Please do me a favour and try to say ‘I’m going to the movies tonight’ in German. Do you know how to say it? Or ‘When are you going to Germany?’ Or a really simple one: ‘Are you going to the party tomorrow?’
If you struggle with these sentences, you’re not alone. In English we mostly use TO to say where we’re going:
I am going TO the movies. I’m going TO Germany. I am going TO the pub. I am going TO Claudia’s.
How to say ‘to’ in German
In German, you can end up saying nach, zu, in, auf, neben and five million more of those prepositions (not a statistical figure):
Ich gehe INS Kino. Ich gehe NACH Deutschland. Ich gehe IN die Kneipe. Ich gehe ZU Claudia.
As you can see and may have noticed anyway, you have a few more choices in German. Having more choices is not always helpful, but you can easily break it down to a few ideas to help you remember which one you should use.
Zu and nach are your best mates
You’ll get by with only using two prepositions when it comes to saying where you’re going: nach and zu. They are the most efficient ones. Of course, they both translate as ‘to’ but are used in different ways.
I’m going to show you a very important rule (so you’ll understand the entire concept), then we’ll talk about nach, and cycle through in, auf, an, before we’ll finally make our way to zu. At the end, I’ll show you how nach Hause and zu Hause work.
Fahren vs. gehen
If you want to find out more about fahren vs. gehen, please download my quick guide
The start makes nach. Nach is used when talking about going to countries or cities, using cardinal directions or going left or right. It’s best to just remember its use and have a look at some examples:
Countries and cities
Nach is used to say you’re going to a country or a city:
Ich fahre nach Deutschland. (I’m going to Germany.)
Ich fahre nach Berlin. (I’m going to Berlin.)
Be aware nach doesn’t work with countries that take an article (there’s only a few of them):
Wir fliegen in die Schweiz. (We are going to Switzerland.)
Letzte Woche sind wir in die Türkei gefahren. (Last week, we went to Turkey.)
North, south, east, west and left and right
You also want to use nach when talking about cardinal directions or left and right, up and down:
Ich fahre nach Norden/Osten/Süden/Westen. (I’m going North/East/South/West.)
Ich gehe nach links/rechts/oben/unten. (I’m going left/right/up/down.)
‘Nach’ takes dative
As a dative preposition, nach takes the dative case even if you’re talking about a movement, but luckily nach is often used without an article.
Please also note that nach is not your best bet when in doubt. I know a lot of people think you should go for nach in case you get lost along the lines, but German offers a more universal preposition.
I’ll tell you further down which one it is (spoiler: it’s zu).
2. In, auf and an
Let’s tackle in, auf and an by grouping them up first because all three follow one important rule. In, auf and an can also be replaced by zu, but more on that further down, we need do understand them first.
The crucial rule when it comes to saying where you’re going is as follows:
Of course, Germans don’t run around telling themselves, I’m going to say it this way because my goal of action is this or that, but they do it subconsciously.
Keeping this in mind, let’s start with the preposition in and some examples.
Surely, you’ve come across the preposition in. In looks like the English ‘in’ and is sometimes used in similar contexts (Der Mann wohnt IN Melbourne – The man lives IN Melbourne).
But a lot of times, in features where in English you would say TO when it comes to going somewhere.
Ending up inside
Remember when I told you about the German love for goal-oriented thinking? Germans love giving actions some context by adding what the goal of the particular action is.
In is your best mate for saying that you’re going somewhere where your goal is spending time indoors, when you’ll end up inside:
Ich gehe ins Kino. (I’m going to the movies.)
We usually go to the movies to sit inside and shovel some popcorn into our mouths, take a few sips from our Coke and watch a movie. Because we expect to be sitting inside, Germans use the preposition in already to say that they are going there. Super efficient, right?
Can you think of another example? How about going to the gym?
At least in Germany you’ll be lifting weights indoors (since many times it will be too cold outside), which means you want to use in already to say you’re on your way to the gym:
Same is true for going to the pub: Ich gehe in die Kneipe.
To the mountains and going to town
Germans also use in when talking about going to the mountains or going to town:
Wir fahren in die Berge. (We are going to the mountains.)
Wir fahren in die Stadt. (We are going to town.)
It makes sense when you think of watching a car from afar driving to the mountains, a car that will turn into a creeping little dot INSIDE this range of mountains.
Same for a car driving into a city, the car turns into a little smudge before it completely disappears among the buildings and skyscrapers, IN this boxlike skyline of a big city.
‘In’ takes the accusative case here
As a 2-way-preposition, in takes the accusative case because a motion is being discussed.
Since we are getting really good at it, let’s move on to the next preposition, one that also has to do with goal-oriented thinking, the preposition auf.
Given that Germans anticipate and use the preposition of where they’ll end up to express they’re on their way there, can you think of when you would have to use the preposition auf?
Ending up on something
Easy one, isn’t it? You want to use auf when you’ll end up ON something:
Ich gehe auf die Straße. (LT: I walk onto the street.)
Ich klettere auf das Dach. (LT: I climb onto the roof.)
Das Kind geht auf die Toilette. (LT: The child goes onto the toilette.)
‘Auf’ for formal events
Please also use auf to indicate you’re going to a formal event:
Sie geht auf eine Party. (She is going to a party.)
Er geht auf eine Hochzeit. (He is going to a wedding.)
‘Auf’ for public places
Or when you’re going to public places:
Der Junge geht auf die Bank. (The boy is going to the bank.)
Das Mädchen geht auf den Markt. (The girl is going to the market.)
But how come goal-oriented thinking made us end up ON a party (auf der Party)? There are no real reasons, but I like to think that most formal events have one thing in common and that is a stage. Or something that feels like a stage.
The later the night, the more relaxed people feel at a party and the more likely someone ends up ON that stage. And aren’t we all on the stage of life anyway? Don’t we all try to present ourselves in the best light possible, especially at a fancy event?
No matter how you remember auf and formal and public events or public places, just try to make up something that sticks, like being that guy that ends up ON the stage at a party.
Auf takes the accusative case (here)
Being a 2-way-preposition, auf takes the accusative case here since we’re moving somewhere else.
Next up is another preposition that feeds into the goal-oriented thinking of Germans. It’s the preposition an.
I know many German learners dislike the preposition an. Please don’t worry about it any longer because I’m going to tell you what it means.
Ending up on the side of something
Usually an is used to describe that something is right next to someone or something else. Not pressing against it, just resting on the side of it, very likely tapping or touching the other thing or person.
For example, an is your most reliable course of action to describe that your hand is resting on your cheek (deine Hand an deiner Wange) or a man is leaning against a bar (Der Mann lehnt an der Bar).
Going back to our goal-oriented thinking, you also want to use an before you end up in that spot or position.
You already want to use an to express you are going there:
The use of an can also be boiled down to a movement to a precise spot or, when in English, you would use the preposition ‘at’ or ‘by’:
Gehen wir ans Fenster. (Let’s sit by the window.).
Die Polizistin geht an den Tatort. (The police officer walks to the crime scene.)
Gehen Sie an die Kreuzung. (Go to the intersection.)
Since you’ll end up on the side of the window or (also) on the side of the crime scene looking at it or (also) on the side of the intersection, it’s sensible to use an.
Vertical or horizontal boundaries
You can also read about an being used for vertical or horizontal boundaries, and that makes sense as well since you’ll end up on the side of something:
Die Touristen gehen an den Strand. (The tourists go to the beach. – The beach is on the side of the ocean.)
Die Kinder gehen an die Wand. (The children are going to the wall.)
Kommst du an die Tür? (Are you coming to the door?)
‘An’ takes the accusative (here)
An is also a 2-way-preposition and takes the accusative case here as we’re describing a movement.
Do you get the feeling for how it works? That’s good because now we’ll talk about your best bet when it comes to going somewhere. Your best bet is the preposition zu.
2.4 Nifty trick for in, auf and an
Now that you’re getting a feel for the meaning of these little prepositions, just be aware what the goal oriented actually thinking results in.
It’s going to blow you mind! You can use in, auf and an not only to say you’reyou’re there but also when talking about already being there:
Ich gehe ins Kino (I’m going to the movies) vs. Ich bin im Kino (I’m at the movies)
Wir gehen auf den Alexander Platz (We’re going to Alexander square) vs. Wir snd auf dem Alexander Platz (We are on Alexander place)
Meine Mutter geht an den Strand (My mom is going to the beach) vs. Meine Mutter ist am Strand (My mum is at/on the beach)
- When talking about going there, just use in, auf and an with the accusative case since you’re describing a movement.
- Use in, auf and an with the dative case when talking about being there since you’re describing a stationary scenario.
This is the beauty of the two-way-preposition, you can use them again just by changing the case a.k.a the article. You can’t do it with the dative prepositions nach or zu as they’re always dative, no matter what:
Ich fahre nach Deutschland (I’m going to Germany) vs. Ich bin in Deutschland (I am in Germany)
Ich fahre zu meinem Bruder (I’m going to my brother’s house) vs. Ich bin bei meinem Bruder (I’m at my brother’s house)
Talking about zu, are you ready for the most efficient preposition when it comes to saying where you’re going? It’s up next.
Contrary to popular belief, not nach but zu should be your go-to if you have no idea which preposition to use.
And why is that?
Because you can substitute in, auf and an using zu. Only nach can’t be replaced.
Replacing in with zu
In general, you can replace the proposition in with zu, especially if you don’t want to stress the fact that you’re moving into a house, a building, a car, or anything else, when it doesn’t matter.
Ich gehe in die Bank./Ich gehe zur Bank. (I’m going to the bank.)
Die Freunde gehen in die Kneipe./Die Freunde gehen zur Kneipe. (The friends are going to the pub.)
Die Frauen gehen ins Fitnessstudio./Die Frauen gehen zum Fitnessstudio. (The women are going to the gym.)
Sometimes you HAVE to replace in using zu. That is especially the case if in doesn’t make any sense at all:
Please note that Ich fahre ins/in das Restaurant is sometimes used in very casual speech and will be perceived as being incorrect when written down, but Ich gehe in das Restaurant will be fine.
Replacing auf with zu
Similar to that, you can also replace auf with zu:
Er klettert auf das Dach./Er klettert zum Dach. (He’s climbing to the roof.)
Sie darf auf die Party gehen./Sie darf zur Party gehen. (She’s allowed to go to the party.)
Replacing an with zu
Of course, you can also replace an with zu:
Die Mütter gehen an den Strand./Die Mütter gehen zum Strand. (The mothers are going to the beach.)
Lass uns ans Fenster gehen./Lass uns zum Fenster gehen. (Let’s go stand by the window.)
Exclusive use of zu
Apart from a supporting character, zu is exclusively used to express you’re going to someone’s house, or to a company, and the company is specified by just its name:
Willst du nachher noch zu Hans? (LT: Want you later also to Hans?)
Sie wollen später zu Google gehen. (LT: They want later to Google to go.)
You should also know about one important thing, a mistake a lot of German learners make.
Going to someone’s house (don’t make this mistake!)
Do you know how to correctly say I’m going to my mum’s house?
Here’s a hint … the correct translation is not this one:
This has always been and will always be incorrect. Please don’t use the word Hause. It’s not a proper word.
The English word ‘house’ translates as das Haus and in plural die Häuser. Neither of them ends in -e.
‘I’m going to my mum’s (house)’ is expressed by saying it the following way:
That’s all you need. Sometimes the German language is indeed devoted to simplicity:
Er fährt zu seinen Eltern. (He’s going to his parents’ house.)
Die Kinder gehen zu ihren Großeltern. (The children are going to their grandparents’ house.)
Sie fährt zu Peter. (She is going to Peter’s house.)
‘Zu’ takes the dative
Please notice, zu is a dative preposition and therefore will always and forever take the dative case, even if a movement is being described.
Last but not least, let’s talk about two culprits that you want to memorise as they are. Please don’t base any rules on these two phrases!
4. Zu Hause and nach Hause
The two phrases I just mentioned are
zu Hause or zuhause.
I know I just said there’s no word like Hause and here I’m presenting it twice to you.
But I also said please learn them as they are because they are phrases. They are phrases because they don’t make any sense nowadays, but they used to make sense.
Back in the day, the dative case of singular words was formed by adding -e to the word. Since nach and zu are dative prepositions, people used to add -e to the word das Haus (die Häuser).
As this is no longer the case, please don’t make up a rule based on these two and just remember their meaning:
Ich gehe nach Hause. (I’m going home.)
Ich bin zu Hause/zuhause. (I’m home.)
Please be aware that in casual speech the final -e is dropped, making it sound like zu Haus’ or nach Haus, but this will be incorrect in written German.
Well done. To summarise it, please remember to use:
- Nach for most countries, cities, cardinal directions and left and right, up and down,
- In when you end up inside of something,
- Auf when you end up on top of something,
- An when you end up on the side of something,
- Zu to replace in, auf and an and to say you’re going to someone’s house,
- Zu when in doubt,
- Nach Hause to say you’re going home, and
- Zu Hause or zuhause to say you’re home.
I wonder what you do to always think of the right preposition, especially when speaking? Do you have any tricks that you would like to share? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.