Need to find your way around a new German city?
Easy peasy, right?
You’ve already made arrangements for your stay abroad, done some online research on the area and even brushed up on how to order food in German.
But what if you have to actually *gasp* ask for directions?
Just because you have a map and a couple of guide books in your bag doesn’t mean you won’t get lost exploring, let’s say, Berlin or Munich.
You might have read extensively in German about the place you’re visiting—unfortunately, that might not help you, either!
Yep, finding your way around a new area can be really daunting.
It can be even scarier if you’re in a foreign country and can’t connect to the Internet on your cell—you may not be able to rely on Google Maps!
But hey, we’re here to help.
Whether you’re planning on going abroad or just learning German online from home, knowing how to get and give directions in German will help you with your overall fluency.
And you never know when direction-specific vocab will pop up in everyday conversation!
This guide to directions in German will make sure you know your links from your rechts (left from your right).
Getting a Sense of Direction: The Difference Between Wo and Wohin
Before we get round to learning some useful vocabulary and phrases, there’s one part of directional speak in German that complicates things ever so slightly, and we’re gonna have to get it clear before we go any further.
In English, we use the word “to” rather a lot. However, in German, there are two words for “where,” one of which is used whenever we need to express “where to.”
Wo is the simplest word for “where” and is used to indicate a specific place.
Wohin combines “where” and “to” and is used to indicate a direction or motion.
Basically, to give wo that extra sense of direction, you just need to add on hin to the end to create wohin.
This isn’t too tricky, but it’s important to get it right—especially in your German writing, otherwise you could end up messing up the rest of your sentence’s grammar by trying to stick a word for “to” in somewhere where it doesn’t belong.
The examples below show these two words’ varying uses:
Wohin gehen wir?
(Where are we going?)
Wo sind wir?
(Where are we?)
Wo ist die Schule?
(Where is the school?)
Wohin man auch schaut.
(Wherever you look.)
This also happens with another word. Dort is German for “there” and it also takes the hin ending when it’s used to indicate a movement or direction:
Dort represents a specific place.
Dorthin indicates movement or direction in a sentence.
Ich gehe bis dorthin.
(I’m going up there.)
Dort bin ich.
(I am there.)
Actually, there are English words for wohin and dorthin, it’s just that we don’t use them very often. “Thither” (dorthin) and “whither” (wohin) are very archaic words; nowadays we simply say “where to” or “to there.”
This isn’t an especially difficult aspect of German to understand, but as we don’t have it in English, it’s important to point it out so it doesn’t confuse you later down the line!
One great way to learn the difference between wo and wohin—and to get the opportunity to practice it yourself—is with FluentU.
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Useful German Direction Words and Phrases
Now that you know the ins and outs of wohin and dorthin, you should be able to knock up your own direction sentences and questions. If you’re still a bit fuzzy on the topic, this section can further empower you with super useful phrases to help you find your way auf Deutsch. You could even print this page to prepare for those times Google Maps might not be able to help you.
Let’s get started with the basics!
Wie komme ich dorthin?
(How do I get there?)
Here’s an example of dorthin in action. In the above sentence, dorthin is just like wohin. That hin ending changes the meaning from simply “there” (dort) to “there” plus movement.
Below is some more useful vocab.
Wo finde ich den Bahnhof / die Stadtmitte / den Dom?
(Where will I find the train station / city center / cathedral?)
Gehen Sie immer gerade aus.
(Keep on going straight.)
über die Brücke gehen
(to go over the bridge)
um die Ecke
(round the corner)
in Richtung auf die Kirche / das Hotel
(in the direction of the church / hotel)
Gehen Sie diese Straße entlang
(Go down / along this street)
nach Norden / Osten / Westen / Süden
(to the north / east / west / south)
bis zur / zum
bis zur Ampel
(up to the traffic lights)
bis zum Kino
(up to the cinema)
Movement and the Accusative in German
When it comes to directions—either giving them or using them—there’ll usually be movement in the sentences used. One important thing to remember with movement is that it can change the definite or indefinite articles.
You only need to be on your toes for this when the article follows certain prepositions, though. Some prepositions in German will take the dative case if there’s no movement in the sentence; if there’s movement, they’ll take the accusative.
These are the prepositions in question:
(at / on / to)
(at / on / to / upon)
(in / into)
(beside / near / next to)
(about / above / over /across)
(unter / among)
(in front of / before)
So, if a noun follows these prepositions and there’s movement in the sentence, the noun takes the accusative case. However, if there’s no movement in the sentence, then the noun will take the dative.
The examples below should clarify things a bit more.
Ich gehe vor die Schule.
(I’m going in front of the school.)
In this example, I’m moving in front of the school, so die Schule needs to be in the accusative.
Ich bin vor der Schule.
(I’m in front of the school.)
However, with this one, I’m in front of the school and there’s no movement or direction indicated in the sentence. So we need the dative case and die Schule switches to der Schule.
Here’s another example:
Ich lege das Buch auf den Tisch.
(I place the book on the table.)
As the book is being put down—a clear sign of movement—we need the accusative case.
Das Buch liegt auf dem Tisch.
(The book lies on the table.)
Here the book is lying still on the table, so we need the dative.
Useful Online Resources to Help with Directions in German!
Now that we’ve gone over the basic grammar and vocab you need to talk about directions, it’s time to start practicing.
One of the best ways to practice your German directions is to get out and about on the streets. However, not all of us will be heading over to Germany anytime soon, so here are a few websites that will be really useful when it comes to practicing directions from the comfort of your sofa.
- Google Maps…the German version: Set your Google Maps to German and plot out a route. You can then open up the details of the route and follow the directions given.
- ViaMichelin.de: This is another example of a website that can calculate routes in German. There’s also extra information on places the roads pass, including restaurants, hotels and sightseeing locations.
- Girls4teaching.com has created this cute video, which goes through the basics of how to approach strangers in German and which questions you should be asking when directions are what you need.
- BBC Languages has a really useful video that focuses on directions in German. You can see some of Munich’s sites while watching, too!
- Directions in German on Fodor’s Travel: Fodor’s is one of the top travel websites and is full of handy reviews and sightseeing tips. It also has a fantastic selection of language resources—such as this great list of German directions vocab.
- languagesresources.co.uk should be bookmarked by all language learners, whatever their level! Just look at all these worksheets related to German directions. They’ll help you test yourself so you can gauge what level you’re at.
So now you don’t have to be scared about ever being lost in a German-speaking country again. And hopefully you understand all the grammar and why you need to say things the way you need to say them.
You’re ready to successfully communicate with someone about directions and to ask how to get from A to B…
Hey, maybe you’ll even choose the locals over Google Maps!
And One More Thing...
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After studying German and Philosophy at The University of Nottingham, Laura Harker relocated to Berlin in 2012. She now works as a freelance writer and is also assistant editor at Slow Travel Berlin.
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