page last updated June 8, 2023
cities have remarkable public transportation systems, especially when
compared with American cities of equal size, and they operate with all
the efficiency you'd expect from our Teutonic friends. Just about every
town of substantial size has at minimum a decent bus system.
options increase considerably as the place you're in gets bigger.
Public transportation is so good, you should never need or want a car
to get around most cities.
Germany probably has more urban
public transportation systems, especially rail systems, than just about
any other country in the world. In a book I once read about urban rail
authors wrote that "Germans know how to do mass transit properly", and
I would wholeheartedly agree.
On this page:
Types of service
|Nearly every town and many rural areas have
scheduled local bus service. In larger towns and cities, lines
crisscross the city. Where local rail service is offered,
buses typically feed and compliment those services. In the biggest
cities, there may be several
different bus systems in operation. In Berlin, you'll even find
double-decker buses. In
some places, especially smaller towns, bus services may be operated by
GermanRail (Bahnbus) in lieu of rail
Service intervals vary widely depending on the
location and time. Many large cities also offer night bus service. In
some places, especially smaller towns, bus service is operated by
GermanRail (Bahnbus) in lieu of rail service.
Bus stops throughout Germany are marked with this
Bus plaza at suburban Frankfurt rail station
(Photo by Brian Purcell)
Most medium and large cities have a streetcar
(tram) system, sometimes fairly extensive. In some areas, streetcar
lines run underground in the central city area. Trams are
especially prevalent in many eastern German cities. Most systems have
been modernized with sleek new rolling stock, and many systems now
carry the more trendy Trambahn moniker.
generally serve most of the major corridors of medium-sized cities, and
in areas of larger cities that may not be directly served by U-Bahn and
S-Bahn services (see below.) Service is fairly
frequent, usually 10-30 minutes during the day.
Streetcar stops throughout Germany are also marked
with this sign:
(Photo by Brian Purcell)
Some cities-- most notably Stuttgart,
Hannover, Cologne, and Dusseldorf-- have upgraded their former
modern light rail systems known as a Stadtbahn.
Generally, these systems function very much like an U-Bahn
system (subway, see below) with standard-gauge tracks, longer trains,
level boarding. However, while the Stadtbahn usually runs underground
within the central city areas like an U-Bahn, it runs mostly
overground outside of the central city. But unlike
Stadtbahn runs almost entirely in exclusive rights-of-way, making them
faster than streetcars.
These systems generally serve the central city and close-in suburbs. Service is frequent, usually 5-15 minutes
during the day.
Because of their similarity with U-Bahns, most
Stadtbahn systems mark their stations with
the standard blue "U" U-Bahn sign with the word "Stadtbahn" added below
across the "U", such as the examples below, and Stadtbahn lines are
typically numbered with a "U"
followed by a number (e.g. U2).
are other uses of the word "Stadtbahn" in Germany that don't describe a
light rail system. A few medium-sized cities have "Stadtbahn" systems that are
a hyrbid streetcar/S-Bahn system (more on these in the "Other local
transport options" below).
In Berlin, the main east-west elevated rail corridor that carries both the S-Bahn as well as regional and
intercity trains is known as the "Stadtbahn".
(Photo by Brian Purcell)
|A few of Germany's largest cities-- including
Berlin, Hamburg, and Munich-- have a
full-fledged subway system, or U-Bahn. For the most part, these systems
are located underground, but may run on elevated tracks or at ground
level, especially in outlying areas. These systems generally serve the
central city and the immediate vicinity.
Service is frequent, usually
5-15 minutes during the day.
U-Bahn stations in all German cities are marked
with the standard blue "U" sign shown above, and lines
are numbered with a "U" followed by a number (e.g. U2).
(Photo by Brian Purcell)
|| Suburban rail
|The largest metropolitan areas have an
ingenious suburban train system called the S-Bahn.
These are rapid transit trains that run from the central city deep into
S-Bahn routes primarily run above ground except in the central city,
where they frequently are underground, often on a trunked corridor
through the downtown area. In Berlin, most S-Bahn lines are
elevated through the city with the exception of the north-south
corridor, which runs underground through central Berlin.
the S-Bahn also makes several stops in the central city area as well.
As these stops tend to be a bit further apart than those on the U-Bahn
or Stadtbahn, the S-Bahn is often a faster option for
central city journeys.
cities like Karlsruhe have a hybrid tram/S-Bahn system in which trams
function nominally as S-Bahns in outlying area. (More on these in
the "Other local public transport options" below.)
Unlike most other local transit systems, which are
operated by local governments or franchises, most S-Bahn systems
are operated by the Deutsche Bahn. As a result, you can use DB
passes on them (see special note under Tickets below.)
Service is fairly frequent, usually 15-30 minutes
during the day.
S-Bahn stations in all cities in Germany are marked
with the standard green "S" sign shown above. S-Bahn lines
are numbered with an "S" followed by a number (e.g. S2).
(Photo by Brian Purcell)
local public transport
Other modes of urban public transport you may come across
Zahnradbahn: Cog railway/funicular
Seilbahn: Cable railway or cable-car
Schwebebahn: Suspension railway; ride the famous one in
Wuppertal if you get a chance-- it's over 100 years old!
Regional train; typically a longer-distance commuter rail service to
outlying areas around major cities. May also be labeled as RB or RE.
- Fähre: Ferry;
integrated into the public transportation systems in several cities
including Hamburg and Berlin.
medium-sized cities-- most
notably Karlsruhe, Heilbronn, Saarbrücken, and Chemnitz-- have
built hybrid "tram-train" systems that combine streetcar
systems with an S-Bahn. These systems oftentimes carry the "Stadtbahn"
moniker and use regular streetcar vehicles that operate as such in the
central city, but then transition onto the mainline rail network to
connect to outlying towns.
that the service times indicated above are for weekdays. Service on
weekends may be substantially reduced, especially on Sundays and
holidays. Schedules are usually posted at stops and stations and are
available online (see the links section at the bottom of this page.)
transit systems use the central rail station (Hauptbahnhof)
as a major hub. This makes it easy to get to and from the station from any part of the city.
foreign visitors confuse or interchange S-Bahn and U-Bahn.
However, there are significant differences between the two (see each
service's description above.) Here's an easy way for English speakers
to keep two these straight:
many foreigners confuse or interchange S-Bahn with Straßenbahn
or Stadtbahn. Again, these are all different modes with substantially different operational characteristics.
The transit maps (Netzplan) for the largest cities are quite complex,
oftentimes resembling some kind of electrical wiring diagram. But once
you study them for a few minutes, they're usually pretty easy to
understand. Most cities use color-coded schematic plans to make the
system easier to decipher.
can be obtained for free from tourist
and transit information offices and are often included in guidebooks, and you can also
copy from the respective transit agency's websites (see links section
at the bottom of this page.) You'll also find them posted at most
bus and streetcar stops and rail stations. Street maps of the
neighborhood are also usually posted in rail stations making it easy to
find your way from the station to your destination.
Tickets and fares
each metropolitan area or region, all of the transit networks operate
under a single regional transport cooperative (Verkehrsverbund)
with coordinated fares and tickets. A single ticket (Ticket,
Fahrschein, or Fahrausweis)
is good for
all modes of public transport in the region including transfers to
other trains or
buses needed to complete your journey. The specific rules vary from
region to region, but in most places, your ticket allows you a
single complete journey in
one continuous direction along the most direct route to your
destination during a finite length of time, usually two hours or so,
including any transfers. Most also allow for short breaks in the trip
as long as you reach your final destination within the time limit.
on German transport networks are based on a zone system. The transport
regions are divided into tariff zones (Tarifzonen)
and your fare is based on the number of zones you cross. Some cities have a
single zone (Innenraum)
covering the central city, but some others have a cluster of zones for
the central city with all journeys starting and ending anywhere in the
cluster have the same fare as a single zone. However, you generally
don't need to know how many zones your trip will cross as the ticket
machines or apps will calculate that for you based on your origin and
generally start at €1-4 for shorter trips and increase from there for longer distances.
are multiple ways to purchase a ticket. Most transport
now offer an online app with schedules, route planning, and electronic
ticketing. The features of these apps will vary by agency.
In most cases, these apps are the most convenient way to purchase a ticket
you opt not to use an app, you can still purchase a physical ticket.
buses, you usually purchase your ticket from the driver.
Simply state your
final destination and the driver will tell you how much the fare is.
them and they will give you your ticket. Unlike in the US, in most German cities, the
make change, but it's probably a good idea to have enough change
on-hand to pay the exact fare.
there is a ticket machine at the bus
stop, you should purchase your ticket from the machine rather
than the driver (see below.) In some places, there are ticket machines
on board buses and trams; you'll need to purchase your ticket from one
of these machines immediately after boarding.
For most rail systems, you will need to purchase your ticket before
board. Tickets are available from automated ticket machines (labeled Tickets,
Fahrscheine, or Fahrausweise) located in
the station. The exact operation of these machines varies from region
to region, but
they all function basically the same these days with touch-screens that
step you through the
process in a number of different languages. Most now accept credit or
debit cards in addition to good ole' cash.
machine in Munich (left) and Entwerter
(validator) in Berlin (right)
(Photos by Brian Purcell)
on the city, once you purchase your ticket, you may then be required to
validate it just before you use it-- look for the words "Entwerten"
or "Entwerter" and maybe an arrow on the ticket (see
example below). If your ticket requires validation, find a small
with a slot on the front (see photo above.) You'll typically find these
located at the entrances
to subway and rail stations and/or on the platform, and on board buses
and trams. Insert your
ticket in the slot as indicated by the arrows. The date, time, and
location will be stamped on the face of the ticket. If in doubt, it
never hurts to validate your ticket anyway.
Really old Berlin
subway ticket showing
validation timestamp in the top section.
Other ticket types
cities also have special multi-tickets (Mehrfahrtenkarte,
etc.) You purchase one ticket that has sections on it for
uses (usually some amount between 3 and 10), often at a slightly
price from the corresponding total of individual fares. To use
ticket, you need to validate it before or as you begin each journey by
inserting the next unvalidated section into the validating
machine. Once validated, it works like an individual ticket with
regards to use. Depending on the number of zones you're crossing, you
may need to validate multiple sections per trip. On most systems, you
can use a single multi-ticket for
several people traveling together-- just validate the appropriate
number of sections of the
ticket for each person.
are also day passes (Tageskarte)
good for all modes of transit for an entire day-- these are usually a
really good deal if you're making more than a couple of trips. Some
systems also sell
a group day ticket which allows several people to use one day ticket,
or passes that also include admission to museums and attractions.
many cities have special tickets for short-distance journeys
(up to three or four stops); these tickets (Kurzstreckekarte)
cost considerably less than a full zone ticket.
If you live in Germany and use public transit extensively, you can subscribe to the "Deutschland-Ticket" for €49 a month, which allows you unlimited use of local and regional transit all across Germany.
(Note: In the German translations for tickets above, I mostly use the
traditional word "karte", but in many cases, the contemporary term "ticket" is now
used, so substitute accordingly.)
Kids, dogs, and bikes
some places, children under a certain age ride free with a paying
adult. Otherwise, they will need their own ticket, which is usually
sold at a discounted rate.
Most systems will allow you take your dog or bike on board trains
and buses, but you may have to buy a ticket for them, most likely the
children's fare or equivalent. Also note that bicycles may be
restricted to certain cars and/or may not be allowed during rush hours.
you have your ticket (and validated it if required), you may board the
train or bus. Keep your ticket with you for the duration of your
journey. German transit operates on the honor system, so you won't find
fare gates or barriers to enter the station. However, to keep honest
people honest, undercover ticket inspectors (Fahrkartenkontrolleur)
will periodically walk-through the trains and buses checking tickets. When they approach asking "Fahrkarten/ Fahrausweise, bitte",
hand them your ticket. Those without tickets are publicly humiliated, a
torture which only ends by coughing-up the fine, usually €60
or so collected on the spot. Keep in mind that they've heard all the
(and being a foreigner is no excuse), so if you get caught, it's in your best interest to
just pay up and get on with your life.
S-Bahn and railpasses
In areas where the Deutsche Bahn operates the S-Bahn system
is most places), DB and Eurail passes are valid on S-Bahn trains provided your
pass is valid for the day you want to use the S-Bahn.
are only valid on the S-Bahn, NOT on the U-Bahn, Stadtbahn, or
trams. So if you're using a railpass for the S-Bahn in conjunction
with other modes of public transportation for
a journey (such as the U-Bahn), you will need to purchase a separate
ticket for the segment
of your trip that is not via S-Bahn. For instance, if your trip from
Point A to Point C includes an S-Bahn from A to B and an U-Bahn from B
to C, then you will need to purchase a ticket for the B to C segment,
and you will need to purchase and/or validate this ticket when you
reach Point B.
Here's an additional tip: if you have a flexipass
and did not or will not be riding a long-distance mainline train on a
given day, don't waste a flexipass day on S-Bahn travel-- you can get a
day ticket or individual journey tickets much cheaper than the
pro-rated cost of a flexipass day.
DB point-to-point tickets include a "City-Ticket", which allows you to
use local public transportation to get to the DB
start your train trip and/or to get from the station to reach your
destination. In this case, it includes all forms of local public
transport, including U-Bahn, Stadtbahn, streetcars, and buses, in addition to the
S-Bahn. A few restrictions apply; for more details on this, check the DB website or ask at a DB
transit in Germany is remarkably safe, even at night, but it's always
wise to be aware of your surroundings. The main threat is
pickpocketing, especially during peak periods and in the busier
stations. Therefore, take extra precautions to safeguard any valuables
that you may be carrying. At night, you should avoid riding in empty
cars and preferably ride in the car nearest
telephones (Notrufsäule) are
located in every station and on board most trains, and police make
frequent patrols, especially in areas where an increase in crime is
cities also have have combined call boxes at
stations or on board trains that, in addition to being emergency phones,
also allow you to call for information or even to arrange for a
get you from the station to your final destination.
emergency/information call box
post in Berlin subway station
(Photo by Brian Purcell)
Other sites of interest