On the autobahn: What do the brown signs actually mean?

Germany Tourist notices

What’s behind the brown signs on the Autobahn

If you are on the highway, you can hardly miss it: brown signs that refer to regional sights. According to a study, every sixth person has spontaneously followed such a tip.

Stand: 24.02.2021

Information sign on the German Mining Museum as an industrial cultural landmark on the A 43 motorway, information sign on a highway in the Ruhr area about the German Mining Museum, Deutsches Bergbau-Museum Bochum

Information sign to the German Mining Museum as an industrial cultural landmark on the A 43 motorway, Germany, North Rhine-Westphalia, Ruhr Area, Bochum | information sign on a highway in Ruhrgebiet about the German Mining Museum, Deutsches Bergbau-Museum Bochum, Germany, North Rhine-Westphalia, Ruhr Area, Bochum | Usage worldwide

Source: pa / blickwinkel / S / S. Ziese

Riron forms, even when driving past. At least a little. You just have to drive on the highway and pay attention to the large brown signs.

Sure, you might know that you are roaming the Sauerland or the Lüneburg Heath. The “Cologne Cathedral” almost inevitably comes to mind when you approach the city on the Rhine. But probably only insiders have a clue about a Zevener Geest, a “Gellert town of Hainichen” or the Hinzert concentration camp memorial.

For some, the “tourist information boards”, as the signs are called in official German, are local customers driving past or marketing along the autobahn, for others a further contribution to the forest of signs on our streets.

Thousands of brown and white signs on the highway

Nobody knows exactly how many of these brown signs there are. They are not recorded centrally. Prof. Sven Groß comes up with more than 3,400 signs with around 1,800 motifs. The tourism researcher from the Harz University of Applied Sciences presented a study on this at the beginning of 2020.

According to this, every sixth person has spontaneously followed such a sign. Two out of three respondents said they can remember signs and the destinations shown. Only four percent said they had never seen a sign like this before.

Have you ever heard of the “Weißeritztalbahn”? It is located in Saxony

Source: dpa-tmn / Oliver Killig

You can’t actually overlook the boards. They are around ten square meters in size, always in the colors brown and white and in border regions sometimes even bilingual.

References to village churches, mazes and old towns

If you cross the country on the A4 from west to east, then the first sign draws attention to the “Industrieland NRW Technologieregion Aachen” and the last sign shortly before the Polish border to the “European city of Görlitz Zgorzelec”.

The signs are not the same in both directions. Those who drive from east to west, for example, have to live without reference to the “Cunewalde village church”, the “Kleinwelka maze” or the “gingerbread town of Pulsnitz”.

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If you drive from north to south on the A7, there are a good 950 kilometers between the Nolde Museum on the North Sea coast and the historic old town of Füssen – and well over a hundred signs.

Full concentration is required especially in the south of the republic. Sven Groß counted 836 signs in Bavaria alone. In Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania the tourism researcher came up with 184, in Berlin one – it is reminiscent of the “German division 1945-1990”.

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The first board was set up in 1983 on the A8 near Stuttgart, inspired by the French, who already had several years of experience. It drew the driver’s attention to Teck Castle.

Which destinations are considered important for tourists

Initially, such signs were allowed to appear no more than every 20 kilometers and only refer to significant cultural or architectural monuments or landscapes that were visible from the motorway. The authorities are now more generous.

Bettina Harms works for the Lower Saxony state authority for road construction and traffic and is responsible for six motorway sections in the Oldenburg area. If someone applies for a new sign, Harms uses the “Guidelines for Tourist Signs” and first clarifies whether it is a significant tourist destination.

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These include Unesco world heritage sites, cultural and architectural monuments, nature parks, but also war cemeteries and amusement parks. The destination must not be more than ten kilometers as the crow flies from the next connection point. Harms does not want to see more than two brown signs between two connection points, whereby the distance should be at least 1000 meters – one of many target provisions in the guidelines.

Drivers can be led astray by the curious

If you drive carefully through the country, you will also discover shorter distances. And in addition to the colors brown and white, which are actually only permitted, there is also a seagull or a butterfly in blue. When it comes to attracting motorists’ attention, applicants are inventive.

Even if the tourist benefit can hardly be measured, further signs will be added. “It is really so small that you ask yourself: Is that necessary?” Says tourism researcher Groß.

At the same time, as a “fan of regional specialties”, he admits that he too only became aware of the “Thuringian Kloßwelt Heichelheim” thanks to a brown sign. And so these boards will continue to influence travel planning in the future. Or at least close small knowledge gaps.

This article was first published in October 2020.

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