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Directions in German: Stay On the Straight and Narrow



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You leave your hotel and bundle yourself up against the winter cold in Kiel, northern Germany.

It’s your first night and you’re not too sure where you are in town, so you glance at a street sign to make sure you know where to get back to. The directions in German read Einbahnstraße. Perfect.

After a while of walking it gets later and later and you can’t seem to remember any of the landmarks you thought you remembered.

Not to worry, you speak German! You stop a passerby, and in your best accent ask, Wo ist Einbahnstraße?

The person you stop smirks, having marked you as a foreigner right away. “Einbahnstraße,” comes the reply, “means ‘one-way street.’”

A pretty spooky story, and it could happen to you! Unless, that is, you learn all there is to know about German directions.

Mastering the directions in a foreign language is freeing for two simple reasons. First, you can feel quite confident asking anybody nearby about the city.

Second, if you happen to give advice to a local, you’ll feel like a master-class German speaker! Here’s how you can learn that superpower.

1. Where is it?


Asking Directions

The German question for where something is located is almost painfully similar to English.
  • Wo ist…?
    “Where is…?”

Be extra-careful here that you don’t confuse the other question pronoun wer, meaning “who,” for the English “where.” It’s the kind of mistake that’s easy to make as a learner when you’re just starting out with German, but don’t worry—after a couple of months of studying, you’ll be surprised that it was ever confusing.

A more complex and formal way to ask is to use the phrase Wo befindet sich…? Don’t get confused because of the befindet. It might look like this sentence translates to “Where finds itself (the)…?” but the preposition be- turns the verb finden from “find” to “located.” You might hear this used to describe particular parts of a building, or perhaps a famous building.

  • Das Hotel befindet sich in Paris.
    “The hotel is located in Paris.”

When asking directions in German or receiving them, prepositions are your friends. Of course, there are definitely rules about using certain prepositions with certain cases, but don’t let that slow you down. One of the best ways to actually acquire that knowledge is to learn set phrases like this:

  • Sie wohnt an der Hauptstraße.
    “She lives on the High Street.”

The simple phrase an der Straße is easy to commit to memory, and it is in fact the dative form of the word die Straße.

The same with this phrase:

  • Bist du neu hier in der Stadt?
    “Are you new here in the city?”

Again, we have a feminine noundie Stadt—that changes its article to der Stadt when in the dative case. The dative case is usually used for describing directions in Germany because it implies stationary locations, and buildings don’t shift around too much.

  • Die Bäckerei ist neben dem Büro.
    “The bakery is next to the office.”

2. How far is it?


Blurred Road

Even if you’re not familiar with the specifics of German direction words just yet, you can always speak in general terms.

  • Das ist weit weg von hier.
    “That’s far away from here.”

Imagine you’re exploring Berlin with one of your local friends, and you would like to go to the Potsdamer Platz, so you ask if it’s okay to go there now. But your friend politely declines with:

  • Der Potsdamer Platz, das ist weit weg von hier.
    “The Potsdamer Platz, that’s far away from here.”

  • Das ist in der Nähe.
    “That’s right in the vicinity (right nearby).”

Have you ever heard of the famous Mustafas Gemüse Kebab in Berlin? Let’s say you’ve arrived at the U-Bahn Station Mehringdamm, and you ask a woman if she knows where it is. She might answer:

  • Mustafas Gemüse Kebab? Das ist hier in der Nähe.
    “Mustafas Vegetable Kebab? That’s right nearby.”

Now, some general questions. These are simple, easy ways of asking for directions in German:

  • Ist es weit?
    “Is it far?”

  • Wie weit ist es zur Stadt?
    “How far is it to the city?”

Here you should know a couple of great prepositions for distances.

  • Die Gebäude sind weit entfernt.
    “The buildings are very far away.”

Entfernt literally means “removed,” and if you visit German online forums, you’ll see that word used to mean “deleted” for a post or video. You can easily modify it with time expressions.

  • Ich bin 10 Minuten entfernt von der Stadt.
    “I’m ten minutes away from the city.”

Or distance expressions:

  • Sie sind etwa zwei Kilometer entfernt.
    “They’re about two kilometers away.”

Etwa is a bit informal, but it’s used all the time and has the excellent function of softening whatever guess you’re making about time or distance. What if you want to be a little more exact with your directions, though?

3. Giving Directions in German


Directions in German

Whether you’re getting directions in German from a hard-of-hearing old man in a village or giving directions to your taxi driver, you’ll definitely want to be able to understand the verb “to turn.” This verb is a hugely essential part of directions vocabulary in German.

  • Biegen Sie hier ab.
    “Turn here.” [Formal]

The words links, meaning “left,” and rechts, meaning “right,” are quite close to their English counterparts. Interestingly, in English and in German, the word for “the opposite of left” and “legal rights” come from the same root!

  • Haben Tiere Menschenrechte?
    “Do animals have human rights?”

Anyway, in order to give those directions, just stick your direction word into that phrase. Remember that abbiegen is a separable-prefix verb, so the prefix ab- will often go at the end.

  • Biegen Sie da links ab.
    “Turn left there.”

To ask a direction question that requires a specific answer, use this phrase:

  • Wie komme ich zu…?
    “How do I get to…?”

Zu is one of several prepositions in German that are always followed by the dative case, so pay attention to the article you use.

  • Wie komme ich zu den Apartments?
    “How do I get to the apartments?”

We’ve learned left and right, how about forward and back? There are two ways to tell somebody to go back. The first one is:

  • Sie müssen umkehren.
    “You have to turn.”

Um is a preposition indicating that the movement should happen in a circle, while kehren just means “to turn.” Literally, umkehren means something like “turn in a circle.”

  • Gehen Sie geradeaus bis…
    “Go straight ahead until…”

4. Get out your map of Germany


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To be honest, you can just learn those few phrases and call it a day. Asking and giving directions in German isn’t that complicated!
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But you came for more than that, and that’s what you’ll get. As a foreign visitor, it’s likely that people you meet will ask you where you’ve traveled, and also what part of your own country you’re from.
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That means you should also <a href=know the cardinal directions in German: Nord, Süd, Ost, West. If you can read enough English to understand this article, I bet you can understand that this means: “north, south, east, west!”

To say that you come from or have been to a particular place before, you have to change the article and the noun itself very slightly.

  • Ich wohne im Norden.
    “I live in the North.”

  • Ich war schon im Osten.
    “I was already in the East.”

These two sentences assume that there’s already been some kind of context like:

  • Aus welchem Teil von Amerika kommen Sie?
    “What part of America do you come from?”

If you must specify, then simply tack on the name of the country and you’ll be all set.

  • Meine Mutter wohnt in Norddeutschland.
    “My mom lives in the north of Germany.”

Bonus for people whose country name includes a cardinal direction: add the word der Teil, meaning “part,” to make things clear!

  • Meine Heimatstadt ist im Westen Teil von Südsudan.
    “My hometown is in the western part of South Sudan.”

5. Driving directions in German


Driving

Back at the beginning of this article, we discussed the word for “one-way street.” For a total novice learner, it’s an easy mistake to make because so many street signs in German end in Straße, or “street.” Ein means “one” and bahn means “way” or “path,” so the German word, when broken down, is really identical to the English translation.

What are some other things you should know about driving on German roads? And how does one give or receive street directions in German?

Well, for one, it’s perfectly legal in Germany to drive with a foreign license from many different countries, including the United States. And since you just need to be eighteen or older, plenty of people end up renting cars in Germany for their trips.

If you drive on the famous German Autobahns (“highways”), you’ll notice that there really is no Tempolimit, or “speed limit.” Just stay safe and watch out for supercars!

On the highway you’ll frequently see a sign saying Ausfahrt. That’s not a town name, that’s “exit” in German! Its components are aus-, meaning “out,” and Fahrt, meaning “trip” or “journey.”

  • Welche Ausfahrt ist für Berlin?
    “Which exit do I take for Berlin?”

The opposite of the prefix aus- is ein-. Yes, it does happen to have the same form as the word for “one” in Einbahnstraße. That’s just an irregularity of the German language. But putting that aside for now, what’s the opposite of “exit?” “Entrance,” of course!

  • Die Einfahrt zum Flughafen ist geradeaus.
    “The entrance to the airport is straight ahead.”

6. Conclusion


Basic Questions

With this serious stock of German phrases and vocabulary, you’ll be ready to hit the ground running when you actually get to a German-speaking country.

One great way to practice this in a low-stakes environment is to ask, in German, for directions to places you’ve just been.

Strangers are kind and glad to help tourists, as long as you ask politely. Ask how to get to the hotel you just came from, and since you already know kind of what to listen for, you’ll be more likely to understand the full answer.

Not yet in a German-speaking country? No worries!

You’re already in the best place to learn German online! Just follow the links in this article to our fantastic lessons that dive a little deeper into directions in German, and follow along with our podcasts to learn more.

As always, feel free to reach out in the comments with any questions you have! We’re always glad to help you out.