You Are Here – How to Never Lose Your Way in a New City

Sunday, 22 September 2013

"Like all great travellers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen." I wish it was my original quote, but Benjamin Disraeli wouldn't let me have that honour; still I completely agree with his words. Okay, so first of all I know the post is titled “how to never lose your way in a new city”, but that's kind of inevitable, even impossible. I mean you could lose your way in your own sweet city. So in that sense this post essentially tries to share some tips with you on how to minimise the probability of getting/ feeling lost in a new city and have a great experience while you're at it! Does that sound fair to you? Okay then, let's start sticking pins on a map and threading our way through the city of your choosing.
Places to go - Pushpins on a Map

Know thy city

Every city in this world follows a pattern, from the most planned to the most chaotic, every city in this world still follows a pattern – be it its layout, its architecture, its public transportation, its health services, its culture and customs, including even the general attitude of its people. And city exploration, in that sense, is a glorified pattern recognition exercise. You might need to pay a little more attention sometimes, but you’ll find it eventually. If not, then keep looking, the time you invest in recognising these patterns, would save you a lot of time later during the remainder of your stay there.

Make no mistake, cities are living entities, with memories, personalities and everything, and hence you can glean a lot of insights by finding about their past. Check out the history of the city, and the more you begin to do so, the more sense everything starts to make.
Know your City - layout, architecture, history, people

It’s great to be spirited like Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus, but you don't have to be as adventurous to just go out there and make your own maps on the go. Today you have far more advanced navigation technology available in the palm of your hand than the greatest of explorers in the past. So use it. Download maps, apps, reviews and use GPS to find your way to your destination.

If you like tangible maps, then by all means do get a paper map, and then get another one, and then another – yeah from three different sources. Never rely entirely on a single one, especially if it’s a sponsored tourist map. There's only so much space on a map, so the sponsored one would only contain key things of interest from the point of view of the sponsor/publisher and their partners. And it would almost never be comprehensive (and it’s not supposed to), but what would happen is that you’d miss out on critical pieces of information if you rely only on a single map. The true map (if at all there is such a thing) is the mean of all these three maps that you have (obviously with an associated confidence interval).

But if you're more the believer in 'the journey' than ‘the destination’, and I think all of us should be like that every once in a while (depending on the time you have), then don't fuss too much about the tech or the maps, you'll get there eventually like many others have before you.  Just enjoy the ride.

Know thy neighbour

Reviews from people you know - droids to sandtrooper
There's a reason why testimonials are such a powerful tool in marketing, because we're programmed to believe more in what “real people” say than what's written on a website. So an endorsement by a third person helps in alleviating our scepticism, and provides us with trust and comfort. It's just an instinct.

So, don’t always take the tourism and other marketing literature on “must-see” and “must-do” things as word of the gospel. Read the reviews of real travellers from reliable unbiased sources, or better still from the people you know who’ve already been there, to get some practical and “real-world” information.

Most important...know thyself

What is it that you want to see or do
As with almost everything in life, planning your travel starts with your objective for the trip. Depending on what you want to achieve, your itinerary might change dramatically. Many things in many cities are seasonal, so check out if it’s a good time of the year for the activity of your choosing and plan ahead for it (although off-season has its own benefits). For example if you’re the cultural explorer type like me, and want to see the city’s popular concerts and museums, then check out when does the cultural season start in the city, or if that museum you want to visit isn’t shut down for renovation.

Also dependent on that season are the prices and availability of tickets and accommodation, among others. Knowing about the seasonality can save you a considerable amount of money, and more importantly make sure that you get timely reservations for things you actually desire to see/ do. Some days you might need to pay a fortune, while on select few you might actually be lucky enough to be treated to a free performance. Well, I guess that’s definitely something worth planning for!

Know thy locals

Never go with the idea that the local language would be same as/ similar to your mother tongue or even English for that matter. Have a plan in place to deal with the local language at your destination; learn some common greetings and phrases essential for survival. Some locals appreciate the fact that you respect them enough to have at least tried to learn their language, and in turn they might be more forthcoming in helping you out in whatever ways they can. I can’t stress enough that it might work with most people but sometimes you might just get unlucky and encounter a grumpy one, who'll spoil your first impression of the city forever!

When dealing with the locals two is better than one
The best way to get information out from the locals is by, well you know, talking to them. More often than not, they’d be quite willing to talk to you, especially after they’ve had a business transaction with you – like that waiter at the restaurant, or that cab driver, and obviously the hotel concierge.

Two's better than one. Although I have no reservations in travelling solo, but if you have company, at times it can help you in getting some leverage in terms of bargaining with the locals (you can even try the ‘good-cop bad-cop’ tactic in negotiating deals in your favour!) as well as being better from a security point of view.

Know thy plans and thine contingencies

Choose a base camp! Preferable would be in the heart of the city, or more importantly near a major transport hub from where you can get direct connections to everywhere in the city. That makes getting around easier, and you don’t waste precious time in commuting. 

Secure your belongings. Once that’s done, you’d feel more comfortable and can focus on your exploration rather than wondering who might be rummaging through your luggage, while you’re out there taking selfies with unabashed confidence.

Bear in mind that your luggage might get misplaced on arrival (yeah, the one in which you packed your favourite polka-dot garments and jumpsuits!), and you might not have access to it for about the next 24 hours. Plan for that contingency.

Also, don’t just sit in the base camp and keep planning, get onto the city transport – tram, metro, bus, etc. This way you can see around while you plan, and more importantly you can also get quick and valuable tips from the locals while on your way, which you may not find that easy on the internet!

Buy a single ticket/ city pass to save some costs and the inconvenience of standing in queues, but absolutely make sure that the places you want to explore are covered by that.

Do not lose data – be it your photos (yep those same selfies taken with unabashed confidence), your maps with all those detailed annotations, or any other critical information and documents. Plan for backup...always. It’s easier than you think.

Discovering local flavours
Food is something you’re going to have probably not more than three times a day, so there are only so many places you can explore, and assuming your hotel charges already include breakfast, that leaves you with only two opportunities. Don’t rely entirely on the locals for recommendations. Do check out sites like TripAdvisor, Yelp, Zomato, etc. for a taste of local flavour. You can find reviews, prices, menus, even ideas on what to order with what accompaniments! Again don’t overdo it, relax, talk to restaurant folks, don’t be afraid of trying the chef’s speciality (there’s a reason they call it that) and let them impress you by creating some magic of their own.

If you’re on a budget, don’t let that discourage you from going out and exploring, as there are ALWAYS (in caps) plenty of things to see/ do in a city that would cost you zilch but can give you that top-class local experience of the city, without any significant compromise.

Not all those who wander are lost

Travel is the best way to explore, discover and experience realms unknown, through which many a time we discover self. Finding your way in a new city isn’t that much of a science, as it is common sense. Planning in advance, using all the resources at your disposal, is a great way to make sure your upcoming trip would be an amazing, and even life-changing experience. But don’t overdo it, otherwise what’s the fun in exploration. Leave a little to imagination as well; it’s an amusing little thing!

Did you find some of these tips useful? I'm sure you have plenty of travel experiences of your own, both great and not-so-great. Please do share them with all of us fellow travellers in comments below.

© Jayant Rana, 2013
Image credit: / practicalowl / CC BY-NC; TaylorMiles / CC BY-NC-SA; Kalexanderson / CC BY-NC-SA; Don Sullivan / CC BY-NC-ND; JD Hancock / CC BY; ShironekoEuro / CC BY-ND


  1. Ranaji your love for Starwars and StarTrek reflects in your posts. But I think lust renting a GPS is the best solution. It is cheap, easily available and easy to use. This is the option one should explore in case you dont already use a smart phone. About exploring a new city, I think that depends on an individual, some like to just hit the place and explore by getting lost, some plan is astutely to perfection while others just hire an agent to do it all for them.

  2. Dear Arjit, thanks for sharing that with us. I absolutely agree that depending on your objective for the trip, your level level of planning would vary. And frankly, if you need to get somewhere, all you really need is a GPS.
    Thanks for noticing the love for Star Wars and Star Trek... two franchises that have inspired and spawned entire generations of geeks! :-)

  3. Spoken like a true traveller. Almost. Getting lost is ideally the best thing you can do in a new city, but sometimes this can also lead to grave mishaps. So its always better to have an inclination as to where you are. But you know what, almost always there is a time crunch, and then people like me wouldn't want to miss on anything, so you'd likely want to squeeze everything that you can, and this is where planning helps. It also, saves you a lot of money. As for the GPS bit, Arjit was spot on there. Historically, people might have travelled the non tech way, but when there is so much info at your disposal, you shouldn't. Tech, almost always directs you to a better travel experience. With Augmented Reality(AR) picking up, it also is becoming a necessity. Cultural Explorer like you might soon run into AR Museums, where the art is visible only through an AR lens. Imagine that.

    P.S. I purchased my Galaxy Note just a month before my Euro Trip, and it was a life saver at awesome levels.

    Also, an off-hand post that I wrote a while back might interest you here -

  4. Thanks for the feedback Harshit, and glad you liked the piece. Interesting insights about Augmented Reality. Although I've laid my hands on a few AR apps, I'm yet to see it applied in museums, but that should be quite interesting to see it being used in such cultural settings. Eagerly looking forward to it.
    Thanks for sharing your personal experiences with us, and I agree that when time is at a premium, you need to plan really well, so if you have technology available better use it.
    Will check out that blog, although I have a feeling I must've read it some time back! :-)

  5. Harshit DidwaniaSunday, 13 October, 2013

    Now that you point it, you have actually read it. I can see your comment there :P


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