Rome, day one: Clothes, wallet, smartphone, go

We sent Donald Strachan to Rome with a smartphone and the challenge of discovering the Italian capital with the digital tools available to him. This is the first of a series of three…

By Donald Strachan
Published 29 May 2013, 12:36 BST

It's not a great start. I wake up, the first morning in my rented Celio apartment, with an appetite. Of course, I know about the Sistine Chapel and Bernini and Ancient Rome, but none of that is going to tell me where to get a good breakfast.

I pick up my smartphone and launch Foursquare, an app I describe in March's National Geographic Traveller as an 'ingenious mobile and web guide created by a combination of user tips and clever curation technology'. In theory, it can tell me where to eat. In theory.

Because right now, Foursquare is recommending I walk almost two kilometres to find a highly-rated cafe. I settle on the bread shop down the street, and pay too much for something I don't really want.

I'm in Rome for more than just Foursquare. I'm here for a few days to find out if just a smartphone and a data connection are enough for a satisfying trip. There's no guide and no helpful local to offer advice. Nothing as archaic as a guidebook is in my bag, obviously. I've done not a shred of Rome research.

Today's task is to make Foursquare be my mobile guide. The service originally launched in 2009 as a social check-in game, and the launch of its Explore function transformed the mobile app into a powerful 'local discovery engine'. I've been an on-and-off user for three years, usually on home turf in London. In preparation for this trip, I've been checking in more than usual. Foursquare has lots of data on me; it should know what I like. I hit the Explore button, hoping for killer insight into something I can see right now. It suggests the Colosseum.

'This place is busy right now,' it advises. You don't say.

I take a walk around the ancient amphitheatre and wonder about the triumphal arch on the far side. Foursquare's map view helps out: it's the Arch of Constantine. Why is it there? I browse the user tips: 'near colosseo rome… nice place!' reads the first I see. True. Others agree that it was built to commemorate Emperor Constantine's victory over Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in AD 312. Also true.

I have a voracious appetite for information when I travel, and I get the sense that Foursquare is telling me only what I could work out for myself. But every now and then, it reveals a golden nugget. I learn that the Pantheon featured in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, for example.

Searching for a nearby lunch spot, the promise of 'the best pasta restaurant in the world' is too good to pass up. As it turns out, Maccheroni isn't the world's best pasta place — but is a solid recommendation. The cacio e pepe is good — perhaps a couple of euros pricier than I've seen, but then I am just a few streets from Piazza Navona. Foursquare's nearby coffee recommendation, Sant'Eustachio Il Caffè is even better. There's a three-deep queue for the brew — a mix of tourists and Romans who come for their own wood-roasted grind. I'm less impressed with an obvious dessert suggestion: nearby ice cream parlour Giolitti.

Foursquare claims its app tailors Explore recommendations to each user, based on previous check-ins. To test that out, I set up a new account using a phone and email address that's never been connected to Foursquare. I hit Explore on both phones and, yes, the recommendations are different. Not by much — but then we're in a tourist city, and the algorithm assumes (not unreasonably) there are things here everyone wants to see.

Foursquare has some great features. On both the iPhone and Windows Phone apps, it's easy to find exclusive deals: 20% off a Segway tour here, two-for-one cocktails if I check-in there. I can browse the map and add places to a list I can refer to later. I get accurate directions with one press, from right inside the app. These are invaluable for sightseeing. It's ingenious.

But has the app helped me to be a better tourist? I'm not sure. After a day in Rome, I feel I've missed more than I've seen. Tomorrow, it's time for a change of smartphone strategy.


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