page last updated July 8, 2022
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. Overall, Germany probably has more urban
public transportation systems, especially rail systems, than just about
any other country in the world. In a book 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
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 compliment those services. In the biggest cities, there
different bus systems in operation. In Berlin, you'll even find
double-decker buses. 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
Bus stops throughout Germany are marked with this
Bus plaza at suburban Frankfurt rail station
|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
the Trambahn moniker. Service is fairly frequent,
usually 20-30 minutes during off-peak periods.
Streetcar stops throughout Germany are also marked
|Some cities, most notably Stuttgart,
Hannover, Cologne, and Dusseldorf upgraded their 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 wide-gauge tracks, longer trains, and
level boarding. However, while the Stadtbahn usually runs in extensive
tunnel networks within the central city areas, it runs mostly
overground outside of the central city. When running overground, the
Stadtbahn runs almost entirely in exclusive rights-of-way, making them
faster than streetcars. These systems generally serve the central city
and the immediate vicinity. Service is frequent, usually 10-20 minutes
during off-peak periods.
Most Stadtbahn systems mark their stations with
the standard "U" U-Bahn sign with the word "Stadtbahn" added below or
across the "U", 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. In Karlsruhe and Heilbronn, the
a hyrbid streetcar/S-Bahn system (more in the "Other local public
transport options" below), and the main east-west elevated rail
corridor in Berlin is known as the "Stadtbahn".
|A few of Germany's largest cities 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 off-peak periods.
U-Bahn stations in all German cities are marked
with the standard "U" sign shown at the left above and lines
are numbered with a "U" followed by a number (e.g. U2)..
Suburban commuter rail
|The largest metropolitan areas have a
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. 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. Service is
fairly frequent, usually 20-30
minutes during off-peak periods.
Besides providing suburban
the S-Bahn also makes several stops in the central city area as well.
These stops are generally further apart than those on the U-Bahn or
Stadtbahn and therefore makes the S-Bahn a faster option for longer
central city journeys. Unlike the other systems above, 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
them (see special note under Tickets below.)
S-Bahn stations in all cities in Germany are marked
with the standard "S" sign shown to the left above. S-Bahn lines
are numbered with an "S" followed by a number (e.g. S2).
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.
- Fähre: Ferry;
integrated into the public transportation systems in several cities
including Hamburg and Berlin.
notably Karlsruhe-- have built hybrid systems that combine streetcar
systems with an S-Bahn. These systems run as regular streetcars 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 from the station to your
hotel and vice versa.
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, all of these are quite
The transit maps 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
offices and are usually 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 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 city or metropolitan area, 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 transport and is valid for transfers to other trains or
buses needed to complete your journey. The specific rules vary
depending on the city, but most systems allow you one complete trip in
one continuous direction along the most direct route to your
destination for a set length of time, usually two hours or so,
including any transfers and interruptions.
(Note: In the German translations for tickets below, I use the traditional word "karte" for most of them, but in many cases, the contemporary term "ticket" is now used, so substitute accordingly.)
on German transport networks are based on a zone system. The transport
regions are divided into tariff zones (Tarifzonen)
and you pay 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, but all journeys starting and ending anywhere in the
cluster have the same price as a single zone. However, you generally
don't have 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
range from €1-4 for shorter trips and higher for longer distances.
are multiple ways to purchase a ticket. Most transport agencies
now offer an online app with schedules, route planning, and electronic
ticketing. The features and function of these apps will vary by agency.
In most cases, the app is the most convenient way to purchase a ticket
If you opt not to use an app, you can still purchase a physical ticket. For
buses, you usually can 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. 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.
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.
machine in Munich (left) and Entwerter
in Berlin right)
For the U-Bahn and S-Bahn, you will need to purchase your ticket before you
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.
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 aboard 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.
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
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. On most systems, you can use a single multi-ticket for
several people traveling together-- just validate one section of the
ticket for each person (i.e. if you want to use it for two people,
validate two sections of the ticket.)
are also day passes (Tageskarte)
good for all modes of transit for an entire day. 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.
some cases, children under a certain age ride free with a paying adult.
that 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 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 it's in your best interest to
just pay up and get on with your life.
special note for the S-Bahn
In areas where the Deutsche Bahn operates the S-Bahn system
is most places), DB passes are valid on S-Bahn trains. Your
must be in
effect for the day you want to use the S-Bahn (meaning that you must be
using a travel day on flexipasses.) If you have a valid pass and use
the S-Bahn in conjunction with other modes of public transportation for
a journey, 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 a 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. Remember, DB passes are only valid on the
S-Bahn, NOT on the U-Bahn,
Stadtbahn, or trams. 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.
DB point-to-point tickets include a "City-Ticket", which allows you to
use local public transportation (all forms,
including U-Bahn, streetcars, and buses) to get to the DB station to
start your train trip and/or from the station to reach your final
destination. Check the details of the ticket or ask at a DB office.
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 reporting emergencies,
also allow you to get information or even arrange for a
get you from the station to your final destination.
emergency/information call box
post in Berlin subway station
Other sites of interest