How to navigate a city

7 tips to help you navigate a city

How to navigate a city: aerial view of Quito, Ecuador
Quito, Ecuador

“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:

Get high

How to navigate a city: skyscraper icon

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 isnโ€™t particularly useful if you donโ€™t have a great memory, or if youโ€™re in a particularly labyrinthine city such as Venice (where getting lost is part of the fun anyway).

Get down

If youโ€™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.

Pier icon

Ignore subway maps

Subway map icon

Although subway maps can be useful in figuring out which line to take where (although some arenโ€™t all that usefulโ€ฆNew 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 whatโ€™s happening above ground.

Rush hour roulette

During rush hours see if you can figure out where the crowds are heading. Chances are theyโ€™re all aiming for the nearest bus stop, train station or subway. If youโ€™re lost, get swept up in the crowd and no doubt they will guide you to where you want to be.

Icon of group of people in front of city

Seek god

How to navigate a city: church icon

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.

Go wild

Wilderness survival tips can apply to city navigation too. Seek out the sun or moon and figure out where theyโ€™re rising or setting. Unless the wind changes direction, look up to the clouds to see where theyโ€™re flowing: if you donโ€™t want to go around in circles then keep following the direction of the clouds.

Sun behind clouds icon


People talking icon

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 donโ€™t understand the answer people can at least point you the right way.


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