I carry a small notebook with me when I travel. In it, I write down information that I’ll need which I won’t be able to pull up on the internet while in transit (I don’t have a smartphone). Things like the addresses of the places I’m going to, phone numbers of my contacts, flight/train/bus numbers and what time they leave, etc…
The most important thing I write down is directions. And I commit them to memory as much as possible beforehand so I can reference my notebook as little as possible while out. Better to be able to act like you know where you’re going than to broadcast to potential ne’er-do-wells that you’re new in town, naive, and distracted.
Another thing I do that’s less common–but quite helpful–is to keep track of what compass direction I’m going based on the sun. I took a class called Archeoastronomy in college and part of it was learning how to do naked-eye astronomy the way ancient people would have (including tracking the sun across the sky).
It keeps the visual map in my head connected with what I see in the real world, which means that if I find I need to make an unexpected detour I don’t have any issues. I’ve missed turns before, but I’ve never actually felt lost and always easily found my way back–even when I wasn’t paying attention because someone else in my group was leading and got us turned around.
If you try to do it, keep in mind that the arc the sun travels along will differ based on both the latitude and time of year. But so long as you know what time it is (and whether you’re on Daylight Savings Time *grumble*), you can figure out direction (and vice-versa) even if you only have a general idea of where the sun should be.
The latitude I’ll be at during this first trip is 43-53° N. Aside from Marseille, France, I’ll be at higher latitudes than here in Iowa City (42° N). I’m going to be traveling in the month immediately following the summer solstice (which is today!), so it won’t deviate too far from its northern maximum during my trip. Because I’ll be well north of the equator, the sun will be rising 30-40° N of E and setting the same amount N of W (it only rises and sets directly east and west on the equinoxes) and will be 20-30° shy of directly overhead at its zenith (1 pm in England, noon on the continent because of time zone silliness).
Here are a couple sunpath generators you can play with:
Sun Calc– If charts with lots of information scare you, this website is good to ease you into looking at sunpath charts.
Sun Earth Tools– Several different charts and tables are generated by this website. Scroll down to see a re-creation of what it looks like from the ground