There are at least half a dozen ways to say "to" in German. But one of the biggest sources of "to" confusion comes from just two prepositions: nach and zu.
Fortunately, there are clear distinctions between the two.
The preposition nach, except in the idiomatic phrase "nach Hause" (to home, homeward), is used exclusively with geographic place names and points of the compass (including left and right). Most other uses of nach are in its meaning of "after" (nach der Schule = after school) or "according to" (ihm nach = according to him).
Here are some examples of nach when it means "to": nach Berlin (to Berlin), nach rechts (to the right), nach Österreich (to Austria). Note, however, that plural or feminine countries, such as die Schweiz, usually use in instead of nach: in die Schweiz, to Switzerland.
The preposition zu is used in most other cases and is always used for "to" with people: Geh zu Mutti!, "Go to (your) mom!" Note that zu can also mean "too," functioning as an adverb: zu viel, "too much."
Another difference between the two is that nach is rarely used with an article, while zu is often combined with an article or even contracted into a one-word compound, as in zur Kirche (zu der Kirche, to the church) or zum Bahnhof (zu dem Bahnhof, to the train station).
Nach Hause and zu Hause
Both of these prepositions are used with Haus(e), but only nach means "to" when used with Haus. The phrase zu Hause means "at home," just as zu Rom means "at/in Rome" in that poetic, old-fashioned type of construction. Note that if you want to say "to my house/place" in German, you say zu mir (zu + dative pronoun) and the word Haus is not used at all! The idiomatic expressions "nach Hause" and "zu Hause" follow the rules for nach and zu given above.
Here are some more examples of the uses of nach and zu (as "to"):
- Wir fliegen nach Frankfurt.
We're flying to Frankfurt. (geographic)
- Der Wind weht von Westen nach Osten.
The wind is blowing from west to east. (compass)
- Wie komme ich zum Stadtzentrum?
How to I get to the city center? (non-geographic)
- Ich fahre nach Frankreich.
I'm going to France. (geographic)
- Gehst du zur Kirche?
Are you going to church? (non-geographic)
- Kommt doch zu uns!
Why don't you guys come over to our place to us. (non-geographic)
- Wir gehen zur Bäckerei.
We're going to the bakery. (non-geographic)
The preposition zu expresses the idea of heading in a direction and going to a destination. It is the opposite of von (from): von Haus zu Haus (from house to house). Although both of the following sentences can be translated as "He is going to the university," there is a difference in the German meanings:
Er geht zur Universität. (The university is his current destination.)
Er geht an die Universität. (He's a student. He attends the university.)
Those Tricky Prepositions
Prepositions in any language can be tricky to deal with. They are particularly susceptible to cross-language interference. Just because a phrase is said a certain way in English, does not mean it will be the same in German. As we have seen, both zu and nach can be used in many ways, and "to" in German is not always expressed with these two words. Look at these "to" examples in English and German:
ten to four (score) = zehn zu vier
ten to four (time) = zehn vor vier
I don't want to = ich will nicht
to my delight = zu meiner Freude
to my knowledge = meines Wissens
bumper to bumper = Stoßstange an Stoßstange
to town = in die Stadt
to the office = ins Büro
to a great extent = in hohem Grad/Maße
However, if you follow the simple rules on this page for nach and zu, you can avoid making obvious mistakes with those two prepositions when you want to say "to."
German Prepositions That Can Mean "To"
All of the following prepositions mean several other things besides "to":
an, auf, bis, in, nach, vor, zu; hin und her (adverb, to and fro)
Note that German also uses nouns or pronouns in the dative case to express "to": mir (to me), meiner Mutter (to my mother), ihm (to him).