The rich cultures that have grown throughout history have made the world a varied and interesting place. As new places have been discovered and established over time, their names have been thoughtfully selected to represent them. What we now think of as just a string of letters and words that label the world’s cities are actually well thought out descriptions that tell us a lot about a place and its history.
In this article we look into some of the most interesting place names around the world, and what they mean.
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Argentina - Buenos Aires Means ‘Fair Winds’
Spanish for Fair Winds, Buenos Aires’ name is as ever-changing and evolving as the city. The original settlement was called Ciudad de la Santísima Trinidad y Puerto de Nuestra Señora la Virgen María de los Buenos Aires, which translates to City of the Most Holy Trinity and Port of Saint Mary of the Fair Winds. During the 17th century, the longer name was dropped from the more commonly used, and much faster to say, Buenos Aires.
It isn’t just the city that has an interesting etymology either, as the inhabitants are known as porteños, which means people of the port.
Australia – Sydney Means ‘Dweller by the well-watered land’
Sydney comes from the family name which in Old English literally means dweller by the well-watered land. As well as being a major coastal port city, Sydney is truly connected with its coastline. It is built around the mouth of the Parramatta River, with the water that surrounds it just as much a part of the city as the land.
We spoke to Justine, the Operations Manager of I’m Free Tours (Sydney). I’m Free Tours offers free city walks with knowledgeable and local tour guides. Justine told us some of the locations she’d suggest everyone visits when in Sydney:
- Catch the ferry out to Manly and walk to Shelly beach.
- Walk the Bondi to Coogee cliff face walk.
- See the local side and head to Newtown, listen to the buskers whilst sipping on a flat white (Aussie coffee).
- Have a picnic at Mrs Macquaries Chair for the best view of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House.
- Catch the ferry to Watsons Bay, have fish and chips by the harbour and walk to the Gap cliff face.
Justine then told us why joining a walk with a local guide is a great way to see the city: “You'll learn about the stories behind the landmarks and how the city has been shaped by its people and landscape. More importantly, you'll learn the real side to a city. You'll walk down laneways and arcades that you didn't know existed and find out what it's like to be a local - such as what to eat and where - beyond the normal tourist attractions. The most important thing is perhaps the lasting memory and the feeling that you'll take with you. It's not about the buildings and animals you saw, but the understanding you'll have of the place and the people within it.”
Canada – Montreal Means ‘Mount Royal’
Originally named ‘le mont Royal’ in Middle French by Jacques Cartier after the nearby mountain. What is unknown, however, is how the name became Montreal, although many believe it’s from an Italian map translation in 1556.
Denmark – Copenhagen Means ‘Merchants Harbour’
Derived from the city's Danish name København, Copenhagen means Merchant's Harbour in Danish. Throughout history, Copenhagen was a renowned merchant city, particularly in the medieval period where it was the main port within the Baltic Sea. This core part of Copenhagen’s history is still prevalent in the city today, with many amazing markets and stalls dotted all around the city.
We spoke to the team at Visit Copenhagen, who told us why they believe Merchant’s Harbour is the perfect name for the city: “Back in the middle ages the Baltic Sea was brimming with schools of shiny herring and Copenhagen was an important trade spot for merchants acquiring this silver of the sea, thus gaining its name and reputation.
“Today Copenhagen remains a hot spot for business and still attracts foreign visitors, even though the attraction has shifted somewhat. Now people come for that laid-back Copenhagen vibe, the good food and to explore the combination of modernity and historic buildings that are found here.”
“When exploring Copenhagen’s cultural heritage, it’s still a good idea to venture around the harbour area and explore the many canals. Here you’ll find old castles, churches and quaint cobbled streets with colourful houses. However, there are plenty of reasons to wander beyond the city centre and into the backstreets, to visit the old naval houses at Nyboder, the Botanical Garden or maybe even explore beyond the city and visit the Castle Kronborg, where Shakespeare’s Hamlet is set.”
We then asked the team where people should visit in Copenhagen if they want to experience the city’s culture in full: “Copenhagen is a royal city and home to one of the world's oldest monarchies. In and around the city you will find castles, palaces, royal statues and monuments.” As well as the previously mentioned Castle Kronborg you can also visit Christiansborg Palace, located right in the heart of the city.
The team at Visit Copenhagen also recommend taking part in a “truly unique Danish food experience you can get at lunchtime in Copenhagen, when smørrebrød (literally spread bread, or open-faced sandwich), is served.” They also recommend a visit to Schønnemann, one of Copenhagen's oldest eateries.
Hungary – Budapest means ‘Water Furnace’
The history of Budapest is a really fascinating one. Originally three cities, Óbuda, Buda and Pest, the Hungarian capital forged together in 1873. Buda translates to water and Pest is the Slavic word for furnace or oven, so when combined, the city name means water furnace. For a short amount of time the names were reversed, so the city was known as Pest-Buda. Both of the original cities were on opposite shores of the Danube, which means they are in superb locations for a river cruise.
We spoke to Lilla, from Budapest Info. They discuss Budapest history on their site: “Over the centuries, three cities grew and blossomed side by side along the banks of the Danube: Buda, site of the royal residence; Pest with its dynamic growth from the 19th century onwards; and Óbuda, known for its somewhat less urban but cheerful restaurants and citizens.”
Lilla suggests that people looking to get to know the city should experience its museums, of which there are plenty on offer. From the Aquincum Museum and Archaeological Park which houses the excavated ruins of an ancient Roman town found under Budapest to the Hungarian National Gallery.
Iceland – Reykjavik Means ‘Smoky Bay’
From the Old Norse reykja and vik, Reykjavik means smoky bay, or bay of smokes. It is believed Reykjavik was the first settlement in Iceland and dates back to AD 874, finally being founded as a city in 1786.
We spoke to the team at Visit Reykjavik, who told us all about the city’s offerings: “Reykjavík is so much more than just a destination; it’s a place of exciting possibilities surrounded by incredible landscapes, where countless adventures beckon and a host of natural wonders await.”
“Experience Iceland's pure thermal energy and take a dip in one of Reykjavík's many thermal pools and spas! Not only a great source of natural therapy but an important part of our culture and a tonic for the body and mind!”
Visit Hallgrímskirkja church
“Towering over the centre of Reykjavík is Hallgrímskirkja church, visible from almost every angle of the city and therefore making it very easy to find. At the top of this 74.5m expressionist building is a viewing platform boasting 360° views over the entire city.”
Visit Perlan Museum
“The Wonders of Iceland exhibition is one of the largest and most ambitious exhibition projects in Reykjavík in recent years. The museum is situated in one of Reykjavík's most impressive buildings, Perlan, and will be a must-visit for any tourist - not only for the world-class museum but also for its amazing panoramic views of Reykjavík, great architecture and excellent restaurant, café and gift shop.”
Visit Harpa concert hall
“A striking addition to the Icelandic and European cultural scene is Harpa, the Reykjavík Concert Hall and Conference Centre and recipient of the prestigious Mies Van der Rohe award for architecture.”
“Reykjavík is the place to be for those with an interest in the world of arts and culture. It is home to the majority of our most prestigious cultural institutions and talented performers and artists.”
“Although the city of Reykjavík is a metropolis in every sense, it has been carefully developed and crafted around a number of easily accessible recreational areas and country parks. The nature of Reykjavík is not only protected but sustained, extended and encouraged to thrive.”
They also said they would definitely recommend that people check out The Settlement Exhibition, Árbær Open-Air Museum and the National Museum to learn about the history of Reykjavík.
India – Mumbai Means ‘Mother’
Named after the patron goddess of the native Koli community, Memadevi, Mumbai means mother in Marathi. The Koli people originated in Gujarat and when they pilgrimaged to the city, it is rumoured they brought their goddess with them, and she is still worshipped in Mumbai today.
Ireland - Dublin Means ‘Black pool’
Dublin is derived from the Irish Dubh Linn, meaning black pool. We spoke to the team at Tourism Ireland, who told us more about the origins of the name: “The name Dublin comes from the Gaelic dubh linn or ’black pool’, where the Poddle stream met the River Liffey to form a deep pool at the present day Dublin Castle.” Remanence of this black pool still exists today, under the circular grass area in the image below.
Tourism Ireland also told us about the city’s modern name in Irish and its history: “The city's modern name, Baile Áth Cliath, means ‘town of the ford of the hurdles’. The Vikings used this ‘black pool’ as a harbour for their longships and settled here permanently from 841, creating the largest Viking city and trading post in Europe for over a hundred years.
They suggest someone visits “Dublinia or The National Museum of Ireland in Dublin to learn more about Dublin’s history.
We also spoke to the team at DoDublin, a hop-on-hop-off bus tour company. They recommend: “Catching at least 1-2 sites when stopping on a short cruise break. Though Dublin is a relatively small city, there’s still plenty to see and a hop-on-hop-off tour with Dublin’s favourite tour company gives visitors a perfect overview of the city!”
The team at Do Dublin suggested a great range of activities everyone should do whilst in the capital:
“A visit to ‘The Home of Guinness’” at St. James’s is an absolute necessity… even if you don’t like ‘the black stuff!’ Visitors to the Storehouse undertake a self-guided tour over seven floors. Learn the history of the famous pint of Guinness, and the impact it’s had on the city of Dublin as well as around the world. You’ll even get the opportunity to learn how to pour the perfect pint. Catch a glimpse of the stunning cityscape of Dublin and the Wicklow Mountains from the Gravity Bar.
A visit to the Guinness Storehouse usually takes about 2 hours.
Trinity College/ The Book of Kells
“A library? A university? Surely it can’t be all that impressive? We hope you’ll take our word on this when we tell you it definitely is! Inside the heart of Ireland’s most famous university, the Long Room and the Book of Kells are rightly one of Ireland’s most popular attractions. The Long Room has striking similarities to the library of Hogwarts in Harry Potter and is impressive in every way, and the Book of Kells is one of the most important and impressive manuscripts in the world. Written by Irish and British monks in circa 800 AD it is one of Ireland’s finest national treasures.
“(pronounced ‘jail’ – it’s just the old spelling!) is a brilliant attraction rich in history and powerfully impactful. It’s a remarkable site and has held leaders from many of Ireland’s Rebellions (we have had a few!). A large focus of the guided tour will be on 1916 which was a significant time in modern Irish history.
“Christ Church Cathedral is Dublin's oldest building and a place of pilgrimage for almost 1,000 years. Known for its beauty, architecture and exquisite floor tiles, it is home to a 12th Century crypt. (Stop 19 on the tour).
St. Patrick’s Cathedral
“Saint Patrick’s Cathedral is one of the most popular visitor attractions in Dublin. Built in honour of Ireland’s patron saint between 1220 and 1260, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral offers visitors a fantastic experience and is one of the few remaining buildings left in Dublin from medieval times.”
We then asked why exploring with a guide is such a good idea, DoDublin told us: “Seeing the city through the eyes of a local brings an authenticity to the visitor experience not found in every city. With DoDublin guides, (all qualified guides through Fáilte Ireland - Ireland’s Tourism Board), visitors enjoy the original Dublin experience, with guides who are born and bred in the city. Part of the fabric of the city, the DoDublin guides are as distinctive as they are fun. As locals, they’re in the know, ensuring a great tour experience by bringing the city to life on their tour like no other tour can.”
Japan – Tokyo Means ‘Eastern Capital’
Tokyo comes from the Japanese 東京, which translates to Eastern Capital. Interestingly, the former capital of Japan, Kyoto, uses the same two words (‘to’ and ‘kyo’) but in reverse. Despite this, Kyoto is actually derived from 京都, which means Capital City. So, although Tokyo became the capital in 1863, its name doesn’t reflect that.
Malta – Valletta Is named after Jean Parisot de la Valetta
Valletta was named after its founder, the respected Grand Master of the Order of St. John, Jean Parisot de la Valletta. It’s also known as The Fortress City, thanks to its unmissable architectural defences. Valletta is also known as Citta’ Umilissima, meaning a city built by gentlemen for gentlemen, as it was originally built as a place of refuge for injured soldiers during the Crusades.
Morocco – Agadir Means ‘Fortress’ or ‘Citadel’
The name Agadir is very common in Morocco, meaning wall, enclosure or fortified building. It’s not just this port city that falls under that name, as it’s quite commonly used around the country due to its translation. The city’s full name in Tashelhit, Agadir n Yighir translates literally to the fortress of the cape.
We spoke to Visit Agadir, whose site goes into great depth about the city’s history, looking at the timeline surrounding its most dramatic event, the 1960 earthquake. This event has shaped modern Agadir and still lingers in the minds of many residents. All around the city, as well as fantastic architecture and an amazing coastline, you’ll experience monuments built after this earthquake, marking its significance.
Namibia - Walvis Bay Means ‘Whale Bay’
A gem of the Namibian coastline, Walvis Bay translates from Afrikaans to Whale Bay. Likely named after the incredible sea life it is home to, Walvis Bay remains a great location to experience whales, seals, dolphins and also a great range of seabirds.
Netherlands – Amsterdam Means ‘A Dam on the River Amstel’
Amsterdam, derived from the Dutch Amstellerdam means a dam on the Amstel River. Quite a literal name, the name Amstel itself also translates from Dutch to area abounding with water.
We spoke to Sergio, owner of FreeDam Tours, a company that offers free walking tours of the city every day. They told us what they feel everyone should do whilst there: “Everybody visiting Amsterdam should absolutely visit the three canals of the 17th-century canal-belt to marvel at the grand canal houses built by the city’s wealthy merchants during the 17th century ‘Golden Age’. They are a testament to Amsterdam’s incredible wealth and were the most important trading and financial centre in the world of the time. This incredible feat of urban planning (the biggest urban expansion plan in history at that time) is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Go to see the most picture-perfect sight Amsterdam has to offer, stunning canal houses, passing by Anne Frank’s house (hiding place) along the way. Find unique gifts in the famous ‘9-little-streets shopping district’ crisscrossing the three canals and experience the laid-back Amsterdam cycling lifestyle. That said, as we warn our guests: ‘if you hear a bell, run like hell’.”
We then asked Sergio why exploring with a guide is the best way to learn about a city: “Going with a guide is a great way to learn about the city because your guide will make you understand and appreciate the city better, but will also give you tons of tips that will make sure you get the most of the rest of your time you will be spending in the city. It’s because of this that at FreeDam tours we say ‘our guides are the best thing that will happen to you in Amsterdam’ - and they are!”
Norway – Bergen Means ‘Meadow between the mountains’
Bergen is often regarded as one of the most inspiring and beautiful port cities in the world. That’s why it seems only fitting its name is adapted from Old Norwegian Bergvin, which translates to meadow between the mountains.
Panama - Panama City Means ‘Place of many fish’
Although the definite origin of the name Panama is unknown, there are two residing and highly differing theories. The official definition promoted by the Ministry of Education is that it translates from the Cueva Indian language and means place of abundance of fish. Another theory, however, says that it is named after the indigenous Panama tree, found commonly around the county.
Singapore Means ‘Lion city’
Derived from the Sanskrit सिंहपुरं or Simhapuram, Singapore means Lion City. A Srivijayan prince called Sang Nila Utama was credited with naming the city after he founded the Kingdom of Singapura in 1299. Over time, the Kingdom of Singapura would go on to become the city of Singapore as we know it today.
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