The algorithm I propose here starts with a city where you are unsure of the geography, and attempts to find the part of the city where there are things going on for a traveller to see and/or a neighbourhood where a western traveller will be safe and welcome. It is only a heuristic: I’m sure it can fail in some cases, but it’s pretty solid in my experience.
The method is this: (1) find the city you’re wondering about in Google Maps; (2) search for “Starbucks”; (3) look at the neighbourhoods with the greatest concentration of dots (not just the teardrop-shaped placemarks, but all of the little “here’s one” dots); (4) decide that those neighbourhoods are safe/interesting/happening.
I first applied the Starbucks Heuristic in Kota Kinabalu Malaysia. We went there knowing it wasn’t much on the beaten path for tourists. It guided us to a part of town where we found a nice hotel near the water, a food market, and some nice local shops.
Applying the heuristic in Shanghai finds the business area in Pudong, a strip along Nanjing Road, and somewhat smearing south into Xuhui. That’s probably right, based on my limited experience. I just checked this when advising a friend where to stay during an extended business trip to Shanghai. I think it verifies my initial advice.
Doing it with Manila finds Makati (the business district), another cluster around Ortigas (the other business district), and another around Fort Bonifacio. As I recall, those are pretty good bets for a foreign traveller in a city where not everywhere is particularly safe.
In Hangzhou you find the tourist/shopping area to the east of the Lake, moving north into a neighbourhood I should maybe explore more. In Vancouver, you find downtown and Kitsilano. In Portland you find downtown.
The algorithm fails for Barcelona where such things probably aren’t allowed in the old city, but it does find what I think is the business district to the north. In Rome, you find a very well-defined ring around the “tourist stuff”, which is probably what I’d expect.
My conclusion seems to be that the heuristic finds the business district in highly developed western cities. It finds westerner-friendly neighbourhoods elsewhere.
Please don’t confuse what I’m saying here with “I think you should go to Starbucks a lot on vacation.” Go to Starbucks however much you want: that’s none of my business. The Starbucks Heuristic simply finds the most foreigner-friendly part of a city. Whether or not you want to stay in that part of the city is also up to you.
Does anybody see any examples where this fails spectacularly, from the point of view of a slightly-ignorant traveller trying to find a neighbourhood for a hotel? Barcelona is the worst I could find.