How To Learn Any New City Without A Map (or How To Get Lost With Purpose)

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If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” – Cheshire Cat (via Lewis Carroll)

When you’re Living Anywhere it means you’re moving to new places on a fairly regular basis. At the very least you’re traveling to new cities regularly.

Before I get into the details here let me flat out state that this is not incredibly useful if you’re on holiday for a week. (Although it would be a fun exercise if you were on holiday as well.)

I have a simple strategy I use to learn new cities. It works fantastically well, especially in places where you can’t read or pronounce street names. :)

Getting Lost

I moved into a new place just outside of the Rynek (market square) area of Wroc?aw, Poland a week ago and wanted to get to know my new area. Three days ago I went for an open-ended (no real time limit) bike ride with purpose: to get lost and still make it to a specific place. The only map I have of Wroc?aw is from the Centrum Informacji Turystycznej (Tourist Information) and it only covers the city centre. I would be exploring further out.

I lived my first 6 months (of life as a fat baby) in a neighborhood called S?polno, and this is also where two of my Grandparents are buried. I knew the general direction of S?polno, but didn’t know how to get there or exactly how far it was. I did know the cemetary was along the Odra River since I took the public transport there before (1 hour trip from my previous residence in the Popowice neighborhood).

At 12:30pm I took off over the brick streets and sidewalks of Wroc?aw. 30 minutes later I happened upon Ogród Japo?ski (Japanese Garden).  It’s actually only a 10-15 minute bike ride from where I live, but remember … I’m getting lost. Exploring, taking turns, not remembering exactly how I’m going to get back to my starting point. :)

Behind the Japanese Garden is a big park and I like parks so I stopped to relax for ~30 minutes.

Stopping to relax is an important part of this journey. It makes it much more difficult to remember how you got to the point where you’re at. In other words, you have to actually think about where you are which will help you remember how you got there. Confusing? It’s not. ;)

I got back on my bike and started pedaling. I took a few turns, left, right, right, left … and then stumbled upon a sign for S?polno telling me to turn right again! So I did and rode along the Odra River for about 15 minutes. You can guess exactly where I ended up: the aforementioned cemetary. I hung out there for a half hour and decided to find my way back to the Rynek so I could get dinner at Vega before meeting up with friends at 5:30.

This is where it gets fun and stuff goes wrong. ;)

Instead of making my way back the way I came I took a detour. Across one bridge. Across another bridge. Across yet another bridge. To the point of not knowing which side of the Odra I should be on. I chose a direction and rode for 20-30 minutes. :)

Eventually, as I was making my way to Siberia, I asked a nice lady how to get to the Rynek. (Important point once you’re incredibly lost.) She laughed at me and said I am not anywhere near where I want to be. Then she proceeded to giving me 27 directions. “Najprostsz? droge,” she says. (The straightest road or the quickest/simplest way.)

If you need to ask for directions and you don’t speak the local language ask younger people. The younger generation is more likely to know English.

Blood! Sandals! Lessons Learned!

Almost immediately upon departing for this “najprostsz? droge” I came upon a middle-aged lady in the middle of the bike lane and I rang my bell to let her know I was going to pass. I always ring my bell about 30 feet behind people because everybody gets freaked out by bike bells. This lady was no exception. She made a b-line for the bushes lining the bike lane and took the worst spill I’d seen since this.

I helped her up, which wasn’t easy considering she decided to get her legs tangled in her bike frame. As she stood up we noticed the blood leaking from her foot. It wasn’t too bad, but there was a lot of blood and her left sandal had a new paint job. The dirty white wasn’t fitting anyway. :)

Lessons learned:

1) Don’t wear sandals on a bike.

2) Don’t ride your bike in the middle of the lane. Stay on the right or left and people can pass you without problems!

As I’m writing this I am cooped up in my apartment due to my own bike spill yesterday. :) Karma!

Success!

30 minutes later, after taking a few more detours, I made it to Vega and had some fantastic vegan go??bki.

Along the way I got to see lots of scenery I would not have seen otherwise. And now when I go north of Wroclaw I can make it back with less problems (and hopefully less blood). Next mission: get lost in the south. ;)

How To Get Lost

By now you’re probably thinking “gee Karol, I’d also like to make old ladies bleed! How do I get in on this action?!”

Simple:

Leave your home on foot or bike (not public transportation) and take a leisurely stroll for an undetermined length of time in any direction. Go down small side streets. Stumble into markets. Say “hello” to random people.

The important thing is not to have a time limit. I actually had somewhat of a time limit in the story above since I was going to meet friends. It took me 4 hours to go round trip to a place that’s about 20 minutes away on bike so I did give myself lots of leeway. ;)

Your turn: what’s your single best tip for learning a new city?

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{ 48 comments }

Alicja

My tip: pick a destination (some interesting place from a tourist guide or whatever) that’s reasonably close to where you are, but at the same time far enough for a 1-2 hours bike ride. Find it on a map just to know the general direction. Set off WITHOUT THE MAP. You’ll be forced to pay attention to your environment to find your way, so even if you never reach your destination (and get horribly lost in the process), you’ll probably see and discover A LOT of new things, simply because you’ve been paying attention this time :)

Added bonus: works not only for a new city, but for your home town as well. Just find a place where you haven’t been yet.

Bicycles are awesome. They do give you a totally new perspective, even in familiar places :)

I do hope you didn’t give the lady a lifelong trauma :p

Karol

Thanks Alicja! Although I believe that is what I stated in the article. ;)

I hope I didn’t give the lady lifelong trauma as well. I think she’ll just stop riding her bike with sandals and maybe pick a side of the bike lane. :)

Joel | Blog Of Impossible Things

I love getting lost in new places! I never feel like I actually know my way around a new place until I get lost there. Once that happens, I always have reference points later on and have at least one or two good stories to share :)

Karol

It’s all about those reference points and stories! :)

Jeanie

I either pick the highest point & look to find the area of interesting stuff (usually water or cool buildings). This is what I did in Sf.

Or I hop on public transport & ride around while talking to random strangers. I did this is Vegas and DC. To this day when I visit I’m awesome on the Metro & have no clue how it correlates to the streets. :)

Karol

I like the highest point idea. Makes it more difficult to get lost … I guess that’s both a benefit and a negative of the technique. ;)

As for Metro: one of the reasons I don’t like using public transport to get to know a city is precisely for that reason. You don’t really get to know the city, just the subway/tram/bus system. That said, it’s also helpful to know the public transport system as well. :)

Kellie

When I was in London I would get on the Underground, pick a stop I hadn’t been to yet, and then wander around until I inevitably found another tube station. I’d stop at whatever museums, parks, or quirky looking pubs I found along the way. Getting lost is one of the best parts of being on vacation for me. People think I’m mad.

By the way, I just recently came across your site, and I love it! Thanks for all the tips Karol!

Karol

Awesome thank you Kellie!

And double thank you for loving the blog. :)

Ali Dark

Yep – I love getting lost in new cities.

I remember my night in Shinjukku with my GF back in 2001 – I got pissed off with her and delibarelty got lost. The early morning sights and sounds in the center of Japan’s nightlife were something I experienced from the outside, in the cold, without money, all alone. Best night ever. This doesn’t really add to your idea but I just wanted to connect and say I love the feeling of being lost somewhere new. It might as well be another planet and everything is so different and special.

I went to China in 2005 – same thing in Shanghai! I had a job lined up before I went there but it turns out I wasn’t meant for it (teaching little kids isn’t as easy as it sounds). So I spent a week finding my own way all over the city, finding buildings and offices, getting sidetracked and lost in art galleries and cafes. At that time Shanghai wasn’t really signed in English. Can’t say I loved the city but I did love the experience!

Would love to hear more about the yummy vegan food severed in Europe… I can take notes for future journeying.

Karol

Sounds fun Ali. :)

I’m going to write a short guide on traveling vegan sometime in the future. :)

Ali Dark

Can’t wait – will be VERY valuable to new vegans I image. If you want someone to put it by just shoot it.

Karol

Thanks Ali! By guide I meant a blog article. ;)

Thomas G

As for me I like to look for high points (hills, cathedrals, towers…), and from there you have a great view of what’s around. It usually goes like “whou this little forest there looks nice, let’s go!” and here I go. But I’m more of a scooter person, so hopefully I won’t hit any old lady…

How is Wroclaw? Would you advise to people with…well no family history ^^

Karol

Thanks Thomas!

Wroc?aw is awesome! :) Yes, I would advise at least a few days here if you’re passing through Poland. Longer if you’re not on holiday and taking your time. Culturally, it’s a great city.

Brooke

I think everyone else has covered it, but why not throw in another vote. :) I love to just go for a walk without a map. Worst case, remember where you came from and retrace your route, and you’ll end up where you started.

And if you want to learn a new neighborhood, take the metro to a new stop, and do the same! (which I should do here, as well–oops) :) I love walking around cities.

Karol

Thanks Brooke! :)

J

I can so relate to this article. This is kind of the reason I like traveling alone. I love not having a plan when I get to a new place, not having a set schedule or directions. Wasting time wandering around, discovering things I never knew existed. I did this when I went to NYC my first time, it was an amazing and unforgettable experience!

Sadly I don’t have the same kind of ridiculous freedom you do and can’t travel as much as I’d like to. But it’s definitely a goal! Find another source of income, quit my day job, and live anywhere! One day..

Karol

Thanks J! I like traveling alone as well. Not just because getting lost alone makes it more difficult, but just because you can do exactly what you want when you want. :)

Henk

Hey Karol! nice post:)

my best tip would be to live like the locals. instead of being all touristy, you can try to blend in and learn the real image of the city.

Karol

Thanks Henk!

Alex

Great post, Karol. You’re right that just wandering around is the best way to learn the geography of a new city. I think, though, that while getting lost and finding your way back home is a great way to do it, the more essential thing is to cover a lot of unfamiliar ground. As we do this more and more, our brains start weaving the physical locations into a mental map, and we understand the place as a local would. Doing this by intentionally getting lost truly is a ridiculously extraordinary way to accomplish it, but it also works to just take specific excursions to various places over the course of your stay, without fear of getting lost but without intention either.

And a bike certainly can accelerate the learning! I need to explore by bike more.

Hope you’re having fun in your ancestral land!

Karol

Thanks Alex! “As we do this more and more, our brains start weaving the physical locations into a mental map, and we understand the place as a local would.” Exactly . :)

I am having fun here, thanks! :)

Brooke

Slightly off-topic, but when I go to a new city, I try and get to a good handful of the neighborhoods, just because each one has its own character. Furthermore, the collection of the neighborhoods–and their location with respect to one another–tells you a lot about the city. So, without rushing from one to the next, I do make it a point to see a variety, and of course to eat at the local hangouts as much as I can.

Unless they are on a very limited time schedule, it saddens me when I hear about people who say they’ve “seen” a city, and they’ve only hit the downtown tourist attractions, stayed at the Sheraton, and eaten at the McDonalds. Then again, our method of traveling requires more effort…

mike

Hi Karol,
As a runner, I find the best way to find my way is to go for an early morning run to figure out where things are when it is quiet. I can then visit properly on foot later.

I love to run and can cover areas more quickly than walking – 2 birds with 1 stone!

Mike

Karol

Hey thanks Mike! Running is definitely a good way to get out and explore a new city.

steve

This is the one I was going to suggest too! I LOVE running in unfamiliar cities and surroundings. That’s how I think I began to feel so at ease in Buenos Aires… every morning I would go for a run thru different neighborhoods and soon… the layout of things began to make much more sense to me. And I know I saw a lot more things than if I had just taken a cab everywhere.

Steve

Karol

I guess I should’ve mentioned running along with walking/riding a bike. It’s all very similar. And all very awesome! :)

Terry

As cheezy as it sounds, during my travels, in Rome I took a bus tour and then went back to my favorite places by foot and metro.

Karol

Hey Terry,

Awesome! Tours are a great way to learn the major landmarks in a new city. Thanks for bringing that up. :) Not cheezy at all.

Karol

Matt

My wife and I were in Singapore last weekend and we just jumped on a public bus and saw where it took us. The great thing about the bus is that if you get lost, you can just cross the street and get back on the bus going the other way. The advantage of bus over metro or subway is that you aren’t stuck underground, or way above street level, so you can see better where you are and what is going on around you. My wife just put up a post on riding the bus in foreign countries at our blog.

Karol

Hey Matt,

Yeah, getting on the bus is a great way to “see” a city, but it’s not a great way to learn it. Again, it’s learning the public transport system, which is good, but it’s not quite what I’m getting at here. :)

Cheers,
Karol

Bobby

That lady smashing the grapes totally wiped out, it looked avoidable!

My tip for learning a new city is running errands! I gotta figure out where things are at to get my food, send my mail, workout at the gym and pick up the local ladies with sweet nothings!

Karol

That’s awesome Bobby! Running errands definitely helps learning a new city. It’s important not to put time limits on those errands though or it will get frustrating. :)

Miranda

Great post, Karol! It totally inspires me to wander.
My best tip builds on Henk’s comment: blend in with the locals ——by connecting with some of them if you want to really get the feel for a city. For that I would recommend Tripping (http://www.tripping.com). My roommate and I are welcoming a traveler from Southern California next weekend. He is starting school here in San Francisco but needs a place to crash for a few days. He’ll be able to get tips from us at breakfast before wandering off to explore his new city while he waits to be able to move in to his new place. By then we will have introduced him to the best pubs and hole-in-the-wall Mexican and Indian food joints, and probably he’ll have some newly-discovered places of his own to share with us.

Karol

Hi Miranda,

Thanks!

Or, you know, use http://www.couchsurfing.org, which is what tripping is based off of. ;)

http://www.ridiculouslyextraordinary.com/blackbook001/ – my free guide to couchsurfing

Cheers!
Karol

Deb

Karol, Your posts are often inspiring, educational, encouraging, and otherwise helpful in many ways. But this is the first one that made me laugh out loud. Thanks!

Karol

Thanks Deb! Glad I could bring some laughter into your day. :)

Raam Dev

While in India, I explored both Bombay and Udaipur by foot — those were some of the most rewarding experiences on my four-month journey so far. :)

I would say the best way to explore a new city is to not be afriad of going somewhere unknown. If you go in the middle of the day and you use commonsense, you will be safe.

Also, mastering the art of walking confidence is important — walk with broad shouders and head up; don’t look around too much becuase you’ll look like you’re lost; and keep a pace that doesn’t make it look like you have no idea where you’re going.

Karol

Good point Raam! Walking with confidence is important. That said, walking like you’re lost may help when you actually are lost in getting some help from someone. :) Of course, it’s better to do that when there are lots of people around.

Raam Dev

Agreed! However, I find that taking an active approach to seeking help (as opposed to letting people see that you look lost and then having them approach you) leads to a far greater success rate at finding genuine help. There’s a greater chance that the people who approach you are looking to take advantage of you.

Karol

Yeah, I’m all about asking. But you’ll find some genuinely helpful people out there if you look confused. Most people are not out to take advantage.

Ali Dark

In Shanghai’s subway (which is like another city itself) I was standing there frowning at the Chinese signs. Then I met Frank! Man was he happy to help out a white guy. Man was I happy to meet Frank. I lost 5kg that week.

Karol

haha, what?

Ali Dark

(I think your threaded comment limit got reached – this reply to the reply [ouch].)

I got so lost there totally by myself that I was limited to eating cans of beans from their 711 equivalent. Having a fast metabolism and an intense distrust of Chinese food vendors didn’t help.

Lothar

I also like to discover the surrounding area by strolling by foot, bike or public transport around.

But I prefer to take my outdoor Navigation system with me. It hasn’t any map or something, but I can set reference points and see the track of my path.

I usually don’t like to use the recorded track to find home.

The main benefit of the navigation system is that you can risk to cover a larger area and you can find home without using the recorded path to discover new areas.

This GPS also allow me to use public transport even if I don’t understand the public transport system. Sometimes I just jump in and go till the end final target of the bus and continue with an other bus number.
To find home I just need to approach the home on some kilometer which I can walk usually through unknown areas.

Heather

Man, I am soooo jonesing for a roadtrip!!!!! Blood is always a good sign that you are out of your comfort zone.

Karol

:) “Blood is always a good sign.”

Karol

ahhh, gotcha :)

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