How to Read a City Map

How to Read a City MapWhile there is nothing more fun than meandering around the streets of a great city, it is frustrating and sometimes frightening to become lost there. Even if you have a Global Positioning System--or GPS--in your car or on your cell phone, you still need to know how to read a city map. City maps are not just for maintaining your sense of direction; they can also help you plan your trip and learn about the geography of an interesting city.


Difficulty: Moderately Easy

Things You’ll Need:
  • City map
Step 1
Assess the scope of the map. Some city maps focus only on the heart of the downtown area, and others include everything that falls within the city limits. Maps of a metropolitan area usually include the city and some of its surroundings.
Step 2
Look for the scale of the map. The map's scale helps you understand the distance between two places on the map. Usually, the scale looks like a small ruler. For example, the scale might be "1 inch = 0.3 miles." The scale will probably also be given in metric measurements.
Step 3
Find the symbol key. This will help you recognize different types of points of interest. A typical city map will assign unique symbols to places such as museums, hospitals, monuments, and universities. Parks are usually shown as green, and water is usually shown as blue. The map might show boat ramps, piers, and marinas.
Step 4
Analyze the transportation options shown on the map. If the map covers an entire large city, the map may show airports, bus routes, and subway routes. Sometimes there is a separate section on the map devoted to the public transportation lines. If it is a small city, or if the map only focuses on the downtown area of a large city, then the map may contain parking information and show walking trails. Biking trails might also be shown on the map.
Step 5
Look at the streets on the map and try to understand any major street patterns. Some cities have streets that follow a neat grid pattern, and other cities' streets are seemingly random and chaotic. Notice whether or not the major roads have a compass direction as part of their name. For example, in Washington D.C. it is important to know that there is both a Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest and a Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast.

Tips & Warnings

Look for specialty maps that highlight a certain aspect of the city. Some city maps focus on shopping or dining.
Make sure that you use a current map. Roads and buildings change over time.

Article Written By Jayne Byrne

Jayne Byrne writes about health, wellness, and engineering. Her clients include the Moses Cone Regional Cancer Center, Genetic Alliance, and the Hirsch Wellness Network. Byrne has a Bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Delaware and a Master's degree in administrative science from the Johns Hopkins University.

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