“Not all those who wander are lost” (JRR Tolkein), but if you find yourself more lost than wandering here are some useful tips on how to navigate a city which have served me well in the past:
Something I try to do early on in a city visit is get to a high point, such as a hill or observation platform. This helps me to figure out the layout of the city and to commit to memory where key landmarks are. Note that this isn’t particularly useful if you don’t have a great memory, or if you’re in a particularly labyrinthine city such as Venice (where getting lost is part of the fun anyway).
If you’re in a city with river/lake/sea frontage then, if the streets are sufficiently steep, you can make an educated guess that they will generally point down towards that waterfront.
Ignore subway maps
Although subway maps can be useful in figuring out which line to take where (although some aren’t all that useful…New York), they are rarely an accurate reflection of how a city is laid out. Although the London Tube map shows you the different stations on a particular line, the distances and locations of those stations are in no way mirroring what’s happening above ground.
Rush hour roulette
During rush hours see if you can figure out where the crowds are heading. Chances are they’re all aiming for the nearest bus stop, train station or subway. If you’re lost, get swept up in the crowd and no doubt they will guide you to where you want to be.
Did you know that the main entrance to a church or cathedral faces west, with the apse and altar facing east? This may not be true of some Christian buildings, but this knowledge can help you navigate, if you know where on the compass you want to be heading.
Wilderness survival tips can apply to city navigation too. Seek out the sun or moon and figure out where they’re rising or setting. Unless the wind changes direction, look up to the clouds to see where they’re flowing: if you don’t want to go around in circles then keep following the direction of the clouds.
If you feel safe enough doing so then simply ask where the nearest station is, or how to get to a particular street. It can be useful learning a few local words for asking directions, and if you don’t understand the answer people can at least point you the right way.