German for Beginners: Asking for Directions

A Lesson to Help You Get Places

German, Berlin, Young couple walking in street
Westend61 Getty

In this lesson you'll learn German vocabulary and grammar related to going places, asking for simple directions, and receiving directions. This includes useful phrases such as Wie komme ich dorthin? for "How do I get there?" You'll find all of this very helpful when traveling in Germany, so let's start the lesson.

The Tips You Need to Ask for Directions in German

Asking for directions is easy. Understanding the torrent of German you may get back is another story.

Most German textbooks and courses teach you how to ask the questions, but fail to deal adequately with the understanding aspect. That's why we will also teach you some coping skills to help in such situations. 

For example, you can ask your question in such a way that it will elicit a simple ja (yes) or nein (no), or a simple "left," "straight ahead," or "right" answer. And don't forget that hand signals always work, no matter the language.

Asking Where: Wo vs. Wohin

German has two question words for asking "where." One is wo? and is used when asking the location of someone or something. The other is wohin? and this is used when asking about motion or direction, as in "where to."

For instance, in English, you would use "where" to ask both "Where are the keys?" (location) and "Where are you going?" (motion/direction). In German these two questions require two different forms of "where."

Wo sind die Schlüssel? (Where are the keys?)​

Wohin gehen Sie? (Where are you going?)

In English, this can be compared to the difference between the location question "where's it at?" (poor English, but it gets the idea across) and the direction question "where to?" But in German you can only use wo? for "where's it at?" (location) and wohin? for "where to?" (direction).  This is a rule that cannot be broken.

There are times when wohin gets split in two, as in: "Wo gehen Sie hin?" But you can't use wo without hin to ask about motion or direction in German, they must both be included in the sentence.

Directions (Richtungen) in German

Now let's look at some common words and expressions related to directions and the places we might go. This is essential vocabulary that you will want to memorize.

Notice that in some of the phrases below, the gender (der/die/das) may affect the article, as in "in die Kirche" (in the church) or "an den See" (to the lake). Simply pay attention to those times when gender changes der to den and you should be okay.

EnglischDeutsch
along/down
Go along/down this street.
entlang
Gehen Sie diese Straße entlang!
back
Go back.
zurück
Gehen Sie zurück!
in the direction of/towards...
   the train station
   the church
   the hotel
in Richtung auf...
   den Bahnhof
   die Kirche
   das Hotel
left - to the leftlinks - nach links
right - to the rightrechts - nach rechts
straight ahead
Keep going straight ahead.
geradeaus (guh-RAH-duh-ouse)
Gehen Sieimmer geradeaus!
up to, until

up to the traffic light
up to the cinema
bis zum (masc./neut.)
biszur (fem.)
bis zur Ampel
biszum Kino

Compass Directions (Himmel Srichtungen)

The directions on the compass are relatively easy because the German words are similar to their English counterparts.

After you learn the four basic directions, you can form more compass directions by combining words, just as you would in English. For example, northwest is nordwesten, northeast is nordosten, southwest is südwesten, etc.

EnglischDeutsch
north - to the north
north of (Leipzig)
der Nord(en) - nach Norden
nördlich von (Leipzig)
south - to the south
south of (Munich)
der Süd(en) - nach Süden
südlich von (München)
east - to the east
east of (Frankfurt)
der Ost(en) - nach Osten
östlich von (Frankfurt)
west - to the west
west of (Cologne)
der West(en) - nach Westen
westlich von (Köln)