Why Do All of the California Cities Have Spanish Catholic Names?

Feb, 28, 2023

Have you ever stopped and wondered why all of the major California cities have Catholic names? Actually, have you ever even noticed this? Considering they’re all in Spanish, I wouldn’t blame you if you never put two and two together on that one.

Los Angeles means “The Angels,” San Francisco means “Saint Francis,” San Jose means “Saint Joseph,” and the list goes on and on, almost endlessly.

Now, what would make California choose such religious names for its cities, and why are they all in Spanish?

You can see clips from our time in San Diego and our entire California Coast roadtrip in this short 3 minute video

Why Are California’s Biggest Cities Named in Spanish?

To answer this, we should first take a step back in time and talk about what California looked like when it got all of those names. Or rather, who occupied California at the time.

California is currently in the hands of its fourth major owner. Of course, it was first home to Native American people that lived there for thousands of years. Then in the mid-1500s, the Europeans arrived to explore the new territory.

Eventually in the mid-1700s, Spain won the rights to California. This is the time period we will be talking about the most in this post. Anyway, Spain controlled California at the same time that it controlled Mexico. 

Eventually, the Mexicans were able to kick the Spanish out and send them back across the Atlantic Ocean, leaving the newly sovereign country of Mexico in charge of California, plus about half of the current United States territory. There’s a fun fact for you! Mexico used to control all of Texas, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, California, Oklahoma, Nevada, and more, which is about half of the continental United States landmass. 

Fun Fact: Mexico used to controll all of Texas, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, California, Oklahoma, Nevada, and more!

This ownership was much shorter lived, as the United States eventually got into a war with Mexico and claimed this entire area as its victory prize. This was over half of the landmass of Mexico, gone in an instant. Tough blow for a new country!

When the United States took over all of its new territory in the west, many of the Spanish names stuck. That is why the names of all of the major cities in California are in Spanish.

photography of boat in san diego ocean

Now, We Know Why the Names Are in Spanish. Why Are they All Catholic?

Spain, for better or for worse, really cared about spreading Catholicism. It was kind of a cornerstone of Spanish culture, and being in a new land with hundreds of thousands of new people (remember, we’re talking about almost every modern country in the Americas except for Brazil, Belize, the East Coast of the United States and Canada), it saw a huge opportunity to evangelize, or spread the faith.

The approach that they used the most in California to accomplish this evangelization was the installation of missions, or religious outposts, throughout the territory. As you rode up the coast, you passed by many different outposts designed to spread Catholicism to the local indigenous communities.

Each mission was named after a different Catholic saint that was chosen to be its patron as it spread the faith through the area.

Up north there was a mission that was dedicated to Saint Francis, in the middle of the west coast there was one dedicated to Saint Barbara, a bit further south of that there was one dedicated to Our Lady of the Angels…are you getting the picture here?

Eventually, cities sprung up around these missions and they adopted the names of the missions for themselves, leading to city names like San Jose (Saint Joseph), Santa Barbara (Saint Barbara), Los Angeles (The Angels), San Diego (Saint Diego), San Francisco (Saint Francis), Sacramento (sacrament), and Santa Fe (Holy Faith).

Dirt pathway lined by flowers

Hopefully this post answered the question “Why do all of the California Cities have Spanish Catholic names?” I always love learning about history when I travel, and this was one of the biggest takeaways from my first trip to California.

If you’re planning a trip to Southern California, I highly recommend checking out the Mission of San Juan Capistrano. It really is an enjoyable day trip, and it’s so easily accessible from San Diego and Los Angeles. If you decide to go, let us know! Otherwise, thanks for reading, and Stay Present.

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Hi! I’m Greg, a Pittsburgh-based dad who juggles a 9-5 with a passion for traveling the world. I've spent time living in Mexico, Italy, and China, have traveled to nearly 50 countries, and make a habit of scratching epic experiences off of my bucket list.


  1. Reply

    Tanya Ewing

    July 25, 2023

    Greg, this would be a great article for my Spanish class to read. Could you send me a version with just the text? I’m glad to attribute it to you.

    • Reply


      July 25, 2023

      Hey Tanya! I’d love to send it over. Is the email attached to your comment the best place to send it?

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Meet The Family!

We're a family who seeks adventure both in our backyard and also around the world. We've spent time living in Mexico, Italy, and China, have traveled to nearly 50 countries. Life is short! All we have is this present moment to fulfill the dreams God has given us.