A Tour of Germany Through Its City Names

Map of Germany
LonelyPlanet-Lonely Planet Images@gettyimages.de

Germany is a very old country, with its oldest cities dating back to hundreds of years BC. Its name in many languages hints at the tribes and languages of its past:

  • Germany, named after the Latin word "Germania"
  • Deutschland, named after the Germanic word diutisc, meaning "people" or "folk"

  • Allemagne in French, named as a reference to the Allemani tribes

  • Saksamaa in Finnish, named after the Saxons 


With such a rich range of previous inhabitants, it's no surprise to notice Germany's cities also take their names from very old languages.

One of the earliest German lessons I teach is based on discovering what a German language map can tell you about the land and countryside beyond the paper.


Here are a few city names that speak of Germany's landscapes and histories:

  1. Koblenz 
    It's "say what you see" with Koblenz, the city where the rivers Rhine and Moselle combine. The city name comes from the Latin word "confluentes", which means "to flow together". Koblenz is extremely popular with visitors to Germany who want to experience a cruise of its most romantic region. Hop on the boat at Mainz, Frankfurt or Cologne and get ready for days of vineyards on the slopes and castles dotted along the riverside.
    Koblenz itself has plenty to show for its old name. The city looks back on a history of over 2000 years and its castles and monuments speak of many historic conquests. As part of the Rhine border, it was fought over by tribes through the ages: the Franks, the French and the Prussians.
    You can even discover the exact place where the two rivers meet - "confluentes" - by visiting the Deutsches Eck (German corner), where an impressive statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I has been standing since 1891.
  1. Regensburg 
    At first glance, the word Regen (rain) in this city name may reveal bad weather conditions. But don't let that distract you. Regen as it is used here relates to the English word "regent", both of which can be traced back to the Latin rex (king) or regina (queen).
    And if that is not impressive enough, the word Burg means a fort or large castle. In the city of Regensburg, the name hints at a history going back all the way to 90 AD, when Roman soldiers founded a settlement named Castra Regina. This small Bavarian city has been a resting point for many soldiers since, from the Crusades to Napoleon's wars.
    You can spot -burg in many German place names such as Hamburg, Nuremburg and Rothenburg. In fact, its related name "-burgh"/-"bury" was used in Britain when our languages were still very similar, as you can see names like Canterbury and Edinburgh.
  1. Baden-Baden 
    An English native speaker looking at the map of Germany may be surprised at the amount of cities to avoid. Check out Bad Ems, Bad Salza, Bad Vilbel, Bad Berneck, Bad Blankenburg...and then there are Wiesbaden and Marienbad. Sounds like those cities are pretty, well, bad.


Seek Out The Bad

But fear not, traveller! The German word *baden* is in fact a word of Germanic origin and relates to the English word "bath". And the word "Bad" in a place name simply to indicate that there are healing waters at play. You can see the same trend in the UK with place names like "Leamington Spa" and "Bath".

Germany is a nation of water aficionados and the spa culture is no exception. You can *abhärten* (harden or steel yourself) in a cold Kneipp pool or enjoy a swim in the country's many Mineralbäder

And next time you visit, you won't even have to go to a spa town to experience the importance of water for Germans. Most of them will shun humble tap water and prefer to sup on a Sprudel or Mineralwasser, happy to point out its healing benefits to you.

Germany boasts an extremely rich geologic landscape in the middle of Europe. There are even a few active volcanoes, and some of the formerly active craters have become popular lakes, for example in the Vulkaneifel.

These lakes are known as Maare.

For further reference: