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Say you’re a fan of Paul Cezanne, and you’ve decided to fly to the Windy City to see his masterpieces at the Art Institute of Chicago. The only problem: you’ve never been to Chicago and have no idea where the Institute is or where to stay or eat.

No worries. You fire up Google Earth on your PC (it’s a free download at earth.google.com) and enter “Art Institute of Chicago” in the search box. Off to one side of the screen, a traditional list of search results appears, with the Art Institute at the top.

But the real action is in the central window, where Google Earth’s virtual camera zooms from an orbital view of North America down to a satellite image of downtown Chicago.

You click on the top listing in the search results, and a balloon pops up over the image, indicating the Institute’s building and giving its street address, a Web address, and a link to driving directions.

You plan to rent a car at O’Hare International Airport and drive to the museum, so you click on the “directions” link. Once you’ve entered your starting point – in this case, ORD, for O’Hare – the camera zooms out a bit and shows a colored line marking your route. Turn-by-turn instructions appear on the left.

You’d like to rehearse the drive, so you click the play button for an animated preview: the camera swoops down to a one-kilometer altitude and flies along the entire route, which turns out to be an easy 27-kilometer trip along I-90 and a few surface streets.

You still need a hotel, so you click on the “Lodging” check box. The map fills with options, and you spot a Crowne Plaza just around the block from the Art Institute. The hotel’s balloon leads you to Google Local, which displays the hotel’s location on a standard Google map and gives links to customer reviews, summaries from Frommer’s and other travel guides, and sites where you can book a room.

You reserve a room and go back to Google Earth. Now you can search for restaurants by clicking on the “Dining” box – or you can click on “Buildings” to get a 3-D view of Chicago’s cityscape. You notice that the Sears Tower is about eight blocks from your hotel; being an architecture buff, you add the 103rd-floor Skydeck to your sightseeing agenda.

You want to see what the area around the institute really looks like, so you leave Google Earth for a moment and visit geobloggers.com. There, you can use Google maps to search the popular photo-sharing site Flickr for shots that have been “geotagged,” or encoded with latitude and longitude information. On a Google map of downtown Chicago, you now see numerous pushpin-like place markers; as you click on each one, a balloon appears with a thumbnail image linking to Flickr.

Finally, you’re wondering how safe the area is at night. You leave Google Earth for a moment and visit chicagocrime.org, a free site that uses Google maps to show the locations of crimes reported to the Chicago Police Department. You zoom in on the intersection of Wabash and Madison, near your hotel. A handful of incidents show up on the map. You decide that caution is in order, but that there’s no reason to be paranoid. When you finally get to Chicago, you’ll be fully prepared – and you’ll be able to view Cezanne’s azure Mediterranean seascapes and luminous still lifes with a clear mind.

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