In iOS 6, Apple has replaced the Google Maps application many people have come to rely on for local search with a new Maps app of their own creation. By most accounts, the maps themselves are decent, but the local search functions are abysmal. A search for “burritos,” for example, no longer reliably returns all the places that serve burritos; it shows only Mexican restaurants — skipping places like Chipotle, Moe’s, and other actual “burrito joints.”
Luckily there’s an app that already excels at not only finding nearby places, but providing personalized recommendations that match your search based on anonymous data collected from its users. If you haven’t taken a look at foursquare recently, or think of it as just a “check-in app” or “badge game,” it’s time to take another look. It fits nicely in the void that Apple left with the removal of Google Maps — and you don’t even have to check in.
When you first open the Explore tab, you’ll see a list of recommendations based on your current location and the time of day. It’s built on the data foursquare has collected from more than 2.5 billion check-ins on which venues are most popular based on actual visits. A tap on the “top picks” button lets you narrow the list to just restaurants, bars, coffee shops or even places offering discounts to foursquare users.
The search box does exactly what you’d expect: enter a type of business, a business name or even a specific dish and foursquare will try to find it. The initial results screen presents a few options: perform a full search for that word, browse any matching categories or simply choose a venue with your search in its name.
Choosing the full search puts the real power of foursquare on display. You’ll see a list of places with matching names, places that match by category or places where someone has recommended a particular menu item that includes the search term, which makes it easy to find hidden gems at unexpected places.
Personalized for you
Each result in Explore features photos, a relevant tip, and — if you’ve added any friends on foursquare — which ones have been there. Those add a lot of weight when I’m considering a place because I generally trust the judgement of my friends over recommendations from random strangers.
Your friends also play a part in determining which venues show up in the list of recommendations and where they’re ranked. Places lots of your friends frequent are more likely to appear than the places they’ve never been.
Even without friends, you can influence the rankings by using the like and dislike buttons found on every venue page in the app. Foursquare weights your likes and dislikes heavily when considering what to show you.
Once you drill down to a specific place within the app, you’ll find a wealth of information waiting for you, ranging from the address and phone number to photos and tips from other users (they’re always short and easily digestible). Many places show the hours they’re open. For restaurants, you’ll usually find the menu, an icon representing how expensive it is and (soon) a link to make a reservation on OpenTable.
In addition, you’ll find lists other users have created, like the Best Spots in Fayetteville, WV or Craft Beer in Savannah. These are especially helpful for finding recommendations from locals when you’re traveling. The places that appear on lists you’ve saved are more likely to appear in the Explore results. You can even create a to-do list of places you really want to try and foursquare will remind you of them when you’re nearby.
A replacement — and then some
Foursquare’s searches and recommendations are usually very accurate. For the past year it’s my go-to app for local searches, whether I’m traveling across country, visiting a different neighborhood in town or just need the phone number for my local pizza place.
With its social features and personalization, it tops any local search from the iPhone Maps app — whether Apple’s version or Google’s. And every feature I’ve listed is yours without ever checking in.