Skip to main content
By The Way
Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The joy of getting lost in a new city

Ditch Google Maps and take a wrong turn

(Min Heo for The Washington Post)

Welcome to The Upgrade, By The Way’s new series on travel hacks and hot takes. See how to submit here.

The first thing I do when I arrive in a new city is promptly get lost. That’s after the logistics of customs and checking into my accommodation, of course.

I’ll enter my room, take an oft-necessary shower, leave the temptation of a nap behind and wander outside, jet-lagged and running on cheap airport espressos. I’ll exit the building, turn at random and begin to walk. On occasion, I’ll stop for another coffee, or pop into any shop that seems interesting. If I’m hungry, I’ll stop at a restaurant. The walk is purposeless, but far from meaningless: It’s my first introduction to a new city, my home for the next little while.

The walk has no end goal. If I feel I’ve been going straight on one street for too long, I’ll make a sudden turn. If I see something familiar and begin to recognize my surroundings, I’ll go the opposite direction. I’ll make mental notes of landmarks and shops that seem interesting, but since the “point” of the walk is to get lost, whether I find them again is inconsequential to me.

Want to feel like a local in a new city? Go for a run.

The walk can be long or short. It can take me far from my accommodation, or only a few streets away. Sometimes I dare myself to find the way back to the hotel without Google Maps, just to see if I managed to remember anything from my meandering.

Abandoning the concept of a destination and the comfort of Google Maps, I let my feet and intuition guide me. The walk builds excitement for the rest of my time in a city. Though I am surrounded by locals and visitors, the walk makes me feel like an intrepid explorer, trekking through the bush. Liberated from a list of must-sees for now, I’m free to see anything.

Traveling alone teaches you to trust yourself. Similarly, getting lost allows you to prove your capabilities. It pushes you out of your comfort zone, even if all you did was go beyond the big tourist plaza and grab pizza from an unknown bistro. These days, it can feel like everything we do has already been done, reviewed and shared. Getting lost and stepping off the tired tourist path puts you in control.

10 places perfect for a solo trip

You can of course get lost with others, too. I’ve roamed the streets of Oaxaca, Mexico, with my partner and no set direction. I’ve gone off-roading in Iceland with a stranger from Australia. We ate sandwiches on an unnamed mountain with no one else around.

Ask yourself: When was the last time you really got lost? Often it can seem like we are blindly following somebody else’s path, making the same stops of all the other tourists, taking the same picture, eating at the same recommended restaurants or street food stands. Perhaps next time you land somewhere new, you’ll ditch the guidebook and take a walk. Get to know your surroundings through your own senses, rather than someone else’s. Stay safe, of course — make reasonable and responsible decisions — but embrace the fear. Who knows what you’ll find around the corner?

Sofie Mikhaylova is a writer based in Toronto who covers music and pop culture.