T+L goes to Spain to find out what using an iPhone to tour Madrid is like.
Credit: Courtesy of Justin Peters

The iPhone is decidedly not a Spanish invention. Unlimited instant mobile connectivity is perhaps not essential in a country that traditionally takes a three-hour nap in the middle of the workday. Over the past few years, though, mobile developers have released numerous smart-phone apps for travelers: apps that can help you navigate any subway; GPS-equipped restaurant guides; directions to hospitals with 24-hour emergency rooms. Using your smart phone for travel is like having a very intelligent tour guide in your pocket at all times.

I wanted to find out how advanced smart-phone travel really was. So I booked a flight to Madrid—using the Wanderlust app, one of the few that lets you buy your plane ticket without being redirected to a website—and resolved to surrender my will to my iPhone. I’d use it to take pictures, to translate unfamiliar phrases, to wake me up in the morning. For three days, I would not tour, drink, or dine anywhere unless an app brought me there. This might seem risky, but I wasn’t worried, as my phone is both smarter and more attractive than I am.

Arriving in Madrid, I made my way toward the Plaza de Santa Ana, a lively central square filled with literary monuments, outdoor cafés, and, late at night, enterprising vagrants who will sell you cans of beer for one euro apiece. Using an app from booking.com, I had secured a room at the ME Madrid Reina Victoria, a grand early-20th-century building retrofitted into ultramodernity that anchors the plaza’s west end. The desk clerk greeted me with a disconcertingly cheerful grin and informed me that he had absolutely no record of my reservation.

Although he eventually found it—thanks to an app called TripIt, which had stored all of my travel data and confirmation numbers—this was my first indication that many travel apps are still in their beta phase. A tapas-finder app called De Tapas por Madrid often gave excellent recommendations, yet tended to omit crucial contextual details, such as “Does a tapas bar prominently advertise Long Island iced tea in its window?” and “Are the menus laminated, and in English?” And while the mTrip mobile travel app provided step-by-step directions to the Museo de Historia, which is dedicated to Madrid’s urban history, it failed to mention that the museum was closed for renovations until March.

Perhaps most exciting are the many dedicated “augmented reality” (AR) apps, which promise to enhance your experience by sending you relevant information as you travel through a city. These apps use your phone’s GPS signal to determine your physical location. Like RoboCop on a vacation, you hold up your phone as if you’re taking a photograph and information appears on your screen as you walk: historical facts about nearby landmarks; the location of the nearest ATM; your proximity to other people who are also using augmented-reality apps.

Their day is definitely coming, but it’s not here yet. The AR apps that I tested proved difficult to use and ultimately not all that helpful. Case in point: I was excited to use the Cyclopedia app, which displays relevant Wikipedia entries as you walk through a city. I was less excited to learn that there are proportionally nowhere near as many geo-tagged Wikipedia articles about real-world places as there are about, say, Star Wars characters. Walking down the Paseo del Prado, the Cyclopedia app was showing me entries for landmarks several miles away. Either the data set for Madrid was limited or Cyclopedia’s ability to access that data was limited; either way, it made the app less useful.

Once you adjust your expectations, however, travel apps can still enhance your trip. Its occasional failing notwithstanding, I ultimately found the mTrip Madrid guidebook to be a great mobile guide to the city. The company makes them for 17 cities worldwide; they let you create an itinerary based on length of stay and hotel location or travel interests and design an on-the-fly tour that leads you to nearby restaurants and attractions.

One afternoon I rode up to the Canal stop in northern Madrid and started walking, letting the mTrip guide my steps. In this way, I found the lovely Museo Sorolla, which focuses on the works of the turn-of-the-20th-century Spanish painter Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida and housed in his beautifully preserved villa on the outskirts of a leafy residential neighborhood. Museo Sorolla should be a key stop on any Madrid trip—and yet I never would have found it if the phone hadn’t brought me there.

Aside from enhancing your actual touring, apps can go into greater depth on small matters than any guidebook ever would. One app, Taxi Madrid, takes your current location and your intended destination and calculates how much the fare should be and how long it should take to get there. (My trip to the airport cost $39, almost exactly as much as the app said it should.) Another one, from a company called Viewlity, told me how far I was from the nearest banks, ATM’s, gas stations, fast-food restaurants, and movie theaters. And the amazing SpanishDict app is not only a handy Spanish-English dictionary, it also includes a list of prerecorded Spanish phrases that your phone will say for you at the touch of a button. ¡Encantado, SpanishDict!

At night, my phone became a valuable guide to tapas bars. Lack of contextual details aside, De Tapas por Madrid organized restaurants by district, subway stop, and proximity, offering a synopsis of each one’s specialty. One night, using the app, I toured the upscale Salamanca neighborhood, stopping for tapas at a series of restaurants, each of which seemed to be a neighborhood secret—cod, caramelized onions, and beer at Taberna de la Daniela; cheese, gazpacho, and beer at El Olivar de Ayala; croquetas and wine at Estay.

And yet by merely eating, drinking, and scurrying to find new places at which to eat and drink, I was missing what seemed to be the true point of tapas: the social interactions that go with them. In restaurants across the city, I was inevitably hunched in a corner, rapidly eating chorizo as I scrolled through my iPhone, searching for information about other tapas bars I could visit that night. Used obsessively, iPhone touring promotes antisocial behavior, which isn’t Spanish in the slightest. I was almost hit by cars four times in three days, each time because I was engrossed in something on my phone’s screen. Traveling in this manner, you will inevitably spend more time looking at your phone than looking at the city—an irresponsible practice anywhere, but positively unforgivable in Madrid.

Luckily, there was an app for that. Two hours later, I was sitting in Fresno 75, a small restaurant in the northern part of the city, one of the participants in the “Inglés y Tapas” Meetup. I had found the Meetup using the Wikitude AR app, and was sitting among a group of Spaniards who wanted to improve their English and an American tourist killing time before her friend arrived at the airport.

The tapas came: chopitos—small bits of fried squid; lacón gallego—cured ham from Galicia thinly sliced and dusted with spices; a savory tortilla española; and tinto de verano, wine diluted with soda water, a tactical beverage meant to prolong one’s sobriety across a long night of eating. The food was delicious but, for once, it was secondary to the conversation. The country’s economy is in shambles, with almost 20 percent unemployment. And yet my new friends seemed confident that everything would be OK, eventually. “We will work it out because we are Spanish, and the Spanish people survive everything,” said one woman, and the rest of the table agreed. I pulled out my phone to jot down the quote, and then returned it to my pocket. I would need it later, but right now there was food and conversation, and I didn’t want to miss it. I was finally in Spain.

Justin Peters is an editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.