An Extraordinary World Map Of Literally Translated City Names (2023)

In March I wrote about a world map where the country names had been translated to their original literal meanings, as far as anyone could be sure. Language, after all, is a complex and confusing thing that grows, develops and morphs over time as dialects mix and meanings blend.

I thought it would be fun to follow it up by delving a bit deeper and look at the cities within those countries who no doubt have been subject to the same whims of change and misinterpretation. Unsurprisingly, the results are just as interesting, out-there and weird. They tell stories of history and hidden meaning, of founders and conquerors, of emotions and natural wonders.

Current estimates believe there are around 7,106 living languages still being spoken in the world, which is an astounding statistic far above what most would guess (hands up, I guessed around 500 before I researched it). Roll in the thousands of languages now extinct and it’s easy to see why and how meanings have changed and therefore to know that nothing is certain. Some are obvious, some a little more obscure and some, happily, are downright bizarre.

Cities of the world literally translated.

On The Go Tours

So the next time you’re planning a city break, why not do a little shopping and top up the tan with a trip to Father of the Gazelle, more commonly known as Abu Dhabi. Or perhaps something more remote and chilly like Smoky Bay is your bag. In that case, book your tickets to Iceland because you’re off to Reykjavik.

This map of literal translations of cities around the world from On The Go Tours is as hilarious as it is informative. Here I’ve broken it down into continents so you can explore each individually. And if any map looks too small, just zoom in or open the image in a new tab – they’re high resolution so you should be able to read every name.

North America

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North American cities are mostly named for people and nature.

On The Go Tours

North America is rife with rather predictable literal translations, whether it’s the City of Angels for, er, Los Angeles to the Town of the Bridge for, well, Bridgetown in Barbados. But nose a little deeper and there are some more poetic, intriguing names to digest.

The oceans and seas obviously play a big role, whether it’s Wet Land for Nassau, the Bahaman capital, or Place by the Water for Managua in Nicaragua and the very similar By the Sea for Tijuana on Mexico’s northern border.

The Honduran capital Tegucigalpa is far more convoluted and uncertain though. A common theory is that it means Silver Hills from the Nahuatl ‘Teguz-Galp’, but many experts write that theory off as the locals could never have known of the minerals in the hills that name would have come from. I prefer the theory it comes from the Nahuatl ‘Tecuztlicallipan’, which translates as Place of Residence of the Noble or the similar ‘Tecuhtzincalpan’ meaning Place at the Home of the Beloved Master.


Europe's city names honor nature and mankind's construction prowess.

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A veritable smorgasbord of the weird and wonderful, Europe is a deep well of intriguing names. My current city of residence, rather disconcertingly, translates simply as Swamp from the old Polabian language. Where is this alluring place I’ve chosen to call home for a while? Berlin, no less!

Many have a distinctly manmade, security-centric feel about them. Portugal’s capital Lisbon is the reassuring Safe Harbor, Luxembourg City the Small Castle and Maribor in Slovenia the encouraging Borderland Fortress. This is a continent of invaders and conquerors after all.

Elsewhere, Romania’s capital Bucharest appeals as the City of Joy, as does Norway’s capital Oslo as the Meadow of the Gods. A little less poetic is Latvia’s capital, Riga whose name refers to the country’s established role in the commerce between East and West – it simply translates as Warehouse.


Africa's city names reflect a love of nature, feelings and people.

On The Go Tours

Off Africa’s east coast, Madagascar’s wonderfully-named capital Antananarivo translates as City of the Thousand in honour of the number of soldiers assigned to guard it by its conquering king Andrianjaka in the early 1600s. The tiny neighbouring Comoros islands’ capital Moroni means Heart of Fire, most likely alluding to its location at the foot of Mount Karthala, an active volcano.

On the mainland, Sudan’s capital Khartoum raises a smile, meaning End of an Elephant’s Trunk. Odd yes, but it’s derived from the Arabic Al-Jartūm and likely refers to the narrow strip of land between the Blue and White Niles rather than the animal. Keeping the animal theme is Bamako in Mali, which means Crocodile River, and Ghanaian capital Accra as Ants, named for the proliferation of anthills in the surrounding countryside.

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Likely from a questionable European misinterpretation of the Shona chieftain Neharawa as ‘Haarari’, Zimbabwe’s capital translates oddly as He Does Not Sleep.


Asia's city names are a more random collection of stories and practicality.

On The Go Tours

Asia’s cities are proof that this is a continent of extraordinary stories. In Armenia, Yerevan is most likely from Erebuni which means the Abode of Heroes, but I love the early Christian notion that it comes from ‘Yerevats!’, which means ‘It appeared!’, the wordsspoken by Noah aboard the Ark as he landed on Mount Ararat and looked toward Yerevanwhere the flood receded. Next door in Armenia is the very fashionable Baku, or Wind-Pounded City, which needs no explanation.

Perhaps unsurprising, many Asian capitals are named for emotions or feelings. Ashgabat in Turkmenistan is the City of Love, Manama on tiny Bahrain the Place of Dreams and Jerusalem in Israel the Abode of Peace, though I’m not sure how accurate any of these is in the modern world.

Others are less aspirational. I particularly liked Dushanbe in Tajikistan which is, literally, Monday. Then there’s Malé, the tiny island capital of the beautiful Maldives which means Big House from the original Sanskrit, and Yangon in Myanmar, a compound of yan ‘enemies’ and koun ‘run out of’ from the Burmese, which is interpreted as meaning End of Strife.

South America

Many of South America's giant cities are a direct nod to nature.

On The Go Tours
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I’m not sure everyone would agree with Ecuador’s assertively named capital Quito, which translates as Center of the World.

More direct is Uruguay’s Montevideo, or I See a Mountain. While there’s no dispute over its translation referring to the hill which faces the bay, its origin isn’t so clear. Likely it comes directly from the Portuguese ‘Monte vide eu’ first spoken by a seaman on the expedition with legendary explorer Ferdinand Magellan when he saw the ‘mountain like a hat’. It’s by no means certain though.

The lesser explored country of Suriname sees its capital, Paramaribo, named for the tribe living at the mouth of the Suriname River and can be broken down in translation as Large River Inhabitants, which is slightly unnerving as to what they might be. At the other end of the tourist scale sits Rio de Janeiro which for any Portuguese speaker is a quick and simple translation to the River of January.


Oceania's cities are a playful mix of questionable translations.

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On The Go Tours

Australia’s oft-overlooked capital Canberra translates very directly as Meeting Place from the old Ngunnawal language of the indigenous Ngabri people, likely referring to their seasonal migration to the area to feast on the tasty sounding Bogong moths. Nothing too revelatory then, unless you dig a little deeper and take the word of journalist John Gale who in the 1860s speculated it means ‘woman’s breasts’ referring to the mountains of Mount Ainslie and Black Mountain. He’s a journalist though, so may just have been stirring up a story on a dry news day!

As always, the islands offer great value. The lovely Nuku’alofa in Tonga translates as Land of Love, while Fiji’s second city Lautoka means ‘spear hit’ inspired by a duel between two chiefs, the winner of which shouted ‘lau-toka!’ when he speared his rival – literally Bull’s Eye!

Last but by no means least is the wonderful Funafuti, capital of tiny, gorgeous Tuvalu whose founding ancestors were Telematua and his two wives Futi and Tupu. Clearly his first wife was the favorite, as her name was adopted for the capital. While Funa is the feminine prefix, Futi literally means Banana.


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