Words Patrick Welch
The challenge To see if guidebooks really are dead and whether you can unearth the best of a city using just your phone.
Where? I live in east London, but want to find out what happens if I forget everything I know and use just five apps on my phone, including the ubiquitous Twitter. Appropriately, I start on Old Street – east London’s so-called Silicon Roundabout and home to many of its tech companies. The apps doing battleGuidePal, a guidebook-style app that started in Stockholm and hit 1 million registered users just 14 months after launching in 2011; BarChick, a bar guide that launched its app in April 2011, and covers such cities as London, Berlin, Hong Kong and New York; Wikihood, an app that originated in Germany and serves up Wikipedia information tailored to your location; Foodspotting, a US app that launched in 2010 and acts as a photo guide to meals near you, and Twitter, which you almost certainly know about. Let the technology challenge begin…
I start my experiment with a quick after- work trial around Silicon Roundabout. I put out a request for nearby bar suggestions on Twitter, which delivers a few responses, including Bar Kick (www.cafekick.co.uk) on Shoreditch High Street, a classic Friday- night, post-work drinking spot. I have a quick look on GuidePal, too, but the bar isn’t mentioned – a shame, because for my money, it’s a good choice; one of the few remaining Shoreditch bars that successfully treads the line between being hip and fun, but not pretentious. Happy hour is in full swing, beers are £2 (NOK18) and there is some serious competition over table football.
The next day, after another tweet requesting suggestions for the “perfect Saturday in east London,” I head back to Old Street. As I arrive, I encounter my first issue with navigating using my phone: the great British weather. It’s pouring down, and fiddling with maps and apps in the rain isn’t much fun, so I duck into the nearest place I see, Shoreditch Grind (www.shoreditchgrind.com), a hip coffee shop right next to Old Street tube station.
As it happens, they do a great flat white and, while it buckets down outside, I decide to nurse my coffee and explore Wikihood, a location-based app that delivers Wikipedia information related directly to your surroundings. It comes up with some great historical facts about east London, many of which I didn’t know, despite being a local. It turns out that Shoreditch used to be London’s theatre heartland in the late-16th century, and that Shakespeare’s most famous leading actor, Richard Burbage, is buried just a few hundred metres away in Shoreditch Church.
Following another Twitter tip, I head to Goodhood(www.goodhoodstore.com), a cool boutique just off Old Street in nearby Hoxton. It sells mainly designer clothes and accessories from small labels around the world – alas, it’s not mentioned on any of the apps I check. This confirms my growing impression that Twitter recommendations from like-minded locals are worth their weight in gold.
Time for lunch
By now, I’m hungry and so heed the second piece of Twitter advice, which is to head to Broadway Market, about 15 minutes’ walk away, to check out its food offerings. The market is mentioned on GuidePal, although, slightly unhelpfully, it’s in the shopping section. The Foodspotting app, on the other hand – which simply shows you pictures of food near you – has a plethora of tempting dining pics from the market, including one of a Vietnamese banh mibaguette. I need no further encouragement.
I splash through the rain, and arrive wet and starving. For those not in the know, Broadway Market is as much an open-air fashion show for the area’s cool kids as it is a foodie paradise. That said, in view of the hair-ruining weather today, the ultra- trendy crowds are staying away, and I enjoy a delicious Persian chicken and lentil stew without worrying whether my jeans are so last season.
A few hours later, after resting my legs and drying myself off, it’s time to decide where to go for dinner. When it comes to food recommendations, I’m spoilt for choice. I pick restaurant A Little of What You Fancy (www.alittleofwhatyoufancy.info) after a tip-off on Twitter along with good reviews on Foodspotting and GuidePal; the latter crucially warns me that I’ll need to book ahead. The crowd is artily fabulous, the décor has that stripped-back Dalston shabbiness and the food’s excellent: seared scallops with crème fraiche and chilli jam, and slow-braised crispy pork belly with apple mash and gravy.
Next, my dinner companion suggests Ruby’s cocktail bar as the sensible choice for a post-dinner, pre-club cocktail (www.rubysdalston.com). The blink-and-you’ll- miss-it door is usefully flagged up on BarChick and GuidePal, and once inside we’re greeted with an enticingly civilised secret drinking-den vibe. We sip absinthe cocktails, ogle pop starlet Paloma Faith, who is sat at the next table, and smugly congratulate ourselves for finding such a hot spot.
I could happily fall asleep now but we soldier on in pursuit of somewhere to dance: Dalston Superstore is the final stop (www.dalstonsuperstore.com). The venue is credited with cementing Dalston’s reputation as the centre of London’s alternative nightlife. Tonight it’s hosting Horse Meat Disco, one of the city’s best gay nights. Given the club is such a fixture, it’s no surprise that it was suggested to me via Twitter, and it features on GuidePal and BarChick. However, both apps fail to mention the door policy, which any local will tell you favours club kids with rather ambitious fashion sense.
But there’s a pay-off: it’s only £5 (NOK46) entry for some of the city’s best DJs, one of its most up-for-it crowds and a space small enough that you never lose your friends. It’s here my tweeting stops, cut short by one too many drinks and too many jostling elbows.
In my merry state, I conclude that GuidePal is a good portable alternative to the guidebooks, and Wikihood a great tool for coping with the boring, waiting-around bits of travel; Foodspotting and BarChick are both fun and useful, too, but it’s Twitter that wins the battle of the apps, for delivering up-to-date insider tips.
As to whether a smartphone is better than other ways of discovering a city, it’s certainly a useful travel tool. Just the five apps we used cover a lot of territory, and Twitter is particularly useful as long as you have the right network of people.
But, when it comes to really getting under the skin of a city, it’s still the case that nothing beats local knowledge. But for how much longer? If someone comes up with an app that can connect travellers with like-minded, knowledgeable locals via their phones, technology would triumph without question. Get your thinking caps on, Silicon Roundabout.
The apps we used
What is it? Are you serious? Twitter has half a billion users! It’s an app that allows you to publish and send 140-character messages, or tweets.
Pros Lots of timely information and users – just make sure you’re connected to the right people.
Cons There’s no accounting for taste and unless you’re a celebrity it takes time to build up followers – and your connections.
What is it? A guidebook in app form, Londonbased Swedish export GuidePal has a small selection of tips for over 50 cities, divided into categories.
Pros It’s nicely curated, well-written and easy to use – and you’re not bombarded by millions
Cons It’s selective and only updated periodically, meaning that the hottest new places in town might not be featured yet.
What is it? A bar review app, written in a cheeky, good-time girl style – a bit like travelling with your
mate who has been to every bar in the world.
Pros With advice on hot barmen as well as cocktails, it’s as entertaining as it is informative.
Cons Obviously, it’s only about bars – and the chatty, nudgenudge writing style might not be for everyone.
What is it? A GPSbased app that points you to Wikipedia information relevant to your location. Stand next to Big Ben, and it will tell you all about it.
Pros A brilliantly straightforward idea that’s a bit like having a historian and tour guide in your pocket.
Cons Like its sibling Wikipedia, Wikihood is fascinating and full of information, but it’s not necessarily entirely accurate.
What is it? A picture-based app that shows you photographs that other users have taken of their food – it’s all about the dishes rather than the restaurants.
Pros Simple and well executed, it cuts to the chase and is inherently honest, as pictures
can’t really lie.
Cons It doesn’t have enough users to be fully comprehensive, and the quality of snaps varies, even if the food doesn’t.
Now it’s your turn
Create our guide to Berlin – and win flights!
Every month from now on, we’ll create a city guide based on recommendations by you, the reader. For our March issue, we’re looking for tips and Instagram pictures of Berlin. It can be restaurants, bars, things to do or anything you can think of – the more interesting the better. Upload a picture and a tip to our Instagram using the hashtag #storbytur by 31 January, or to our Facebook page (preferably both), and you’ll be in with the chance to not only appear on the pages of this magazine but to win a trip for two with direct short-haul flights from your city of departure.
Find more online Instagram #storbytur @padwelch Book your tickets www.norwegian.com