Street Maps and Guidebooks

Finding your way around an unfamiliar city can be daunting; but being able to know where you are versus where you want to be and how to get between the two is a necessary skill to have while city trekking or otherwise.

Never before has navigation for tourists been easier; the advent of high speed wireless/mobile data networking has enabled Google Maps, Apple Maps and similar free applications to marry GPS location awareness with rich point-of-interest content, including 3D renderings of buildings and detailed transit maps. In many major cities, real-time public transit information is available; eventually, this will be the case everywhere.

But when your battery dies, or when you’re in a place where you don’t have (or simply can’t afford) mobile data network services, you’re going to need a proper paper map. You’ll need to develop some basic skills to know how to navigate through a city without technology, and that means using a basic paper map, the angle of the sun and perhaps even a compass if you’re really having a go of it, and how/where to find street names (not all places in the world have clear, proper signage on every street corner as we are used to in the United States).

My favorite “bag of maps” from various travels, ready for re-use on future trips

Street Maps: better to have than not

Street maps fall into some basic categories: a proper road map for navigating between cities, local maps of city streets, area maps of particular neighborhoods or attractions, and purpose-minded maps, such as a public transit map or a map of a city’s historic churches. The kind of maps you should pack in a day bag depends on the kind of touring / trekking you plan to do, but I generally recommend two: STREETWISE© or Compass Maps Ltd.’s “imap” format (if you can find them used), as well as Compass’ PopOut maps and guides and the simple “tourist maps” you can get from local hotels or landmarks. Another great approach to city trekking is the “City Walks” card decks of recommended walking tours. But no matter what the source, they all share one common trait: they can help you find where you are and determine what direction to head to get to where you want to go next.

Maps, maps, maps: love them!

(STREETWISE© is reportedly now defunct, having operated from 1984 to 2016… a sign of the times? If you like their maps, go stock up! Though it is likely that someone will acquire the intellectual property and produce the maps again at some point, in addition to an “offline” mobile app, if we are lucky)

A good street map will have points-of-interest well highlighted, easy-to-identify landmarks, virtually all named streets identified with minimal need to consult a street name index, easily and clearly folds up to a manageable size and is durable. Areas of a city which are parks or even small city squares should be easily found and identified, as they are often primary landmarks to start navigating from. If you know where you are, your map should make it easy to locate, otherwise, what good is it?

Identifying street names is also a skill that every city trekker should develop. Where to find the names of streets will vary from country to country and even city to city; sometimes there are intersections without any usable signage… if that’s the case, walk a block or two and find a street name on a building or sign: you’ll probably discover something interesting to enhance your trip while doing this, so don’t view it as the hassle of a paper map: it’s the beauty of learning a city.

Mapping with a smartphone requires cellular telephone network data service, or you are limited to ‘checking your map’ where there is WiFi available. When traveling internationally, it can often be worth purchasing a short-term local cellular data plan using a local-network SIM card. However, more and more wireless carriers have fantastic international roaming. The last time I arrived in Europe, I was greeted with text messages from one of my two carriers reminding me they offer unlimited data and text messages and just $0.20/min for voice calls while traveling abroad. The other’s offer was $40 up-front for 250MB of data and $2/min for calls. Shop wisely.

Paper Maps vs. Online Maps — Quick Summary
  • Paper maps don’t require batteries.
  • Paper maps are often designed specifically to show something contextual.
  • Paper maps are universal; we’ve been drawing them for all of history.
  • Online maps can show traffic or turn-by-turn walking directions.
  • Online maps can have live public transit timings.
  • Online maps offer satellite photography and photorealistic 3D buildings.
What kind of paper maps are the most valuable to have?
  • Start with / always have Streetwise / Compass imap or PopOut / etc at the ready: they are easy to understand, easy to carry and are laminated so you can’t destroy them without a good amount of effort.
  • Often the best are the ones you get in town designed for tourists… mainly to get you back to your hotel after a night of libations!
  • Best map adaptation: my Westin Chicago’s room key holder contained a fold-out map of the city center: awesome!
Why paper maps?
  • They rarely ‘break’; they make you look around and get to know the area.
  • Sometimes getting a few blocks lost and then finding your way again yields the best unplanned views and experiences of a city: this won’t happen to you using only online maps.
  • no need for WiFi or cellular data, no load times, etc.
But what about PDFs or Apps for ‘paper maps’ on my tablet or mobile phone? Or a dedicated GPS device?

These are the best of both worlds… a map that doesn’t require data network connectivity, in a somewhat more mangeable form factor than many paper maps, and one that I’ll review in more detail later.

However,

  • They require batteries or a power supply and cables;
  • And can otherwise ‘break’.

Always have a paper map available; technology is great, but using a proper paper map is fun and a skill every traveler should have.

Guidebooks: should more than just a tome of attractions

Guidebooks should not only offer practical information about a destination, such as when a museum is open, or where to get tickets, or how to call for emergency services on a telephone in a foreign country, but also be history books: there is no better way to experience a new destination than knowing a bit about its history.

Knowing how a place got to be the way it is, or why a particular architectural detail is significant can enhance your trip by helping you to see things you might have otherwise missed.

Guidebooks should have recent, relevant photographs or diagrams of the key features of destinations. I especially like guidebooks that include an overview map of a destination with practical things like where the public restrooms are, or where to park your vehicle. There is enormous value in buying guidebooks versus printing out various bits you find online.

Great guidebooks make you want to visit!

eBook format is also a great option if you have a reader that has a good color display that reads well in full sunlight. Just remember, even an eBook requires batteries or can otherwise cease to function; and at some point, it may not be possible to read today’s eBook files; and you may not “own” the book, but simply have a license to read the electronic version on your device. Physical books can can be passed along, are your property to resell if you like, and can last for generations, even if not perfectly well-cared-for.

I confess that I probably only read 10–20% of a guidebook’s content during any given trip. While it should offer a history lesson, it’s not a history book, and I’ve got better things to do than read about all the places I’m not going on a particular trip. Sometimes I’ve read one cover to cover on a long flight where I was losing my sanity, but generally they are simply a reference, not a novel. And of all the destinations outlined in a book, I might be visiting just 1–2% of them on any one trip.

Hence, I don’t usually carry one with me while trekking through a city; it’s too much weight and any relevant info I may want with me while trekking around can be written down as notes and carried in my pocket for reference. Some of the smaller city-focused books, such as Eyewitness’ Amsterdam guide, could qualify for ‘city carry’, but their 800-page guide to India (or Lonely Planet’s 1,140-page India “pocket” guidebook) will stay in the hotel room while I’m out sightseeing with my paper street map. In addition to pocketing your own written notes, one handy trick is to take photos of relevant pages in your guidebooks with a mobile phone or tablet for later reference out and about (just remember… battery life…).

What do I look for in a guidebook?
  • Clear photos and drawings with a clear attention to detail.
  • Historical details explained “just right” (not too much, not too little).
  • DK / Eyewitness and Lonely Planet are great for different reasons; I use both, sometimes of the same destination.
  • Pocket guidebooks (like Lonely Planet’s Best of Athens in the photo above) should have fold-out maps with transit and main sights clearly marked.

In sum, both a paper street map and guidebooks are important parts of Traveling Well; having a smartphone with data service that won’t break your bank can be a good adjunct, but don’t become dependent on it.

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