11 cities that have changed their names

Stuart Forster looks at 11 cities that have changed their names.

Over time it’s common for city names to evolve or change. During the Roman era London was known as Londinium, Paris was Lutetia and Newcastle Pons Aelius. Changes of the ruling regime, mass migration of people and political decisions are factors that can result in place names changing.

Here’s a look at 11 cities that have changed their names and are worth travelling to visit.

New York in the USA

So good they named it twice. During the 17th century the Dutch settled the southern tip of Manhattan. They named their settlement Nieuw Amsterdam, meaning ‘New Amsterdam’. The location of one of its walls is the origin of Wall Street’s name.

Nieuw Amsterdam was the capital of Nieuw Nederland, a colony occupying parts of what is today the north-eastern USA. The British took control of the colony in 1664 after the Dutch Governor, Peter Stuyvesant, surrendered Nieuw Amsterdam on 8 September. Following the Second Anglo-Dutch War, the British were permitted to retain it as one of the conditions of the Peace of Breda, agreed in 1667.

It was subsequently named New York in honour of the Duke of York, the man who became King James II of England and James VII of Scotland.

Statue of George Washington in front of the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street in New York City.
Statue of George Washington in front of the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street in New York City.

Toronto in Canada

In the interests of a smooth segue, the next city on this listicle is Toronto. It was established as York, by the British, in 1793. In this case that name was in honour of a different Duke of York, Prince Frederick, the military commander who was mocked in the nursery rhyme The Grand Old Duke of York.

As the capital of Upper Canada, York was a targeted by the Americans during the War of 1812. It was renamed as Toronto in 1834, at the time of incorporation as a city, after the council was petitioned do so by residents.

That name had originally been intended. Lord Dorchester acquired lands from the Mississaugas of Credit First Nation in what was known as the Toronto Purchase.

The name of the Fairmont Royal York hotel, across Front Street West from Toronto’s Union Station, is a tip of the hat to the city’s former name.

The CN Tower rises above other buildings in downtown Toronto, the most populous city in Canada
The CN Tower rises above other buildings in downtown Toronto, the most populous city in Canada.

York in England

York was known as Eboracum during Roman times. A bronze statue of the Constantine the Great, who was proclaimed emperor in the city in 306, sits outside of York Minister. He grips a sword in the sculpture by Philip Jackson. The Ebor Festival of racing, held at York Racecourse, hints at the former name.

For a while, following the collapse of the Roman Empire, it was known as Eoforwic. Thankfully, I’m not alone in having difficult pronouncing that; Norse settlers renamed the city Jorvic, from where we derive the modern name. Based in the heart of the city, Jorvik Viking Centre conveys insights into life in York 1,000 years ago.

The National Railway Museum and York Castle Museum count among the city’s attractions.

The Shambles, a narrow shopping street of medieval buildings with boutiques and tourist-orientated shops and businesses, in central York
The Shambles, a narrow shopping street of medieval buildings with boutiques and tourist-orientated shops and businesses, in central York.

St Petersburg in Russia

A new capital for the Russian Empire was constructed on the orders of Peter the Great. The 6ft 9inch-tall tsar was inspired by Amsterdam, where he worked for a time in a shipyard. Between 30,000 and 100,000 people died building his new city on swampy land early in the 18th century.

St Petersburg’s name was changed to Petrograd in 1914 and served as Russia’s capital until 1917. Between 1924 and 1991 it was called Leningrad, after the revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin (who himself was originally known as Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov). It was renamed St Petersburg in 1991.

The State Hermitage Museum, Grand Peterhof Palace and Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood count among the top attractions in the Russian city.

Gdansk in Poland

Now part of Poland’s Trójmiasto (Tricity) conurbation, along with Sopot and Gdynia, Gdansk was long known as Danzig, a German name. The city was once a member of the Heanseatic League of trading cities. Its Old Town has been reconstructed and is a joy to stroll in.

Following World War Two the city’s surviving ethnic Germans were forced out. The city was resettled and renamed Gdansk.

The wartime story of the city is told in the Museum of the Second World War, based in an angular building that opened in 2017.

Alice Springs in Australia

Located in the centre of Australia, the Northern Territory’s third-most populous urban settlement was known as Stuart until 1933. Technically it’s a town (but why let that fact get in the way of a story, eh?). It was given that name after John McDouall Stuart, who explored Australia’s interior during the early 1860s.

The Australia Overland Telegraph Line was constructed along his route under the supervision of Sir John Todd. His wife was named Alice, after whom Stuart was renamed Alice Springs. The Stuart Highway runs between Darwin and Port Augusta.

The Royal Flying Doctor Service Museum is one Alice Springs’ key attractions. For international travellers the town is frequently a stopping point en route to visiting Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock).

Carcross in the Yukon, Canada

If you’re being picky, this place shouldn’t be on the list — it isn’t a city. Carcross is just under an hour’s drive south from Whitehorse, the only city in the Yukon. What about Dawson City, you may ask? Nope, technically that’s a town too, despite its name.

The wooden façades of some of Carcross’s buildings reminiscent of those in Wild West movies. They stand on what is traditionally Carcross/Tagish First Nation land and some of the buildings bear stylised artwork reflecting that heritage.

It’s reputed that mix ups in mail deliveries resulted in calls for Caribou Crossing to be renamed. Apparently, people in Cariboo Regional District of British Columbia weren’t receiving letters and packages. An urban myth, perhaps?

In a rebranding that many modern PR companies would be proud of, Caribou Crossing was renamed Carcross in the first decade of the last century.

The world’s smallest desert, which has an area of one square mile, is just beyond the northern edge of Carcross.

First Nations artwork on the facade of a building in Carcross, the Yukon
First Nations artwork on the facade of a building in Carcross, the Yukon

Harare in Zimbabwe

Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, was formerly known as Salisbury. The city was renamed in 1982, on the second anniversary of the establishment of the Republic of Zimbabwe.

The country takes its name from the stone buildings at Great Zimbabwe, a UNESCO World Heritage Site four hours’ drive south of Harare.

The heart of the city is Africa Unity Square, a compact urban park. When the jacaranda trees flower in springtime, the square looks its most colourful. One of the best places to view it from is from up on the pool deck of the Meikles Hotel.

The skyline of Harare (formerly Salisbury), the capital city of Zimbabwe.
The skyline of Harare (formerly Salisbury), the capital city of Zimbabwe.

Mumbai in India

Several Indian cities have been renamed in recent decades, changing names given during the time of British rule. The include Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore), Chennai (Madras) and Kolkata (Calcutta).

Mumbai was long known as Bombay and still is by many of its inhabitants. The Gateway of India, by the waterfront, was constructed to commemorate the arrival of King George V, the Emperor of India, in 1911. It was the location of the official final departure of British forces from India in 1948.

Flower sellers at City Market in Bengaluru, formerly known as Bangalore, in India
Flower sellers at City Market in Bengaluru, formerly known as Bangalore, in India

Kitchener in Ontario, Canada

Kitchener, approximately 60 miles to the west of Toronto, was named after Earl Kitchener, the pointing moustachioed figure who appears on First World War recruiting posters.

Until 1916 the city was called Berlin. Wartime anti-German sentiment resulted in calls to change the name. Citizens were given several names to choose from and, in a vote, Kitchener proved the winner.

The region’s German heritage is celebrated during the annual Kitchener-Waterloo Oktoberfest and in Christmas markets.

Sunset seen through the glass cupola of the Reichstag Building in Berlin, Germany. The Berlin in Ontario was renamed Kitchener in 1916
Sunset seen through the glass cupola of the Reichstag Building in Berlin, Germany. The Berlin in Ontario was renamed Kitchener in 1916.

Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam

Saigon, formerly the capital of the Republic of Vietnam, was renamed in honour of the revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh, who was the chairman of the Worker’s Party of North Vietnam between 1951 and 1969. Decades prior to that he worked in London at the Drayton Court Hotel.

In 1975, following the end of the war with the USA, Saigon’s name was changed. Many residents, among them the young, continue to call the city Saigon rather than Ho Chi Minh City.

For an overview of the city area few places surpass the Saigon Skydeck, the observation level in the Bitexco Financial Tower.

A woman views Ho Chi Minh City and the Saigon river from the Saigon Skydeck in the Bitexco Financial Tower
A woman views Ho Chi Minh City and the Saigon river from the Saigon Skydeck in the Bitexco Financial Tower.

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8 Comments

  • Ferne Arfin

    February 26, 2020 at 16:29 Reply

    I was interested in reading this, especially as I have just finished reading The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto. It’s based on very recent translations of old Dutch records and manuscripts that have lain neglected in the state library at Albany, NY, the Hague and even the Vatican. The book tells the real story of New Amsterdam from the Dutch point of view and it is really fascinating to discover how much of New Amsterdam influenced the whole development of America. It was, for example, New Yorkers, with their anarchic, multi-ethnic sense of independence, who insisted that the Bill of Rights be added on before they would sign the Constitution. And did you know that the existence of the District Attorney as the prosecutor for the state in criminal cases is a Dutch invention – which is why the post does not exist in the UK legal system . When you discover a city has changed its name, it’s often fascinating to find out what still remains of the old customs, laws and traditions in the shadows, so to speak. Good piece, Stuart and got me thinking.

    • Stuart Forster

      February 27, 2020 at 12:49 Reply

      Thanks, Ferne. It may be an urban myth but I’ve also read that Americans are nicknamed Yankees because of the common Dutch name Jan Kies!

  • Nell (Pigeon Pair and Me)

    March 2, 2020 at 12:30 Reply

    Really interesting to see how many of these places change their names to reclaim heritage, post-colonialism… fascintating post!

    • Stuart Forster

      March 3, 2020 at 13:31 Reply

      Thanks Nell. I think that aspect of ‘reclaiming’ cities as Indian is significant in India.

  • Scots2travel

    March 2, 2020 at 19:15 Reply

    I love these curiosities. I knew about New York, and agree that York’s new name is so much easier, but others are little gems I hadn’t heard of.

    • Stuart Forster

      March 3, 2020 at 13:30 Reply

      I love the way Carcross ‘rebranded’ years before KFC shortened its name.

  • Stuart Fahy

    March 6, 2020 at 14:24 Reply

    Some very interesting history here and most of these name changes I had no idea about. I definitely think Alice Springs needs to go back to its old name though.

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