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Local Transport
Urban Public Transport

This page last updated June 8, 2023


German 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. Transport mode 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.

Overall, 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 systems, the authors wrote that "Germans know how to do mass transit properly", and I would wholeheartedly agree.

On this page:

Types of service

Bus logo Bus
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.

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 sign: Bus or streetcar stop

Bus plaza in Frankfurt

Bus plaza at suburban Frankfurt rail station
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

Tram logo Streetcar/Tram

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.

These systems 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: Bus or streetcar stop

Streetcar in Heidelberg

Heidelberg streetcar
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

Stadtbahn logo Light rail

Some cities-- most notably Stuttgart, Hannover, Cologne, and Dusseldorf-- have upgraded their former streetcar systems to 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, and 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 streetcars, the 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 or across the "U", such as the examples below, and Stadtbahn lines are typically numbered with a "U" followed by a number (e.g. U2). 

Stadtbahn logo Stadtbahn logo

Other "Stadtbahns"
There 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 public 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".

Stuttgart Stadtbahn

Stuttgart Stadtbahn
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

U-bahn logo Subway/Underground/Metro
Bahn (Untergrundbahn)
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).

Munich U-Bahn

Munich U-Bahn
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

S-bahn logo Suburban rail
Bahn (Schnellbahn)
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 the suburbs. 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.

Besides providing suburban service, 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 longer central city journeys.

Some 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).

Berlin S-Bahn

Berlin S-Bahn
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

S and U bahn signs in MunichOther local public transport options
Other modes of urban public transport you may come across include:

  • 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!
  • H-Bahn/Hochbahn: Elevated train
  • R-Bahn: 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.
  • Tram-train: Some 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.

Note 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.)

Most 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.

Some 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:

  • U = Underground
  • S = Suburban

Also, 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.

Maps can be obtained for free from tourist and transit information offices and are often included in guidebooks, and you can also download a 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 surrounding neighborhood are also usually posted in rail stations making it easy to find your way from the station to your destination.

Berlin rail system map

Berlin rail system map

Tickets and fares

In 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, Fahrkarte, 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.

Fares 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 destination.

Fares generally start at €1-4 for shorter trips and increase from there for longer distances.

Purchasing tickets
There are multiple ways to purchase a ticket. Most transport agencies 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 nowadays.

If you opt not to use an app, you can still purchase a physical ticket. For 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. Pay them and they will give you your ticket. Unlike in the US, in most German cities, the driver can make change, but it's probably a good idea to have enough change on-hand to pay the exact fare.

If 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 you board. Tickets are available from automated ticket machines (labeled Tickets, Fahrkarten, 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.

Ticket machineValidating machine

Ticket machine in Munich (left) and Entwerter (validator) in Berlin (right)
(Photos by Brian Purcell)

Depending 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 machine 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
Most cities also have special multi-tickets (Mehrfahrtenkarte, Streifenkarte, 4er Ticket, etc.) You purchase one ticket that has sections on it for several uses (usually some amount between 3 and 10), often at a slightly reduced price from the corresponding total of individual fares. To use the 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.

There 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.

Finally, 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
In 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.

Ticket inspection
Once 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 excuses (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 (which 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.

Railpasses 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 "City-Ticket"
Some DB point-to-point tickets include a "City-Ticket", which allows you to use local public transportation to get to the DB station to start your train trip and/or to get from the station to reach your final 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 ticket office.


Public 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 the driver.

Emergency 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 noted.

Several 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 taxi to get you from the station to your final destination.

Emergency/information phone Combined emergency/information call box
post in Berlin subway station
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

Other sites of interest

UrbanRail.net (by Robert Schwandl)
Metro Bits (by Mike Rohde)

Frankfurt (Rhein-Main)
Rhein-Ruhr Region (Dusseldorf-Essen)

This page and all its contents are Copyright © 2022 by Brian Purcell

The information provided on this website is provided on an "as-is" basis without warranties of any kind either express or implied.  The author and his agents make no warranties or representations of any kind concerning any information contained in this website.  This website is provided only as general information.  The author expressly disclaims all liability with respect to actions taken or not taken based upon the information contained herein or with respect to any errors or omissions in such information.  All opinions expressed are strictly those of the author.  This site is not affiliated in any way with any official agency.