The two women craned their necks to see beyond the knot of tourists eating ice-cream cones on Annapolis' Main Street.
"Excuse me," one ventured, tapping a passer-by on the shoulder. "Do you know where Main Street is?"
The man shrugged unhelpfully. As she tried again, someone snapped: "You're standing on it."
Similar scenes are replayed every day in Maryland's Colonial capital, where newcomers and tourists often become befuddled by the circular maze of streets and wind up lost.
Free maps provided by many downtown shops are snapped up every day by families searching for the Naval Academy. Out-of-town visitors often block traffic to ask for directions, stray cars repeatedly circle St. Anne's Episcopal Church in the middle of town, and even residents sometimes get confused by the tangle of streets.
But getting around Annapolis is about to get easier. The city's Office of Planning and Zoning is installing 15 large street maps in key locations to help the 4.5 million who visit each year find their way around town.
Last week the Historic District Commission gave the green light to place eight signs along the main tourist corridors, including Main Street, City Dock and State Circle. Street maps will also be installed in the Hillman Parking Garage and the Gotts Court Garage, now under construction, and in Eastport and West Annapolis.
"I think a lot of people end up in Eastport on their way to City Dock," said Mary Burkholder, director of economic development. can't tell you the number of times I've been standing on Green Street and somebody will come up to ask where the water is. It's only half a block away, but they can't see it from there."
Planning officials tried at first to sketch their own street map,but gave up after the sites looked crooked and enlisted the help of a professional, Ms.Burkholder said. Steve Beshara, a graphic artist from Severna Park who designed the Orioles' Opening Day programs, came up with a three-dimensional map highlighting 31 locations.
Annapolis' main tourist draws, its carefully restored Georgian homes and the Naval Academy, are identified along with parking, visitor information, shops, the police station and the hospital.
The city will seek bids within the next two weeks to produce the signs, which will be set in redwood frames and covered with glass. Four business and community groups chipped in $1,000 to defray the cost, although the donation only covers one third of the design fee.
"That's a great idea, it's definitely needed," said Molly McConnell, manager of a T-shirt shop on Main Street. "When I moved here, I just found it completely impossible at first. I know how it feels to walk around and not find anything."
L. J. Machoian, daughter of the owners of the Machoian fried-chicken shop in the downtown market, agreed. She rattled off the most frequent tourist questions: "Where do I park my car? Where is the Naval Academy? Do you have to pay the meters on Sunday? Where do you get quarters?"
What the city needs to do next, she said, is install some automatic change machines for tourists to get quarters.