Brian's Guide to
Getting Around Germany

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Local Transport
City Driving and Parking

This page last updated January 6, 2024

German cities, like most major European and world cities, are old and congested. Driving in these cities is generally more of a hassle than a necessity, especially with the excellent public transportation available. Still, there may be times when you want or need a car in town, or just got lost leaving the airport and ended-up in downtown Berlin, so here's some things to know and keep in mind regarding driving and parking in German cities.

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The central parts of most German towns and cities feature a lovely system of narrow, disjointed, and often one-way streets. You may find yourself feeling like a rat trapped in a maze. A recent study determined that the average German spends 65 hours a year stuck in traffic or waiting at traffic lights. That said, overall, congestion in German cities is probably no better or worse than other European and world cities. Driving in town, even "downtown", usually isn't too bad if you have experience driving in large urban areas. And after the war, many German cities rebuilt their downtown districts and designed them to make automobile navigation a little easier. Basically, driving in cities in Germany involves the same skill, patience, and sense of humor as driving in cities in the US and elsewhere. Use common sense and pay attention and you should do fine.

Rush hours are generally 7:00-9:00 am and 4:00-6:00 pm on weekdays. In some of the trendy nightlife districts, you may find yourself staring at brake lights until well after 11:00 pm. Popular shopping areas will usually be congested and parking particularly hard to come by on Saturdays.

Physical constraints
The first thing you may notice is that streets in Germany (and Europe in general) are appreciably narrower than those in the US. Having a compact car will make adapting to this substantially easier. Sight lines in towns also are more restricted than typically seen in the US due to buildings being close to the street; convex mirrors are often placed atop poles at intersections or tight turns to assist drivers in seeing around obstructions.

Town street

Typical town street
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

Make sure you know where you're going before you head out. Directional and guide signs may be hard to spot in the urban clutter, so be sure to keep an eye peeled for them (having a passenger on the look out can be especially helpful.)

Multi-level mazes
Several large cities make extensive use of tunnels and multi-level intersections that allow traffic to quickly bypass congested areas. These can sneak-up on unsuspecting drivers and seemingly take them through a wormhole to an alternate universe. It's a good idea to study a map of your route before you start out so you're aware of these.

Avoid it altogether
You can completely avoid the stress of driving in a city by parking your car somewhere in the outskirts and using public transportation to reach your destination in the city. This will likely save you a considerable amount of time, money, and cursing. You'll find many German cities have outlying park and ride (P+R Anlage) locations marked with "park + ride" signs Park + Ride for this purpose.

Sign forest

Example of a Schilderwald

Signs, signs, everywhere are signs
There are an estimated 20 million traffic signs in Germany, or about one every 28 meters! Many Germans describe their streetscape as a "sign forest" (Schilderwald) due to the abundance of traffic signs, so you'll need to pay extra special attention in areas with many signs so that you don't miss an important one. Be especially on lookout for for "do not enter" signs Do not enter and "one way" signs One way — miss one of these and you might become the new hood ornament on a bus or delivery truck.

To avoid the one-way maze, use larger two-way avenues and boulevards to get as close to your destination as possible, then use the one-ways as needed to finish the job. If you get lost in the one-way rat trap, be warned that a couple of right turns could put you in France instead of back where you started.

Traffic signals are usually easy to see, but sometimes right-of-way signs may be difficult to spot. Also, look closely for parking or no-parking signs before you park on the street to make sure that you may legally park there (more about this in the next section.) Especially watch for the many obscure driveways marked with "Ausfahrt freihalten" ("do not block the exit") signs or you may return to find that the police have performed their magic and made your car disappear. Some money will have to disappear from your wallet to make the car reappear.

Keep exit clear sign

Don't block driveway sign
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

Other gotchas
Another sign to watch for is the "bus lane" sign Bus lane — this sign marks a lane reserved for buses. You'll find these along some major boulevards in the larger cities. Other vehicles, including taxis, electric vehicles, and sometimes bicycles, are also allowed to use this lane when marked with a corresponding supplemental sign. If you want to turn right, you cannot use this lane to do so; instead, you must turn right across the lane, but can only do so after yielding to any traffic in that lane.

Keep a sharp eye out for unmarked intersections and yield the right-of-way to traffic approaching from the right. These are especially common in residential areas.

Definitely be on the watch for pedestrians. They always have the right-of-way in zebra-marked crosswalks, but oftentimes they'll dart-out between cars and other locations. In residential areas, be on the lookout for children playing near streets — you're required by law to pass by them at the slowest speed possible. The same holds true if a handicapped or elderly person is in or near the street.

German motorists are rather "trigger-happy" when it comes to green lights. Many drivers are already entering the intersection when the signal turns green, so be prepared to go or expect some cranky honking from the guy behind you just mere microseconds after the green comes on.

Typical town road

Typical town road

Street addressing
You would think that the Germans, with their collective obsessive/compulsive disorder, would have something as simple as house numbering organized to a fault. Instead, you often have to consume a couple of liters of beer before it makes any sense.

For the most part, house numbers are not organized by blocks like they are in the US. And while many places have an odd/even scheme on each side of the street like in the US, many places do not, in which case buildings were often numbered up one side of the street then back down the other (the so-called "horseshoe numbering".) When more buildings were built along the same street, they repeated the process with the new addition, sometimes using the same street name, sometimes a different street name. Some cities use both methods in close proximity, which can really have you going in circles. And a few villages even have a sequential numbering plan where buildings were numbered in the order they were built, no matter their location in the town.

Be aware that multiple storefronts and/or residences can share the same house number if they're all in the same physical building — in this case, they may have lettered suffixes or fractions to differentiate them, except when they don't. If buildings were combined at some point, the address may be given as a range, such as "10-14".

And then there is Mannheim, where the central city addressing is something special. Streets aren't named — instead, the blocks are lettered and numbered on a grid (for example, block "A2" or "M4"), then the buildings are numbered around the block starting at the southwest or southeast corner depending on which side of the central avenue you're on. While it's a ridiculously logical system, you're probably just as likely to get lost as with any of the other systems.

Fortunately, most online maps nowadays show the house numbers for individual buildings, so finding a specific address is much easier than it used to be.

With house numbering in disarray, it's no surprise that street names are as well. A street can change names anywhere it wants to (sometimes even in the middle of a block.) Attached to each name are the typical suffixes. For instance, Strasse or Straße is "street" and Weg is "lane" or "way". However, Allee is not "alley", but rather "boulevard" or "avenue"; gasse is "alley." There are others, but those are the biggies.

Low emissions zones
Since 2008, local governments have been permitted to establish so-called "environmental zones" (Umweltzone) in order to reduce air pollution in cities and to help Germany reach its carbon-reduction goals. As of 2022, there are 69 such zones in Germany covering nearly every large city and many smaller cities.

Umweltzone signsVehicular access to these zones, marked with the "low emissions restriction zone" signs like the one at the left, is restricted to vehicles with the colored emissions sticker(s) (Feinstaubplakette or Umweltplakette) shown on the bottom sign. When the zones were initially established, access was allowed for vehicles displaying either a red, yellow, or green sticker, the color of which indicates the level of pollution the vehicle produces (red being the worst.) Today, restrictions have tightened and nearly all zones are now restricted to vehicles with a green sticker.

If your vehicle does not have the green sticker, which is displayed on the windshield typically on the passenger side, you will have to obtain one before you can drive in a low emissions zone. They can be purchased from vehicle inspection stations, some city governments, and online. You will have to present your vehicle registration certificate, which should have the vehicle's emission standard listed. If you're renting a car, it likely will already have the sticker, but if not, ask for a vehicle that does.

The fine for entering a low emissions zone without the required sticker is €100.

Diesel vehicle ban
Dieselverbot signWhile the green emissions sticker designates the cleanest gasoline engines, it is also issued to some older and more polluting diesel engines. In the wake of the Volkswagen diesel scandal in 2015, and with many German cities struggling to bring air pollution levels within EU limits, some states and cities asked the German government to establish a new blue emissions sticker that would exclude those dirtier diesels. However, the federal government demurred, so an environmental group won a lawsuit in 2018 that would allow cities to enact bans on diesel vehicles, and several cities have now also done so, most notably Hamburg, Berlin, Stuttgart, and Darmstadt.

Although commonly called a "diesel ban", the restrictions in fact only apply to older diesel vehicles that don't meet recent EU standards (typically the "Euro 5" or "Euro 6" standards.) In Stuttgart, the restriction applies to the entire low emissions zone (Umweltzone); in the other cities, those vehicles are prohibited only on a few specific streets marked with signs like the one to the right. Generally-speaking, residents, visitors, and/or deliveries are exempted.

Note that even diesel vehicles with a green emission sticker are covered by this ban if they do not meet the indicated Euro standard. Because there is no sticker available to designate these vehicles, enforcement is via random police stops.

These bans are highly controversial in Germany. Additional cities have planned bans that are currently being negotiated or are in litigation. Some cities have compromised and dropped planned diesel bans and instead implemented other restrictions and programs to reduce pollution such as reduced speed limits, increased parking fees and enforcement, and priority transit and bicycle lanes.


Your biggest problem may not be navigating cities, but finding someplace to (legally) stash your vehicle reasonably close to your destination. In most German cities, you'll have a good selection of parking facilities. There is the ubiquitous on-street parking as well as off-street parking lots (Parkplatz), above-ground garages (Parkhaus), and underground garages (Tiefgarage). Most large cities and major tourist destinations have extensive parking facilities, and parking maps are usually available from the tourist information offices. Unfortunately, there are often not enough spaces to go around, and you may have to drive around a little while before you find a place, all the while feeling like the losing participant in a round of musical chairs. Still, except on the busiest days and during the peak times, you should be able to find a place within a reasonable amount of time.

Like the roads, parking lots and spaces in Germany tend to be smaller than in the US.

On-street parking
Parking on the street is a very common means of parking in Germany. Unless specifically prohibited by a sign or general regulation, on-street parking is usually permitted everywhere (see the parking section of the road rules page for laws regarding on-street parking.) The "parking area" sign Parking along the street specifically indicates where such parking is permitted, although when used it is usually accompanied by additional signs indicating when parking is permitted, who is permitted to park, or requiring the use of a parking permit, voucher, or disc. Here are some examples:

Sign 314
With parking voucher
Sign 314
Sign 1040-32
Sign 314
Residents with permit number
Parking requires purchase of a parking voucher (Parkschein)
Parking only with a parking disc
You may only park for the length of time indicated (e.g. 2 hours)
Parking only for residents with indicated permit number

The "parking management area" sign Parking management area marks the entrance to a neighborhood where parking allowed on all streets in the area (unless otherwise posted) with the use of a parking disc or voucher as indicated by a supplemental sign. This means that this requirement won't be posted on signs on each block — it's up to you to remember what the rules were on the sign when you entered the neighborhood. The "end of parking management area" sign End of parking management area marks the exit from such an area.

In some cases, you're allowed to park partially or entirely on the sidewalk. Signs such as Parking allowed on sidewalk will indicate when this is allowed.

There are many more signs related to parking on the German traffic signs page (page 2) as well as additional vocabulary used on signs.

As noted above, on-street parking may require you to use a parking voucher, parking disc, or parking meter. Here are directions on the use of each:

Parking voucher machine Parking voucher machine

Two varieties of parking voucher machines
(Photos by Brian Purcell)

Parking disc

Parking disc set for 04:30/16:30
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

Parking for electric vehicle charging
Charging stations for electric vehicles are now found in many parking lots as well as on public streets. Signage will indicate the spaces reserved for charging and any time restrictions. Generally-speaking, parking in those spaces is restricted to electric vehicles while charging, and may require the use of a parking disc during certain times.

Note that signs with the "car-with-plug" symbol (like in the photo to the right below) specifically denote electric vehicles with an "E" license plate (i.e. a license plate ending with an "E".) Signs with the words "Electkrofahrzeuge" apply to any electric vehicle. This seems like a trivial difference, but it can mean the difference between getting a ticket or not.

Electric vehicle charging station Electric vehicle charging station sign

On-street charging station
On-street electric vehicle charging station in Munich (left) and signs (right) indicating parking reserved for charging at all times but limiting parking to up to four hours with the use of a parking disc while charging between 8:00 am and 8:00 pm
(Photos by Brian Purcell)

Parking fines generally range from €10-110, and if you are obstructing traffic or a driveway, your vehicle will almost surely be towed, and quite quickly. In such an event, call the police to settle the situation.

Parking lots and garages
Besides indicating where parking is permitted on the street, the "parking" sign Parking also gives directions to off-street parking facilities. Directions to garages are usually indicated by "parking garage" signs Parking garage. In many larger cities and towns, there are electronic signs indicating which lots and garages are available (Frei) or full (Besetzt), or showing the number of available spaces. Parking facilities are often numbered to assist you in finding them (e.g. lot P1, garage P2, etc.), especially in downtown areas, large shopping centers, and airports; these are typically marked with the "indexed parking facility" sign Indexed parking facility.

Parking availability sign

Parking availability sign
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

Very few lots and garages in commercial areas allow you to park for free. The ones that do often require you to use a parking disc (see above.) The rest require payment, and you'll be hard-pressed to find a lot or garage with an attendant. While some lots use parking vouchers (see above), many use an automated centralized self-pay system, which operate like similar systems now found in many places in the US. (Like parking voucher systems, the Germans have a head start with these, having been in use in Germany since the 1980s.)

First, when entering the parking lot/garage, you obtain a time-stamped ticket from the entry gate. Park your vehicle and take this ticket with you.

Then, when you are ready to leave, but before you return to your vehicle, find a parking payment machine (Kassenautomat). These are usually located near the pedestrian entrances to the garage, or centrally in open lots. Insert the ticket you received from the entry gate into the designated slot on the machine and the amount due will be displayed. Pay the amount shown and the machine will return your ticket or dispense a new one. If you also want a receipt, push the button marked "Quittung" immediately thereafter.

Finally, return to your vehicle and exit the lot/garage. At the exit gate, insert the ticket into the machine there and the barrier will open. You generally have 15 minutes or so to reach the exit gate from the time you pay. If for some reason you don't make it within this time period, go back to the payment machine and start the process again using the ticket that you received from the previous payment.

Most lots and garages are open 24 hours; however, some are not open overnight. If you're going to be out late, make sure that the lot or garage you use will still be open when you return!

Parking payment machine

Parking payment machine
(Photo by Brian Purcell)