Exploring San Francisco by smartphone

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 14, 2013 - 11:07 PM

Exploring San Francisco, the country’s hub of high tech, using a smartphone as a travel guide.

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Bicyclists took a breather along Presidio Parkway, overlooking the Golden Gate Promenade. For those so inclined, GPS tracker apps such as Strava can chart routes, altitude gained and calories burned.

Photo: Colin Covert, Star Tribune

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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.

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