The Autobahn

The German Autobahn has taken on an almost legendary mystique. The reality is a little different than the legend. The myth of no speed limits is countered by the fact that Tempolimits are a fact of life on most of Germany’s highways, and traffic jams are common.


The A5 Autobahn near Frankfurt am Main. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

Signs suggesting a recommended speed limit of 130 km/h (80 mph) are posted along most autobahns, while urban sections and a few dangerous stretches sometimes have posted speed limits as “low” as 100 km/h (62 mph). The fact is that Germany’s autobahn system is an extensive network of limited-access freeways that can usually provide a driver with a speedy route from city to city.

More on The German Way
Driving on the Autobahn
Seven important rules for driving on the autobahn

Within six years after the completion of the first Cologne-Bonn autobahn in 1932, Germany added 3,000 kilometers (1,860 miles) of super highway to its road network. Although Hitler has often been given credit for the autobahn, the real precursors were the Avus experimental highway in Berlin (built between 1913 and 1921) and Italy’s 130-kilometer autostrada tollway between Milan and the northern Italian lakes (completed in 1923). Although Germany’s depressed economy and hyperinflation of the late 1920s prevented plans for new autobahns from being carried out at the time, many miles of roadway were built during the time of the Third Reich. Hitler saw the construction of autobahns primarily as a military advantage; its benefit as a job-creation program in the 1930s was an added plus.


Checking your side-view mirror is essential on the autobahn! Drivers quickly learn the importance of looking in the mirror before passing (on the left only!). At speeds of 130km/h (80 mph) and up, cars can suddenly appear out of nowhere.
PHOTO © Hyde Flippo

Today’s German autobahn system stretches 12,993 km (8,073 miles, 2016 data) across most parts of Germany. Plans to increase the number and length of autobahns and other highways often meet with citizen opposition on ecological grounds. One example, a proposed stretch of autobahn along the Baltic coast in northern Germany, has been surrounded by controversy by those concerned with quality-of-life issues versus those who see economic benefits for the region. Further inland, the A20 runs between Lübeck in the west and Prenzlau in the east.

Also see: Autobahn Infographic – History and fun facts about the German autobahn in a cool graphic.

Autobahn A5

The A5 and A45 autobahn routes both run north-south, but to different cities. See the section below for more about how German autobahn directional signs differ from Interstate highway signs in the United States. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

Finding Your Way on the Autobahn
North Americans driving on the autobahn soon notice that the blue directional signs never mention compass directions. Only the names of the next cities on your route are displayed, not north, south, east, or west. You need to know the names of the key cities along your autobahn route to find your way. (Nowadays, of course, drivers often avoid this problem by using GPS navigation, but that can lead to other problems.) There is, however, a way to determine if the autobahn you’re on runs east-west or north-south.

The current German Bundesautobahn numbering scheme, introduced in 1975, is similar to the US Interstate numbering system. Even-numbered autobahns run east-west. Odd-numbered autobahns run north-south. The sign above on the A5 and A45 was taken while driving northward. Autobahns numbered 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9 run north-south. Autobahn numbers begin with the letter A, but on road maps you usually only see the number. (The 440-km long A5 roughly parallels the Rhine from the Swiss border in the south past Freiburg i.B. and on up through Frankfurt am Main, then turns northeastward until it ends where it intersects with the A7 near Kirchheim at the Hattenbacher Dreieck [interchange].) Autobahns numbered 2, 4, 6, 8, etc. run east-west. Shorter, regional autobahn routes have two or three digits. For instance, the east-west autobahn between Berlin and Hamburg is the A24. The longest German autobahn route in the A7, which spans 962 kilometers between Flensburg in Schleswig-Holstein to Füssen (near Neuschwanstein Castle) in Bavaria.

Neighboring Autobahn Networks
France’s high-speed motorways are toll roads, with pay stations at turnpike exits. Austria and Switzerland also have autobahn networks, but unlike Germany’s free autobahns (for now), motorists must purchase a special toll sticker and display it on the windshield in order to drive on Austrian autobahns and Schnellstraßen (two-lane limited access highways). Some mountain autobahns and tunnels are toll (Maut) highways run by public companies. They are not covered by the standard Austrian or Swiss autobahn toll sticker. The speed limit on Austrian autobahns is 130 km/h (80 mph) if not posted otherwise. In Switzerland the limit is 120 km/h (75 mph).

Das Autobahnpickerl (Autobahn toll sticker)
Austria and Switzerland charge drivers a toll for the use of their autobahns. Both countries use a Vignette (autobahn sticker) that must be displayed on a car’s windshield. But the two countries don’t have the same fees or system. More: Autobahn Toll Sticker in Austria and Switzerland.

Adapted from a chapter in THE GERMAN WAY book by Hyde Flippo

Next | Autobahn Toll Stickers in Austria and Switzerland

Related Pages


  • The Autobahn – From “Getting Around Germany” (Brian Purcell)
  • Autobahn online – A very good German site about the autobahn
  • Arbeitsgemeinschaft Autobahngeschichte – The history of the autobahn from a German association
  • ADAC – The main German automobile club
  • AvD – Another German automobile club
  • ÖAMTC – The main Austrian automobile club
  • EUAC – The European automobile club (Austria)
  • ACS – Switzerland (Automobil Club der Schweiz)

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