Google’s best travel feature is an orange blob

For as relaxing as vacations are supposed to be, there tends to be an awful lot of stress involved. My girlfriend and I just got back from a trip a couple weeks ago, and the biggest problem we had was planning: sure, we had plane tickets, train tickets, and Airbnbs all set, but we still had to figure out what to actually do in the three different cities we were visiting. We weren’t entirely sure even once we’d arrived.

Fortunately, Google Maps has a feature that makes exploring a new city incredibly easy — so long as you’re okay with being a little bit uncertain about what your outings will be like. It’s a year-old feature called “Areas of Interest,” and from asking around The Verge office, it seems like most people don’t even realize it’s there.

If you’ve ever noticed orange splotches around certain streets in Google Maps, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. Those orange marks highlight frequently traveled areas that, according to Google, are dense with restaurants, bars, and shops. They’re largely determined by algorithm (Google sure does have the data to know where people are going), but in some extremely dense areas, like New York City, Google says it picks locations by hand, too.

Google Maps’ Areas of Interest aren’t useful for telling you the big highlights of a city, but you probably don’t need help on those. If you’re going to New York, you already know you want to visit Ellis Island — you don’t need an app or a book to tell you that. The feature also isn’t great for telling you, say, an area’s absolute best restaurant; you’ll still want to do some research if that’s important to you.

What the feature is great for is getting you to see a place without a ton of planning. After my girlfriend and I saw all the big tourist attractions of the city we were in, we’d open up Google Maps and head to wherever it had highlighted in orange. Inevitably, we’d find a busy area packed with things to see.

For us, this worked out great. Sometimes it pointed us to smaller city attractions we would have missed — statues, churches, plazas — and other times, it brought us to shops and bars that were populated by people who lived nearby. We wanted to get a sense for what each city was actually like to live in, and not just walk around the tourist areas, and Google Maps gave us some great starting points for checking that out.

While I wouldn’t recommend this method to everyone visiting a new city, I think it’s a great option for anyone who’s okay with not knowing precisely what they’re going to find when they arrive somewhere. It’s also fantastic if you don’t want to plan everything down to the hour and are fine with just walking around.

If you have kids with you, that might not be ideal. My girlfriend’s a vegetarian, so we still had to do a little bit of research to make sure there would be options for her at nearby restaurants. But overall, it was way less work to just look at an orange patch and head over to it than to read through travel guides and websites with endless lists of recommendations that you have to narrow down.

That all said, it’s worth remembering that Google’s algorithms can go wrong — and sometimes in some really problematic ways. Shortly after this feature launched, CityLab wrote about how Google Maps overlooked popular strips of restaurants and businesses in lower-income areas in the US, particular those with predominantly black and Latino residents. Google said at the time that it was still working on its algorithm, so perhaps some changes have been made in the time since; but keep in mind that there’s still likely to be interesting areas in each city that Google’s going to miss.

Update July 9th, 7:30PM ET: In a statement to The Verge, Google didn’t say whether it had made any specific changes to its algorithm in the last year, but a spokesperson said the company is working to get more small businesses listed on Maps, which helps populate the Areas of Interest feature. “‘Areas of interest’ appear in a variety of different neighborhoods throughout the world regardless of socioeconomic factors or local language preferences,” the spokesperson said. “But if a place isn’t on the internet or Google, it’s hard to account for it. So we continue to work hard to ensure these places get on the map.”

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