How riding Germany’s local transport really helps you get under a city’s skin

What does it take to get to know a city? An understanding of the culture and being able to speak the language? That definitely helps. But The Local’s Rachel Loxton argues gaining knowledge of the public transport system is the key to settling into a new place.

How riding Germany's local transport really helps you get under a city's skin
Berlin's U1 line. Photo: DPA

It doesn’t surprise me that Iggy Pop’s 1977 classic The Passenger was inspired by riding the S-Bahn in Berlin. Sometimes we don’t realize it but public transport, whether it’s buses, trams, trains or the underground, can have a huge influence on our lives – especially when we’re in a new city or country.

To most people who move somewhere new, getting around is the first obstacle. It determines where you go, who you meet and what you do. How you do it depends on how much money you have in your pocket. Maybe you buy a Monatskarte (monthly card) or a Deutschlandticket for endless journeys, or ration your cash with the odd day ticket. Perhaps you sometimes travel without a ticket and risk the wrath of the transport controllers ruining your day.

It’s hard to believe now but when I first arrived in Berlin for a three-month fellowship in 2015, I hated using the metro system. In fact, for the first few days I refused to go on any trips alone that involved changing lines. I had a huge fear of getting lost since arriving in a big city with a complex transport system can be daunting.

Luckily I got over that anxiety quickly, otherwise I would have had to walk across the whole of Berlin, which is neither practical nor appealing. I began getting used to the lines, from the unpredictable U8 (I once saw a drunk guy carrying a vacuum cleaner in the middle of the night and there’s also the occasional naked person) to the U2 with its many buskers and tourists.

Marienplatz U-Bahn station in Munich. Photo: DPA

Don’t get me wrong, I love walking and cycling. But studying public transport and its routes is how I get under the skin and properly into a city’s bones. I don’t mean just to ride to different places but also mentally noting the names down, registering each stop and observing strangers and moments closely. These are the places where social inequalities are exposed, often in the form of homeless people asking for money, or where groups of friends meet. Listening carefully to announcements like ‘Einsteigen bitte’ (please board) helps with the language learning process.

Expat Oliver Matthews, head of marketing at Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, says he can understand why newcomers to Germany can find getting around unsettling. The 39-year-old from Northampton, UK, who has lived in Frankfurt since 2013, says: “To someone new arriving in Frankfurt, it’s a bit tricky understanding the system – and the buses are the most frustrating.”

Matthews, who runs the website Frankfurt Expat, advises navigating with the S-Bahn and U-Bahn lines first before moving on to the tram network and buses, or do what he did  – go to a tourist information office.

“I asked them to explain how everything works,” he says. “They pulled out a map, showed me all the routes and told me how they connected together.”

Favourite lines

The moment I knew I was beginning to understand Berlin was when I picked my favourite bus route: the 248. To anyone who’ll listen I’ll talk about how it hurtles between Südkreuz and Ostbahnhof/Warschauer Straße, past intriguing street names like Adolf-Scheidt-Platz, Bäumerplan, Werner-Voß-Damm, Gneisenaustraße and Hallesches Tor.

It drives south to east, stopping by Fischer Insel (fisher island) just behind the Soviet mish-mash of Alexander Platz, across from the monstrous Alexa shopping centre. It then cuts east to Friedrichshain, a place once known for its squat-culture that’s now home to tourists, hipsters and the techno club Berghain. It’s a journey that helps you get to know Berlin.

Canadian expat Jenna Davis, who moved to Düsseldorf from Toronto three and a half years ago, agrees that getting to know the transport system is how you acclimatize yourself in a new place. The 26-year-old, who creates content and works on social media in the tourism industry, says Düsseldorf’s recent U-Bahn upgrade, which took 15 years to complete, means people are “embracing public transport”.

“It’s super exciting because there’s so many more opportunities to get from A to B,” she says.

The renovated underground stations are also home to an ambitious art project which doesn’t allow any adverts.

Images taken in 2016 of four new underground stations in Düsseldorf. Photo: DPA

Davis says: “It’s a lot more fun now to actually take the public transport because every single one of our U-Bahn stations is a different art piece designed by a different artist. People now explore the stations and gain their bearings that way.”

Davis runs the blog Life In Düsseldorf and often receives queries from expats about the best way to get a driving licence in order to drive in the city.

But she always advises them to get on board with public transport.

“Coming from Canada I know a lot of expats have this mentality where they want to get a car,” she says. “It’s a hard thing for North American expats to grasp but I kind of think once you get passed this barrier of feeling strange with public transport it’s a much better way to explore.”

Düsseldorf is split by the River Rhine – which only adds to the public transport character, according to Davis.

“Our map is a little wild,” she says. “I would say my favourite is the U71 line because it starts in the Flingern area, a more modern district where a lot of expats live. Then it goes to the centre and stops right in the middle of Schadowstraße, which is very cool.”

“Then it runs all the way to Benrath where there’s a pink castle.”

While Frankfurt may be well known for its buzzing financial district, Oliver Matthews suggests seeking out different routes to see alternative sides to the city.

He recommends the Ebbelwoi Express.

“It’s the most interesting tram,” he says. “Ebbelwoi is the Frankfurt dialect for apple wine. “That’s basically flat cider. This tram goes around the city connecting the different apple wine bars, from Sachsenhausen up to Nordend.”

“It’s decorated really nicely with pictures and it’s good fun.”

The Ebbelwoi Express. Photo Flick/Shankar S.

Iggy was onto something

Another route I’m a fan of in Berlin is the U1, which runs from Warschauer Straße to the Kurfüstendamm area. The east to west route is iconic and I don’t use that word lightly. It flies overground from the buzz of the east, stopping at Prinzenstraße, arguably a complete mess of a station with a 1980s-style pink and green design.

The U1 is also home to Kottbusser Tor, nicknamed Kotti, an area that’s as chaotic as Alexanderplatz but with more characters. Then there’s Möckernbrucke and rainbow-covered Nollendorf Platz, where it swoops down underground. It carries on to Wittenberg Platz, one of the oldest stations in Berlin, with an Art Nouveau feel to it. Kaufhaus Des Westens (KaDeWe), where German actor Marlene Dietrich bought her undergarments, is just outside it. It ends at Uhlandstraße, the glitzy side of town.

It’s interesting to see the impact the Berlin Wall has had on the public transport system. Each side has grown its own network and today they’re like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that don’t quite fit together.  

There are so many other towns and cities across Germany that I’ve yet to explore. On a recent trip to Leipzig I was fascinated by some of the old-style trams that featured a bell ringing at every stop.

Meanwhile, my friend Danny, a Scottish expat in Germany, says Munich’s metro system, one of the most efficient in Europe, felt “sprawling” but “functional” and was the perfect way to get to know the Bavarian capital.

Maybe you’re not destined to write a song inspired by hopping on and off trains like Iggy, but every journey you take is shaping your experience of a city. And that’s why being The Passenger is anything but boring.  

This article was first published in 2018.

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Where traffic will be worst in Germany over the holiday weekend

If you're driving this holiday weekend, you might run into some traffic jams. Here are the roads where it's expected to get busy.

Where traffic will be worst in Germany over the holiday weekend

People in Germany can expect a nationwide holiday on Monday May 29th for Pfingsten (Pentecost).

As many people are getting a day off work to enjoy the long weekend, the roads are going to be busy. 

Germany’s ADAC – Europe’s largest automobile association – says drivers should expect worst traffic jams on Friday afternoon, Saturday morning and on Whit Monday. 

“Holidaymakers must be prepared for long traffic jams on the Whitsun weekend,” said the ADAC. “Holiday traffic as well as more than 1,300 road works will make car journeys a test of patience.”

READ ALSO: 9 of the best day trips from Frankfurt with the €49 ticket

By contrast, it should be relatively quiet on the trunk roads on Whit Sunday. 

Here are the routes (and areas) expected to be most congested:

  • Greater Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Munich
  • Trunk roads to the North Sea and Baltic Sea
  • A1 Cologne – Dortmund – Bremen – Lübeck
  • A2 Dortmund – Hanover – Berlin
  • A1/A3/A4 Cologne ring road
  • A3 Oberhausen – Frankfurt – Nuremberg – Passau
  • A4 Kirchheimer Dreieck – Erfurt – Dresden
  • A5 Hattenbacher Dreieck – Frankfurt – Karlsruhe – Basel
  • A6 Kaiserslautern – Mannheim – Heilbronn – Nuremberg
  • A7 Hamburg – Flensburg
  • A7 Hamburg – Hanover – Würzburg – Füssen/Reutte
  • A8 Karlsruhe – Stuttgart – Munich – Salzburg
  • A9 Munich – Nuremberg – Berlin
  • A10 Berlin Ring
  • A11 Berliner Ring – Uckermark junction
  • A19 Wittstock/Dosse triangle – Rostock
  • A24 Berlin – Hamburg
  • A61 Mönchengladbach – Koblenz – Ludwigshafen
  • A81 Stuttgart – Singen
  • A93 Inntaldreieck – Kufstein
  • A95 / B2 Munich – Garmisch-Partenkirchen
  • A96 Munich – Lindau
  • A99 Munich bypass

Another obstacle that could make travel difficult is roadworks. The ADAC said there are currently 1,304 motorway construction sites across Germany.

Here’s where there are some short-term closures:

  • A45 Hagen – Gießen in both directions between Hagen-Süd and Lüdenscheid-Nord on Sunday, May 28th, from 10am to 4pm
  • A59 Düsseldorf – Cologne in both directions between Kreuz Leverkusen-West and the end of the A59 extension (Rheinallee) from 10pm on Friday, May 26th, to 10pm on Sunday
  • A30 Amsterdam – Rheine in both directions near Salzbergen until May 30th, 5pm

Here’s a look at the longer-term closures to look out for:

  • A44 Kassel towards Dortmund between Dreieck Kassel-Süd and Kreuz Kassel-West until 30th January 2024
  • A45 Hagen towards Gießen between Lüdenscheid-Nord and Sauerland service area until further notice
  • A45 Gießen towards Hagen between Lüdenscheid and Lüdenscheid-Nord until further notice
  • A49 Kassel towards Gießen between Kreuz Kassel-West and Baunatal-Mitte until January 30th 2024
  • A66 Wiesbaden – Frankfurt in both directions between Wiesbaden-Biebrich and Wiesbaden-Mainzer Straße until further notice
  • A94 Munich – Passau in both directions between Malching and junction B12-Malching-Nord until September 30th 2023
  • A226 Travemünde direction Bad Schwartau between Lübeck-Siems and Dreieck Bad Schwartau from now until June 19th, 5 p.m.

Keep in mind that diversions are signposted and there may be some changes at short notice. 

Building sites and expected congested traffic over the holiday weekend.

Building sites and expected congested traffic over the holiday weekend. Photo: ADAC/DPA

What about neighbouring countries?

If you’re driving out of Germany, you’ll also probably experience some heavy traffic. 

International routes such as the Tauern, Inntal, Rheintal and Brenner motorways, as well as the Gotthard route are likely to be affected. 

Some popular destinations include the Carinthian lakes, the Salzkammergut and Lake Neusiedl in Austria as well as resorts in the Swiss cantons of Ticino and Valais.

If you are heading into neighbouring Austria, note that the Arlberg road tunnel is closed until the beginning of October, and drivers have to use the Arlberg Pass as a detour.

READ ALSO: Which foreign countries can you visit with Germany’s €49 ticket?

Can you avoid the traffic?

Experts say that people shouldn’t take a secondary route unless it’s an official diversion. 

That’s because traffic then builds up on smaller roads and clogs up smaller towns. 

“The police strictly control the alternative routes on the weekends and holidays,” said ADAC traffic expert Alexander Kreipl. Rescue services can also be affected by the increased traffic volume if too many people use other routes. 

Instead it’s best to try and travel at a time that isn’t so busy – or make sure you have plenty of water, snacks and good music in the car and be prepared to wait.