The History Behind Cities In California With Spanish Names

California’s rich Spanish heritage is reflected in the many cities and towns across the state with names deriving from the Spanish language. From Los Angeles and San Diego in the south to San Francisco in the north, the Spanish names recognize California’s origins as part of Spain’s New World colonies.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: Many cities in California have Spanish names that reflect the state’s history as part of Spain’s colonial empire and later Mexico. These names honor Catholic saints, pay tribute to native tribes, or describe geographic features.

Origins of Spanish Place Names

California is known for its rich history, and one aspect that stands out is the prevalence of cities with Spanish names. These names reflect the influence of Spanish colonization and the cultural heritage of the region. Let’s delve into the origins of some of these Spanish place names.

Missions Established by Spanish Colonists

One significant factor behind Spanish place names in California is the establishment of missions by Spanish colonists. The Spanish sought to convert Native Americans to Christianity, and they built a chain of 21 missions along the California coastline.

These missions served as both religious and agricultural centers, and many cities today bear the names of these missions. For example, San Diego, San Francisco, and Santa Barbara are all named after missions founded by Spanish colonists.

Names Honoring Catholic Saints

Another prominent source of Spanish place names in California is the honoring of Catholic saints. Spanish settlers often named cities and towns after their favorite saints and religious figures. For instance, Los Angeles derives its name from the Spanish phrase for “The Angels,” specifically referring to the Catholic mission of Our Lady of the Angels of Porciúncula.

Similarly, San Jose, named after Saint Joseph, pays homage to the patron saint of workers and the father of Jesus.

Native American Words Adopted

In addition to missions and saints, Spanish settlers also adopted Native American words as place names. This reflects the blending of cultures that occurred during the Spanish colonization era. For example, the city of Sacramento gets its name from the Spanish adaptation of the Native American word “S’ap’al,” which means “sacrament” or “holy rite.”

This demonstrates the linguistic and cultural integration that took place between the Spanish and Native American populations.

The Spanish place names in California serve as a reminder of the region’s diverse history and the cultural influences that have shaped it. Exploring these origins allows us to appreciate the heritage and significance behind these well-known cities and towns.

Spanish Explorers Who Named California Sites

Many cities and landmarks in California have Spanish names, reflecting the state’s rich history of Spanish exploration and settlement. These names were given by early Spanish explorers who arrived in California during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the explorers who played a significant role in naming these cities and sites.

Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo

Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese explorer sailing under the Spanish flag, was the first European to set foot on what is now known as California. In 1542, he arrived at the southernmost tip of California and named it San Diego.

Cabrillo continued his exploration up the coast, naming various other sites along the way, including Santa Barbara and Monterey. His voyages laid the foundation for future Spanish exploration and settlement in California.

Sebastián Vizcaíno

Sebastián Vizcaíno, a Spanish explorer, followed in Cabrillo’s footsteps and explored the California coast in the early 17th century. He is credited with naming several cities and landmarks, including San Francisco, which he named after Saint Francis of Assisi.

Vizcaíno also named Point Reyes, San Juan Capistrano, and many other places that still bear their Spanish names today. His expeditions greatly contributed to the mapping and naming of California’s coast.

Gaspar de Portolá

Gaspar de Portolá was a Spanish military officer who led an expedition in 1769 to establish a presence in Alta California. During this expedition, Portolá named various sites, including San Diego, Santa Clara, and San Francisco Bay.

He is also known for leading the first land exploration of California, which ultimately led to the establishment of Spanish missions and settlements throughout the region.

These Spanish explorers played a crucial role in shaping the history and culture of California. Their names and the names they bestowed upon the land continue to be an integral part of the state’s identity.

Exploring the cities and sites with Spanish names provides a glimpse into California’s past and the influence of Spanish exploration and colonization.

Notable Cities With Spanish Names

Los Angeles

One of the most well-known cities in California with a Spanish name is Los Angeles. The name “Los Angeles” translates to “The Angels” in English. It was named by Spanish colonizers in 1781, who established a settlement called El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de Porciúncula, which means “The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of the Porciúncula River”.

Over time, the name was shortened to Los Angeles, but its Spanish roots remain an important part of the city’s history and cultural heritage.

Los Angeles is now the largest city in California and the second-largest city in the United States. It is known for its diverse population, entertainment industry, and iconic landmarks such as the Hollywood Sign and the Walk of Fame.

The city’s Spanish heritage can still be seen in its architecture, street names, and cultural celebrations.

San Francisco

Another notable city in California with a Spanish name is San Francisco. The name “San Francisco” translates to “Saint Francis” in English. It was named after Saint Francis of Assisi by Spanish explorers who arrived in the area in 1776.

They established a mission called Mission San Francisco de Asís, which later became the city of San Francisco.

San Francisco is known for its picturesque beauty, iconic landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island, and its vibrant cultural scene. The city’s Spanish heritage is still evident in its architecture, particularly in the historic Mission District, which is named after the original Spanish mission.

San Diego

San Diego is yet another city in California with a Spanish name. The name “San Diego” translates to “Saint James” in English. It was named after Saint James the Greater by Spanish explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno, who arrived in the area in 1602.

The city was later officially founded in 1769 as the first European settlement in present-day California.

San Diego is known for its beautiful beaches, pleasant climate, and rich history. The city’s Spanish heritage is still celebrated through various cultural events and festivals. Visitors can explore historic sites such as Presidio Park and Old Town San Diego State Historic Park to learn more about the city’s Spanish roots.

The Spanish names of these cities in California not only reflect their historical origins but also serve as a reminder of the state’s diverse cultural heritage. They showcase the influence of Spanish colonization on the development of California and contribute to its unique identity as a melting pot of different cultures.

Lesser-Known Cities and Towns

San Luis Obispo

San Luis Obispo is a charming city located in central California. Its name is derived from the Spanish words “San Luis,” meaning Saint Louis, and “Obispo,” meaning bishop. The city’s history dates back to the Spanish settlement in the late 18th century.

It was founded by Franciscan friars who established the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa in 1772. Today, San Luis Obispo is known for its beautiful architecture, vibrant cultural scene, and outdoor recreational opportunities.

The city’s historic downtown area is filled with shops, restaurants, and art galleries, making it a popular destination for both locals and tourists.

La Mesa

La Mesa is a quaint town situated in San Diego County, California. Its name translates to “the table” in Spanish, referring to the town’s location on a plateau. La Mesa has a rich history that traces back to the Spanish colonial era.

The area was originally inhabited by the Kumeyaay Native American tribe before Spanish settlers arrived in the late 18th century. Today, La Mesa is known for its small-town charm, diverse community, and scenic views.

The town hosts various events throughout the year, including a popular weekly farmers market and the annual Oktoberfest celebration.

Costa Mesa

Costa Mesa is a vibrant city located in Orange County, California. Its name translates to “coastal table” in Spanish, reflecting its close proximity to the Pacific Ocean. The city’s history can be traced back to the Spanish colonization period, when it served as grazing land for cattle.

Over the years, Costa Mesa has transformed into a thriving urban center with a mix of residential, commercial, and entertainment areas. The city is home to renowned performing arts venues, including the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, which hosts world-class performances and cultural events.

Costa Mesa is also known for its shopping destinations, such as South Coast Plaza, one of the largest shopping centers in the United States.

Preserving the Spanish Legacy

California is a state rich in history and cultural diversity, and one of the many ways this is showcased is through the cities with Spanish names that dot the landscape. These cities serve as a reminder of California’s Spanish colonial past and the lasting influence of Spanish culture on the state.

Preserving the Spanish legacy is not only important for historical purposes, but it also helps to maintain a sense of identity and pride among the residents.

Recognizing History Through Place Names

The Spanish were the first Europeans to explore and settle in California, starting in the late 18th century. As they established missions, pueblos, and presidios throughout the region, they left a lasting mark on the landscape.

Many of the cities in California still bear the original Spanish names given to them by the early settlers.

For example, Los Angeles, which means “The Angels” in Spanish, was named by the Spanish governor Felipe de Neve in 1781. San Francisco, named after Saint Francis of Assisi, was established as a Spanish mission in 1776.

These names not only reflect the religious and cultural influences of the Spanish colonizers but also serve as a constant reminder of the state’s history.

The recognition of history through place names is crucial in preserving the Spanish legacy. It allows residents and visitors alike to connect with the past and appreciate the contributions of the Spanish settlers to the development of California.

Moreover, it serves as a starting point for further exploration of the state’s history and cultural heritage.

Spanish Architectural Influences

In addition to the names of the cities, Spanish architectural influences can also be seen throughout California. From the iconic Spanish missions to the adobe-style buildings, these architectural styles are a testament to the Spanish colonizers’ enduring impact on the state.

The Spanish missions, such as Mission San Juan Capistrano and Mission Santa Barbara, were not only religious centers but also served as the hub of colonial life. These missions were designed with distinct architectural features, including bell towers, courtyards, and whitewashed exteriors, which have become synonymous with California’s Spanish heritage.

The adobe-style buildings, characterized by their thick walls made of mud and straw, are another architectural legacy of the Spanish settlers. These structures can be found in cities like Santa Fe Springs and Monterey, showcasing the simplicity and functionality that defined Spanish colonial architecture.

Preserving and maintaining these Spanish architectural influences is essential in honoring the state’s history and cultural heritage. It allows future generations to appreciate and learn from the architectural achievements of the Spanish settlers, while also enhancing the overall aesthetic appeal of the cities.


The prevalence of Spanish names for cities across California stands as a testament to the explorers and settlers who left their mark on the region. Though part of the United States for generations, the Spanish origins of these cities remain indelible through the names that link back to California’s colonial past under Spanish rule.

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