How to learn a new city

Epistemic status: I’ve no real experience here. This is just what I’ve been doing. It seems to work pretty well? It might not work for you.

So as you may have gathered I’ve moved to Zürich recently. A lot of the last few weeks have been me going “Halp how do I find my way around here?”.

It’s now at the point where I think I’ve got a handle on the basics. There’s still a lot I’m confused by (I can’t even pronounce the street names correctly), but I no longer feel too bewildered about how to get where I need to go.

So, here’s what I’ve been doing. It’s less of a unified theory of exploration and more a collection of helpful things.

The basic principles are:

  1. Walk everywhere
  2. Use Google maps (or your favourite equivalent), but use it sparingly
  3. Be goal directed, but vary your route
  4. Keep an eye out for places you’ve seen before

Walking everywhere

(I’m aware not everyone can do this. I don’t really have any good suggestions there, sorry. The problem of reporting on what I do that works for me without any broader experience is that it’s generally quite tailored to my particular capabilities)

The basic motivation is that I’ve found walking is vastly better for getting to grips with a route than anything else. Cycling (or, I imagine, driving) you have too much coming at you and everything is too fast to properly take it in. Public transportation, while a hallmark of modern civilization, is actively harmful for helping you understand the geography of something. Walking puts everything straight into your spatial memory and helps you get a feel for how it all connects up. Lots of bits of London didn’t make much geographical sense to me until I stopped considering them in terms of which tube station they were near to.

You should also learn the public transport network of course. Sometimes you want to go further than you can realistically walk, and also once you know how to walk from A to B quite well you don’t need to keep relearning that route and can start to think about how to make your trip more efficient. You just avoid public transport when you’re trying to learn the area you’d be travelling through.

Maps with GPS

This is for three main reasons:

  1. Getting a rough idea of a good route before you set out (you should ideally not follow that route precisely, but it helps give you a good sketch to start with) when you don’t really know where you’re going. Don’t do this unless you’re sure you need to.
  2. Occasionally confirming you are where you think you are so that you don’t learn wrong information
  3. As a panic button

3 is the important one. Basically: The essence of learning is experimentation. The main thing you need to be able to experiment is to be able to afford to fail. If it’s not costly to fail, it’s not costly to try things. Having GPS to tell you where you are and how to get where you need to be means you can never get too badly lost and are thus free to explore. This is really important.

(Note: You should also determine whether any areas of the city are unsafe and worth avoiding. Zürich is very safe so I haven’t had to worry about that. If you’re unsure, ask for advice and only explore when it’s light out)

Goal directed

This is my standard approach to learning so it’s not surprising I’d promote it here. Essentially I find that asking the questions that you need to learn how to answer and then learning enough to answer them is by far the most useful way to learn a subject. You can explore aimlessly if you want (if you do, I recommend taking a companion along, but that’s mostly because I find aimlessly wandering on my own boring and will tune out and not learn anything).

So yeah, basically you should be asking lots of questions of the form “I am at A. How do I get to B?”. You can use maps for this if you like, or you can go by dead reckoning.

Try not to go by a route you’ve already done. Learning how lots of different bits connect up is very helpful – I find the more connections I know the better the whole thing sticks in my memory and makes sense.


This is again about the connections thing: It’s very useful to be able to go “Oh, that’s where I am” and tie little bits of knowledge together. These don’t have to be fancy scenic landmarks or anything – I actually find distinctive shops one of the better things for this, though churches and giant cranes are also useful too.

And the rest…

I’m sure there are lots of other useful techniques. To be honest, I’d love to know what they are, because this seems to be working much less well for my new office than it has for my new city, so maybe there are some useful tricks I’m missing…

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One thought on “How to learn a new city

  1. Elisabeth

    When I first got to Cambridge, I bought an A-Z of the city and environs. Every week, before lectures on Tuesdays, I would plan out a route I had never been down before and walk there and back to college in a small, rambly loop. When I got home, I would colour in the streets I had walked with a green highlighter in the A-Z.

    I ended up walking to places I never would have done thinking ‘I need to get here,’ just because they were some distance from college and I knew I could get there and back in half an hour or so. It was also about all the exercise I did that term. Or year, to be honest.

    With a big city, you could strategize it more by using the grid references to plan your route i.e. get back to B4 (home) via A3 and D1.

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