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How to let Instagram be your travel guide

With Instagram as their guide, the author (above) and her friend found great coffee, quirky shops, cool galleries, and much more on the streets of New York City.
With Instagram as their guide, the author (above) and her friend found great coffee, quirky shops, cool galleries, and much more on the streets of New York City.Stephani Finks for The Boston Globe

NEW YORK — You can't judge a pizza by its picture. But if you know and love both pizza and photography, a picture, it turns out, is a useful place to begin.

We are in New York for a long October weekend. I've come here with my best friend Stephani so she can show me how she uses Instagram — the wildly popular photo-sharing app — as a visual guidebook when she travels. We've just arrived from Boston, and we're starving. A freak rain-and-hail storm suddenly blows in, blotting out the view from our hotel room window. Luckily, my companion knows just where to go: in search of the pizza that captured her fancy on Instagram a few days ago, its crust pillowy and lightly charred. Writing down the address, she realized the best part: the restaurant is attached to our hotel. We don't even have to go outside to get there.

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We descend 21 floors and step into L'Amico (849 Avenue of the Americas). There's a whiff of Manhattan attitude — every seat is booked, we're told, though it's barely 6 p.m. — so we settle in at the long communal table in the corner. When the pizza arrives, all is forgiven. That gorgeous crust is even better than it looks in photos, chewy and crisp, piled with subtly salty mushrooms and truffles. Paired with a tall Two Brothers ale, it's an exquisite way to kick off the weekend.

"It always works out," says my friend with satisfaction. "Instagram has never led me astray."

Night view from hotel room in New York City.
Night view from hotel room in New York City.Jenna Russell/Globe staff

There are lots of apps to guide you in your travel. I'm a pro at finding good hotels on TripAdvisor, wading through pages of traveler reviews to find places that sound right for me. But review-based sites are all about the wading: reading between the lines, filtering out the extremes, sifting through enough opinions to get to the truth. The joy of Instagram is its purely visual nature: a picture appears in your feed, and it delights you. To a newspaper reporter, weary of wrangling words, it feels seductively simple and straightforward.

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It helps to have an expert Instagram interpreter. I've known Stephani since we were in the sixth grade, long before the iPhone was a gleam in Steve Jobs's eye. A gifted book designer who often works with photographers, she has an impeccable eye — and an uncanny way of extrapolating ambiance and vibe, even culinary promise, from a 2-by-2-inch photo glowing on her phone. The Instagrammers she follows, and draws travel insights from, include a generous sampling of professional photographers, unusually skilled at telling stories with their cameras.

In other words, the visual bread crumbs we use as a trail are not blurry selfies or overfiltered cocktail close-ups. These are images composed with art and thought, by people who know how to pack photographic punch. One can find these guiding images organically, by following Instagrammers one admires in places one plans to visit, or in a more focused, immediate way, by hunting for specific hashtags: #nycbrunch; #miamiart; #portlandhikes.

Can I move in?

A photo posted by Stephani Finks (@stephani13) on

Later that evening, after the rainstorm subsides, we walk down to the Lower East Side to one of Stephani's best Instagram discoveries. The place seems custom-made for sugar addicts with cameras: Morgenstern's (2 Rivington St.) is a most photogenic ice cream parlor with its black and white décor, a look that manages to be both futuristic and adorably old-fashioned. The list of flavors makes me giddy; it begins with five varieties of vanilla, including bourbon, angel food, and burnt honey, before segueing into sesame, salted caramel, and green tea pistachio. Oh, and a sundae called the "New God Flow."

It is decadent and divine, and my BFF may never have stumbled across it if she hadn't seen a photo on her phone and sought it out. (She doesn't recall what the initial picture looked like; the memory has been subsumed into delicious reality.) Stephani's willingness to trust good photo karma has rewarded her elsewhere as well, leading her to Land's End, a coastal trail near the Golden Gate Bridge, on a trip to San Francisco, and to a scenic geothermal pool in Iceland, among other destinations.

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But this was New York, and it was glorious, bathed in yellow autumn sunlight the next morning. Enticed by a post by @aguynamedpatrick, a.k.a. Patrick Janelle, a popular New York Instagrammer with 419,000 followers, we set out for breakfast at Maialino (2 Lexington Ave.), next to the sumptuous Gramercy Park Hotel. The photo online showed his coffee beverage — a cortado — but the caption sealed the deal: "My vote for the restaurant with the best coffee program in the city." This guy drinks — and photographs — a lot of coffee in Manhattan; if he rates this place that highly, it must be worth a visit.

And oh, happy day, is it ever worth it. Any remaining doubts I had about using Instagram this way are put to rest forever as we linger over breakfast. We sit at the long wooden bar, with a view of sun-splashed Gramercy Park through the windows behind it, and peruse a menu that is equal parts wholesomeness and flourish. I eat the best homemade granola of my life, dense with pecans and golden raisins and garnished with pomegranate, and relish a perfect pistachio croissant. Stephani savors steel-cut oatmeal with apples and cream and a plump brioche bun, glazed with toffee.

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Yes, there is coffee too, steaming and essential.

The afternoon spools past like an Instagram feed come to life, colorful, surprising, and steeped in sense of place. We stop at Flying Tiger (920 Broadway), a quirky Danish design store my friend saw on Instagram, where you can buy notepads shaped like Oreos, phone covers shaped like puppies, or a $5 pair of "Festival Feet," colorful, protective plastic covers for one's shoes. (I get a pencil sharpener shaped like a nose for my first-grader.) At the other end of the retail spectrum lies Totokaelo (54 Crosby St.), a high-end clothing store where the silver Acne sneakers cost $430 (you'd better invest in Festival Feet for those babies). A photo of the space by Instagrammer @mell0wfell0w has intrigued my amiga, who admires both his pictures and his clever captions. ("1. When the modern man buys shoes for his spouse, he doesn't have to ask her sister for the size …T/F?") It isn't quite my scene, but it's very NYC, and the second-floor back porch — a magical spot between brick walls, where customers may or may not be welcome — provides an unexpected oasis.

By Sunday morning I'm ready to take the lead. I tap my Instagram app when I wake up and search for a gallery to visit; minutes later, scrolling through the feed from @newyorkermag, I am smitten with a photograph by Yola Monakhov Stockton, a Northampton-based photographer. Her show, "The Nature of Imitation," is still on view; amazingly, it's just four blocks away. I'm halfway out of bed when I remember New York galleries — in their endless quest to accommodate the working public — rarely bother opening on Sundays. I check, and sure enough, the gallery is closed. I feel a pang of loss, and vow to see her photos someday.

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But Instagram's most defining quality is its endlessly refreshing feed: there are always more photographs to see. Another image pops out at me, of a bold abstract painting from a show with the captivating title "Dance the Orange." It's at the Studio Museum in Harlem (144 W. 125th St.) — somewhere we never planned on going, but right on our way as we head north toward home.

Stanley Whitney’s paintings are exuberant, jewel-like grids of color, glowing mango, tangerine, persimmon, goldenrod. The pleasure they provide is visceral, and there’s another jolt of wonder in the way we found them: stepping though a tiny, brilliant picture on our iPhone, a traveler’s trusty insta-portal to another world.


Jenna Russell can be reached at jenna.russell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jrussglobe.