How to Make an Illustrated Map in 8 Steps

Many of us are in the same situation: homebound, a little restless and a lot distracted. Not only are our future travel plans on hold, but even our local outings and excursions — a quick trip to the market, a stroll in the park, a walk with the dog — are limited. That doesn’t mean we need to curtail our wanderlust or stop exploring the world around us, and within us. Here is an idea that will help fill the void left by travel restrictions and social distancing, redirect our attention to the immediate worlds we know best — either before our eyes or in our minds — while keeping our creative juices flowing:

Make an illustrated map!

The rigid and scientific rules of cartography simply do not apply here! Nope. While an illustrated map is often a wildly useless tool for providing directions, it can be a beautiful and highly personal reflection of a place you, friends and family know quite well. It can tell a story, a personal history, or be a unique lens through which one can experience a special place. An illustrated map can be loose and hand-drawn, filled with fun drawings and doodles that together make a sometimes inaccurate, but always spot on record of a memory or a place from one’s own perspective.

As a freelance illustrator who specializes in map illustration, I find that my clients — hotels, travel magazines, colleges — ask for an illustrated map because they want to excite their visitors, encourage them to learn more about or visit a specific place. You can use a comparable tactic to create your own illustrated map. Which place do you enjoy the most or know the best? Maybe it’s a favorite vacation spot or even your immediate neighborhood. Using illustration to recreate and interpret a place rewards your creativity and shifts your imagination into a dreamy space of idealistic representation and positive recollection.

Follow these eight steps to make your own illustrated map:

Will you illustrate a place you know and love? Maybe your last vacation? Your own neighborhood?

Or will you illustrate a place you’ve never been? Maybe the first place you plan to visit once travel is safe again? Or the No. 1 city on your bucket list? Or even a fictional place, like the city in your favorite book, film, or series?!

What sites are there to see? What activities and experiences are there to have? What landmarks or natural wonders exist at your destination? Pick eight to 10 specific sites in and around your destination.

Consider a fun theme, like all the historical landmarks or public parks or favorite trees or interesting buildings — the possibilities are endless! You could even build a narrative into your map, so that it tells the story of an adventure or illustrates a specific itinerary or captures the memories of your time at this place. For example, create a memory map of your childhood world!

Before I start illustrating a map I use an online mapping tool, such as Google Maps, to plot all the sites. This helps me understand where they all are in relation to each other. This is totally optional — doing it from memory sometimes produces hilarious results!

Using a large sheet of paper, start with the most important site on your list. Maybe this is your home or a hotel you’ve stayed in, or a famous landmark. Lightly sketch a little numbered marker for this site in the center of the space (you’ll erase that marker later.) Next, place similar markers all around your central site.

It’s OK to distort your map by reducing the distances between places — throw accuracy out the window!

An icon is a little spot illustration that represents a site. It does not need to be a drawing of the actual building — it could be anything! A bagel, a taco, a movie camera, a dog walker, an elephant, a rainbow, whatever is super fun and reminds you that specific site. Start with your central site: Erase the little marker and draw an icon in its place.

Find the biggest empty space left on your sketch and use it for the title of your map.

It’s important to include at least a few major roads. These give viewers good points of reference.

If you have more room, consider placing a compass, an inset map and a legend, too!

This is my favorite part! In the empty spaces on your map, illustrate trees, birds, animals, flowers, clouds, rainbows, cars, swirlies, dots, doodles, whatever you want!

Show us your illustrated maps! Tag us at @nytimestravel on Instagram to have your work featured. You can also email us at

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