is usually the case for us, a restaurant. We knew about the Spotted Pig from friends, and saw on Foursquare that weekday lunch would be a good time to visit without crowds. So we decided to have lunch there, in the West Village. Once we’d settled on a neighborhood (and more importantly, lunch) we searched for bars and sights nearby. We read summaries, looked at pictures, and sifted through reviews (finding useful internet reviews is a different topic). We saved these locations, and they went on our map.

We didn’t previously know about these bars or restaurants, and that’s the power of Foursquare: discovery. You can, of course, like any map app, search for places by category. But Foursquare has been collecting data for a long time, and it tells them more than where you are. As we browsed Foursquare, a picture began to emerge of the neighborhood scene at all kinds of levels. Foursquare was suggesting places based on the assumption that two accounts who liked similar restaurants would probably enjoy the restaurants each other had liked, too. Your taste, quantified. It only took a little while on the service before we learned how to navigate the different connections offered by all this data.

Looking at bars, the barflys appeared among the place pages and recommended, both explicitly in ratings and implicitly in check ins, other bars with the expert opinion of longtime drinkers. Caffeine enthusiasts adamantly evaluated little walk in coffee shops, and foodies knew all the hippest restaurants. We knew the little parks where we could rest in the shade, and we knew which brewpubs had outdoor seating. Best of all we knew exactly where we were and exactly where they were. It was all on the map.

So when we walked through Washington Square Park, we never had to browse lists in the sunlight to figure out what we wanted to do next. A quick glimpse at the map was all we needed to find a neighborhood bar or a quick bite to eat. We had already done the legwork, so we were free to wander the city as our whims took us. For two days we walked between bars, restaurants, parks, and coffee shops on the fly. We never felt rushed, and we never felt obligated to do anything in particular. Mostly, we walked, but if we wanted to do anything, we had already curated a list of places we thought were worth a visit.

We’re often leery of the “wisdom of the crowd” when it comes to travel, and Foursquare at times seems to embody that, but this is more than just providing what’s popular, this is about connecting similar tastes. Foursquare can be used as a tool to tap into a neighborhood through its various communities and scenes. It means the day you’re actually there you can concentrate less on what you want to do and more on what you want to experience. It returns you to a kind of travel that is scene-based rather than attraction-based, and New York City is perhaps the most talented of cities at crafting scenes even more worthwhile than her attractions.