A Directionally-Challenged Traveler’s Guide to Navigating a City

A Directionally-Challenged Traveler’s Guide to Navigating a City

I’ve spent hours upon waking hours getting lost in cities. Voluntarily and involuntarily, I should probably add. Spending an entire childhood relying on others to get me to where I needed to go naturally caused me to neglect that navigation muscle. This all changed when my life took a solo detour to Puerto Rico, Mexico, & Colombia and I had no one to question but myself.

Getting lost is the best way to explore a city, but when you have somewhere to be at a certain time, it pays to know how to get around. So without further ado, here are the hard-earned tips I learned from the streets about how to navigate a piece of land:

To remember turns, memorize landmarks that are on the corner that you are turning so you know that you came from that way.

Better yet, take pictures of them.

Download offline areas on Google Maps while using wifi which will allow you to use them when you’re outside of an internet zone and/or you don’t have international service.

Look at a simplified map before going out and study how the streets run. Lots of cities have streets that are named and placed with a certain way of organization. Playa del Carmen, a sand-swept tourist town on the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, created its streets with even numbers by twos running perpendicular to the Caribbean sea. Streets parallel to the sea are named by numbers that increase by five. Most cities have some type of organizational system, and if they don’t, offline Google Maps is your new travel buddy.


Corner used as a reference in Cartagena, Colombia

Find the tallest landmarks and try to stay as close as possible to them. This helps because the landmark is easily seen from streets surrounded by buildings. Cartagena, Colombia, a colorful tourist town in South America, has a tall clock tower that was a perfect reference landmark.


Churches with giant towers make great landmarks to orient yourself.
So do sign posts (duh).


When you see a picture-worthy scene, take it. Not only might you be able to use that as a reference for how to get back to your hotel/hostel/apartment/house/houseboat/etc., but iPhones have a feature which allows you to see where you took the picture.



When in doubt, ask someone. Suck it up, buttercup. We all get lost at some point or another.

Take care not to become too intoxicated you can’t remember your last turn (this goes for any drugs).

Navigation is a muscle. The more often you use it, the more it grows and the better you get at using it. Luckily, you can enhance it without a gym. Happy walking 🙂

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *