There are bigger problems in the world, but the process of tracking down and mastering a core set of apps for your Apple or Android phone can be overwhelming, especially in the center of the cultural universe that is New York City. For getting directions (Google Maps) or grabbing dinner (Yelp, Urbanspoon, Seamless) there’s a pretty clear consensus on the best choices, but when it comes to finding art or music shows, working out bike routes that won’t get you killed, or… deciphering the colors of the Empire State Building’s lights, it’s not nearly as obvious where to look. Here’s a list of apps that should satisfy the cravings of nearly any smartphone-wielding, culture-loving New Yorker.
This is probably the best general-purpose art-listings app out there, a steal at $1.99. Sort current exhibitions by NYC neighborhood (with separate lists for individual streets in Chelsea) or media (from video installations to furniture to ceramics to prints), view a Most Popular list, or see which exhibitions are closest to your current location. The app covers an impressively wide range of venues, from the Guggenheim to smallish Bushwick spaces.
Lots of NY museums and galleries have their own apps, but I’ve never seen one that touches MoMA’s. It lets you browse current and upcoming exhibitions, view film schedules, search the museum’s entire collection by artist name or title, take audio tours in one of nine languages, buy tickets online, and more.
A no-frills app that does one thing very well: let you view lists of music gigs by date either around the city or near your location. You can sort the display by distance from you or the level of “buzz” surrounding the show, which you’ll just have to take their word for.
NYC Way is the Swiss Army Knife of New York apps, and would probably top most people’s Desert Island Apps list as well. Almost any item on its three-screen menu could stand alone, but you get all of it for one great price ($0). Some of the sub-apps included are nearby wi-fi spots, local movies and showtimes, events, car services, banks and ATMs, gas stations, churches, the Empire State Building’s lighting schedule, and weather forecasts — and that’s maybe 1/5 of them.
Because I’m a Brooklyn resident, this app mostly makes me feel intense jealousy, because it only covers the Manhattan (and Staten Island) public library system. But if you’re OK with that, it will completely change your experience of the NYPL. Locate books within the branch system by title, author, or ISBN number, place books on hold from your phone, check the status of books you have checked out, browse recent arrivals, find the nearest library branch — I lie awake nights dreaming of a BPL version.
Many of the functions the KICKMap app performs are available through Google Maps, such as finding the best subway route between two points in the city. But KICKMap also allows you to view service changes and other system alerts, and even have alerts for specific lines sent to your phone as push notifications. If you don’t find that capability particularly useful, as a pure subway map it’s without peer. The design team behind KICK, which was a real map before it was transformed into an iPhone app, actually pitched it as a replacement for the official map to the Transit Authority, who foolishly turned them down.
As with KICKMap, you can probably find a lot of the information Coffee (In)Touch gives you in any number of other apps (Google Maps and Yelp come to mind). But since this app is focused obsessively on coffee, it goes wider and deeper in that area than pretty much anything else does. It not only displays a list of the nearest coffee spots, sorted by distance, but it gives you about all the info you could ask for on each of them, including hours, grades on a number of measures as well as an overall star rating, and wi-fi details. You can view the map in two modes, one showing all nearby coffee places and the other showing only the ones that are open right now, and you can search for a cafe by name or address. One illustration of how very seriously this app treats its subject: A search for “Starbucks” in the entire city results in exactly zero hits.
After all that caffeine wears off, you might want to slow down and explore some of New York’s local flora. Leafsnap will identify the leaves from any tree in the city using visual recognition software developed by Columbia University and the Smithsonian Institution. All you do is take a photo of the leaf; Leafsnap will compare your picture with the thousands of samples in its database and show you the species that match it most closely. You can also browse the app’s full leaf database in alphabetical order, or search it by everyday name (“Fragrant Snowbell”) or scientific name (“Styrax obassia”).
Get There By Bike
The basic, free version of Get There will map out the most bicycle-friendly route between any two addresses in New York (including the ones in your contact list), and show additional information like dangerous intersections, steep hills, and bike shops along the way. It also allows you to “record” a bike trip using your phone’s GPS. For an extra 99 cents per city (there are about 20 available currently, including London, Montreal, and Toronto), you get a complete display of official bicycle paths and bike lanes overlaid on the regular map.
If you think radio is a creaky relic of the past, poke around this app for a couple of hours. You can use TuneIn to search for streaming radio stations anywhere in the world by language, musical genre, or location; build a list of favorites; make time stand still by pausing the station that’s currently playing; view playlists and schedules; and in many cases click on the currently playing track to purchase it from the iTunes Store. Even in 2013, the “Search by Location” feature is something to behold: You can navigate along a path like “Europe→Denmark→Copenhagen” and then either scroll through a list of all stations in that city or further filter your results by type (College Radio, Electronic-Dance, Opera, 80s, Local Music, and a slew of other categories). This is World Music.
Anyone who uses their phone to take pictures (in other words, everyone) needs at least one solid image-editing app, and Snapseed could easily be the only one you’ll ever use. It allows you to do much more than just apply a handful of canned filters (like Instagram, say), but it’s way easier to use than the NASA-level photo apps that require you to learn about curves and layers. I gladly paid $3.99 for this, but as of a few months ago it’s absolutely free.
It would be hard to find anyone who can even name a maps app outside the Apple-Google duopoly, but Nokia’s Here is at least worth a spin. Its routing capabilities are merely OK, and its lists of “nearby places” (in the categories Eating Out, Shopping, Going Out, and Sights) are still threadbare at this point, but Nokia’s maps themselves are almost unmatched, as any of the small group of techies who obsess over these things can tell you. Go ahead, pull up a Google map and a Here map side-by-side and check out the detail: Google’s product looks like a kid’s crayon drawing in comparison.