I used to call my travel technique serendipity. Arriving in a new city, I would move as if guided by astrology and the tides. Unfettered by timetables, I often left the beaten path for intriguing side streets and out-of-the-way neighborhoods. My method was instinctual, and it led me to unforgettable Madrid flamenco bars, quaint Reykjavik wharves and picturesque Venetian ghettos.
Frankly, I was lost.
Take me away from home and I can transform a stroll to a nearby cafe into an aboriginal walkabout and a crosstown drive into a voyage of endurance that would reduce Sir Ernest Shackleton to a weeping wretch. I never use a map without winding up five miles from nowhere. They are mazelike puzzles to me, difficult to refold, and prone to flying away in a gust of wind, which at least saves me the effort of throwing them across the street in discombobulated rage.
So, while visiting San Francisco for a week this summer with my 24-year-old son and a crowded to-do list, I chose a less willy-nilly approach. The city being the epicenter of all things tech, overrun with blog-minded civic boosters eager to broadcast their discoveries, I would rely on my digital devices alone to find and book transportation, lodging, meals and services. No more stuffing a dog-eared paperback travel guide in my bag. I packed only my iPhone and iPad for an epic journey by app.
Not every item performed as expected. Now and again a software glitch, Wi-Fi brownout or possibly my clumsy typing produced technobabble retorts that would baffle Einstein’s math tutor. At times I felt like a refugee in Technologyland, whose sphynxlike road signs are written in squiggles and umlauts. Other times, apps kept me on track, informed, sometimes delighted. Here’s my rundown of the brilliant, the buggy and the bogus.
How to find great digs
Since I don’t like to step out of a hotel into a neighborhood of other hotels, I turned to Airbnb for lodging. The service is a souped-up Internet bed-and-breakfast registry that has gone global (34,000 cities, 192 nations). For a small fee to guest and host, it collates listings, links up interested parties, and posts hosts’ and guests’ ratings of one another online, encouraging good behavior by both.
The site lists castles, tepees, caves, yurts, private islands, tree houses and plenty of homes with an empty kid’s bedroom. The service provides detailed maps to the locations and even meet-ups with other Airbnb guests in the area.
I found the authentically funky San Francisco listing I wanted in a sprawling converted motorcycle garage turned live-in workspace for a computer services entrepreneur. Set in the heart of the Mission District, it offered two beds in a loft area, a high-end kitchen and laundry, and indoor bike storage. With its heady blend of futurism and industrial decay, it was as far from the prefabricated chain hotel experience as you can get, and a fraction of the price ($195 a night, before taxes).
Fun ways to tool around town
I love seeing a city by bike, so my son and I pedaled everywhere, after scoring a 10 percent discount by booking online with the Blazing Saddles rental agency (433 Mason St.; blazing saddles.com).
The ride across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito was spectacular, dimmed only a bit by the haphazard non-app procedure for booking a return on the bay ferry. The process is a medieval jumble involving color-coded poker chips denoting boarding priority and eons of waiting. Some Silicon Valley type should buy the business and streamline it.
To keep track of our bicycle trek, I used Strava, a nifty GPS tracker that charted our routes, altitude gained and calories burned.
If hiking the city’s exhausting hills has left your muscles as knotted as a first-grader’s shoelaces, try ParkFindSF, which will direct you to the nearest public green space. The bare-bones map app introduced me to the charming vest-pocket Fay Park at the foot of noodle-like Lombard Street. If I hadn’t found it in the guide, I would have feared to trespass, assuming it was private property belonging to one of the adjacent mansions.
From time to time, I also turned to Lyft, a ride-sharing business that allows people to turn their cars into taxis. When you enter your request, your smartphone shows a map of the car’s progress to your location, along with a photo of your driver. You’ll see the car arriving from blocks away. Lyft’s brand trademark is a fuzzy pink handlebar mustache stretched across the grille.
Founded in San Francisco last year, the service has several hundred Bay Area drivers and has expanded to Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles and even St. Paul. The service’s fares undercut taxis and the ambience is outgoing. Its slogan is “your friend with a car.”
Like Airbnb, Lyft operates on a reputation basis, giving its drivers more hours the more positive reviews they receive. Every car I entered was clean and well stocked with some sort of freebie: bottled water or wrapped peppermints. Some drivers are extra creative, handing out roses, macaroons or, for Chinese New Year, traditional red good luck envelopes with real money inside. One of our drivers, a gregarious Big Lebowski type, went the extra mile with a selection of airplane mini-bottles and energy drinks, which he cheerfully invited us to enjoy.
“I guess some fares enjoy that on the way to the club,” I said.
“Or when I pick ’em up again the next morning,” he replied.
Log on for dining ideas
In San Francisco, a city that spends lunch talking about where to have dinner, there’s no shortage of opinions on Yelp, the user-written online city guide. Its food photos are splendid, but I don’t always agree with its written advice, which veers between finicky and overenthusiastic. No, young miss, the pastry you had at funky, friendly Dynamo Donuts (2670 24th St.) did not change your life. Running with the bulls changes your life. You had a good doughnut. If you want to a place to dine on Yelp but don’t want to get in imaginary arguments with the reviewers, count the number of food photos associated with a restaurant. People don’t post photos of mediocre food.
When I stepped out among the Mission’s countless taquerías, pop-up hipster bistros and South American bakeries, I relied on listings from SFWeekly.com and AroundMe, which detects your location and lists nearby hospitals, supermarkets, banks and of course dining options. The listings include maps, no-nonsense mini-reviews and photos from Foursquare.
The app brought me to the delightful St. Francis Fountain (2801 24th St.) a shrine to ’50s kitsch and honest linoleum tabletop grub. It’s made some concessions to evolving tastes with tofu scrambles and soy shakes, but the majority of the menu is clean-your-plate tasty fare that a time traveler from the Eisenhower administration would recognize instantly.
AroundMe also directed us to the Central Kitchen (3000 20th St.), a breathtaking modernist raw wood and concrete interior patio highlighted with foliage, a fountain and food so good you want to hug someone. Don’t miss the epic brunch concoction called green eggs and ham — I think it was based on a fennel purée, but I seriously blissed out after a mouthful during the server’s explanation. I later learned that GQ named it one of the 12 most outstanding restaurants of 2013. No argument from me.
Making a reservation any hour of the day is a snap with OpenTable — except when it’s not. It worked flawlessly for me at Limón Rotisserie (524 Valencia St.), a Peruvian grill house. The app got temperamental on my second attempt, insisting that I had supplied “invalid parameters.” I’ve never heard that from a haughty receptionist.
After a few frustrating minutes, I gave up and ordered dinner from Munchery. It’s a San Francisco gourmet delivery service that brings chef-prepared food, wine and beer to your door. Nightly choices are posted on the website, with items from a dozen chefs whose specialties range from Americana to Italian, Thai or veggie. The virtual restaurant’s prices average less than a bricks-and-mortar place, with entrees $10-$15, sides and soups $3.50-$6.50 and desserts $3-$5.
If you want to know more about semi-industrial Oakland, house-proud Noe Valley or the funky, garbage-scented Mission, the WikiHood app provides colorful history and useful information about your surroundings and nearby points of interest. Much less useful was SitOrSquat, a public lavatory locator sponsored by Charmin that was almost willfully inaccurate and incomplete, recommending sketchy filling stations and giving pleasant restaurant facilities the thumb’s down.
San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum is one of the nation’s finest specialty collections, its ancient treasures easily accessible through a thoughtfully designed tour guide app, Acoustiguide Smartour: Asian Art Museum. It lists and maps all the exhibits, searching and sorting for those matching your interests. Smartphone video guides explain the history and context of the museum’s prize holdings. If you want tips on appreciating Chinese calligraphy without being able to read Chinese, there’s a video tutorial for you.
On the last leg of the trip, heading home from the airport after a late flight, I booked a ride from Uber, a fancier version of Lyft. The service provides Lincoln Town Cars and uniformed drivers (it has recently added some less glam options as well). The online map seemed to indicate that the car I summoned was in the vicinity of the airport arrivals exit. It was actually waiting in the limo section of the adjacent parking structure.
An affable fellow with a sense of direction even more freewheeling than mine, our driver turned the usual quick highway trip to south Minneapolis into a lackadaisical ramble along surface streets and faraway neighborhoods.
“I usually take 62,” I offered to no avail.
He had his eye fixed on his phone map app, meandering along Minnehaha Creek immune to human guidance. When he dropped us, he said he’d forgotten to turn on the meter at the start of the journey. In the world of cash transactions, this usually ends with me saying, “Tough luck, buddy,” and claiming a free ride. In AppWorld, my card was charged $32 for a trip that Uber’s online summary bafflingly clocked at 0.7 miles. Your mileage may vary, as they say, and I hope it does.