A topographical map shows the contours of land. Using connecting lines that connect areas with the same elevation, it is possible to get a visual representation of both high points, such as mountains, and recesses below the earth's surface, such as the ocean floor. Topographical maps also show manmade constructions, such as railways and roads, and bodies of water, such as streams and lakes. You would use a topographical map if you needed to find out the elevation of a particular mountain or the depths of a particular point in the ocean, as well as investigate the areas surrounding that point.
A physical map uses colors to show the contours of land. Water is typically a shade of blue, and land of lower elevations is typically green. As elevation increases, this green color generally fades to a different color, such as brown or gray. The map might include major political borders or major cities for reference points. A physical map is used to understand the physical landscape of an area of the earth's surface.
Thematic maps can vary widely based on purpose. They show the distribution of data according to a given "theme." Thematic maps can display data, for example, on the distribution of farmlands or the percentage of people over age sixty in a given area. Using a base map, a variety of colors or shades of colors are used along with a key to indicate the way statistical data is spread across a given area. Using a thematic map, it is easier to understand how a given theme is connected to a particular region.
Political maps are likely the most commonly used maps. They indicate the major boundaries between counties, provinces, states, and countries. They mark the location of major cities, bodies of water, and roads. We use political maps each time we load up the GPS function on our phones to help us arrive at a particular destination. Political maps help us assess our location relative to towns, states, and countries around us.