There’s no doubt that setting out to explore a city you’ve never been to before is exciting. Whether you’re planning on wandering around a bustling modern metropolis or the quiet cobbled streets of an ancient city’s historic centre, it’s great to be heading somewhere new.
Soaking up the atmosphere, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells, stopping to admire the architecture, or just browsing the window displays in the local shops can be a fascinating experience. But treading unknown territory can also be a little disorientating, and before you know it, you can easily find yourself lost.
So how do you find your way in a strange city? A little planning goes a long way.
Google Maps and apps
If you’re thinking “Well, I’ll just get out my smartphone and get some directions from Google Maps, and that’s that!”—yes, you’d be correct; it’s one solution although not an infallible one.
It’s very easy nowadays to become blasé about finding information when everything is there at your fingertips on the internet. But keep in mind you could be somewhere where the signal reception is weak, or even worse, non-existent. This can, however, be overcome if you were savvy enough to download offline maps before you got lost—the TripAdvisor app lets you download offline maps for a city. The compass app on your phone can also be useful too, even if you don’t have any internet access.
Phone batteries also have that bad habit of dying on you right at the moment you need them the most. For those reasons, relying on technology alone to get you around isn’t always such a good idea, and it’s better to carry some non-technological back-up with you too.
Whatever city you’re visiting, you’re probably already aware of the major landmarks, monuments or museums you’re planning to see. If your hotel is near a railway or underground station, you can use these as a handy reference point to find your way back to. If you see a bus stop, have a quick look and see which number bus you could take to get back to the stop later.
Before you spend time exploring the city—preferably while you’re still at home before your travels—bring up Google Maps on your computer. If you’ve already arrived, use a computer in the hotel lobby. Then, using the directions tool, plot the route from your hotel to a significant landmark. Choose something big and tall like a cathedral that will either be visible from around the city or will be well signposted.
Click on the pedestrian icon and it’ll show you the best route and how long the walk is. Magnify it until you can see all the street names and then print it out, or at least take a screenshot or photo of it on your phone.
Don’t forget to put your printout in your pocket when you leave the hotel!
Most cities have a tourist information centre where you can pick up free maps. These centres can come in very useful too, provided you can find them in the first place!
Travel guide books often also include a map, some of which are either separate or are designed to be easily detached to carry in your pocket.
Mark your hotel on the printed map with a pen, and also mark a nearby landmark that will be clearly signposted, to help you find your way back.
Use the sun
If your phone has run out of battery and you can’t use your compass app, you can use the sun to help you navigate. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, no matter where in the world you are. Remember not to look directly at the sun!
In the northern hemisphere (Europe, USA) the sun will be at due south at midday. In the southern hemisphere (Australia), the sun will be due north at midday. (The exact time might vary a bit, due to daylight savings.)
If you’re completely lost and don’t have a reference point, and you can see the sun, this is a quick way to get your bearings and head in the right general direction until you can find a useful landmark to navigate from.
The first thing to note is the street your hotel is on, and which district or part of the city it’s in, eg the south-west. If you can find a business card at the hotel’s reception, it will probably have the hotel’s full formal address on it, which can be useful to keep in your pocket.
One sure way of keeping track of where you are is to take some quick notes as you go. From the moment you step out of the hotel reception, write down the name of each street you walk along and whether you turned left or right onto it. You can use the notepad feature on your phone for this. It also helps to take photos of important crossroads or places where you turned, or interesting landmarks you’ll recognise on the way back.
To find your way back again, just follow the directions you’ve noted down. Don’t be tempted only to take mental notes, because it’s too easy for everywhere in a strange place to look alike, and it can get very confusing!
If you’re the adventurous type, you could learn a few phrases in the local language so that you can ask for directions.
Last resort: “Taxi!”
Of course, if despite your efforts you still get lost, you can always take a taxi back to your hotel!
Load the Uber app (and the Lyft app if you’re visiting the USA) onto your phone before you go. You can check on the Uber or Lyft website to see whether they serve the city you’re visiting. Then if you can’t find a local taxi you can at least use your phone (if you’ve got battery power and signal/wifi) to get you back to your hotel in time for dinner!