Discover The 5 Oldest Cities In California

Written by Angie Menjivar
Updated: May 9, 2023
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These are the oldest cities by the date they were established.


When you consider the oldest cities in California, your attention gets split. This is because some cities weren’t legally acknowledged until 1850 when California joined the United States. On September 8, 1850, California became the 31st state to officially become a part of the country. There were physical cities established in the area (not to mention the indigenous communities that predate even the oldest cities we recognize today) prior to this date. These established cities that got the official title make up some of the oldest cities in California.

The 5 Oldest Cities In California

Explore the five oldest cities in California below.

1. San Diego

Solana Beach
Considered the “birthplace of California”, San Diego offers a beautiful coastline rich in activities.

© De Wever

San Diego has been called the “birthplace of California” by the American Historical Society. The history of this city goes all the way back to 1542 when Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo first feasted his eyes on the beautiful coastline in this area. Indigenous communities had already been inhabiting the land by then and later, explorers from Mexico arrived. There was no official settlement for hundreds of years until 1769.

Today, when you think of San Diego, that same glittering coastline comes to mind. It’s a bustling city with plenty of activity from arts and culture to beaches and bays, shopping, nightlife, and one-of-a-kind attractions. Whether you prefer on-land activities or crave the water, there is never a shortage of places to explore.  

2. San Jose

Mount Hamilton, San Jose
First known as a pueblo in 1777, San Jose is now known as Silicon Valley where technology reigns.


San Jose wasn’t a city until California became a state — it was a pueblo. Spanish founder, José Joaquin Moraga, established San José as a civic settlement in 1777. It was a location focused on farming and trade, working alongside the military stationed in the area. There are hardly any traces of what the pueblo used to be — even the name of the city lost the accent it originally had over the letter ‘e.’

Today, you can visit Peralta Adobe, a building that dates back to 1797. It’s like a pocket of history that tells of what used to be. Aside from that preserved building, the city is now recognized as the capital of Silicon Valley, where technology reigns. Visitors enjoy a variety of entertainment and recreation from museums and visual arts to golf and hiking. There are attractions for kids and families as well as nightlife and music for adults to enjoy.

3. Benicia

The location of California’s third oldest city is Benicia.


Benicia has a rich history — it’s small but mighty. This city was founded in 1849, just before California was recognized as a state but nevertheless, its existence can’t be denied. It eventually became the third city to be incorporated. It was where the military arsenal was stored to keep troops well-equipped through wars and battles. This community sits waterfront, and this allowed them to continue business via shipbuilding after World War I.

Today, you can learn more about the city’s history by visiting the Benicia Capitol State Historic Park and the Benicia Historical Museum. There is a public pier and beach and a state recreation area where you can enjoy stunning views. To stock up on goods, head over to the Benicia Certified Farmer’s Market and then plan to take in the local talent at the Benicia Old Town Theatre Group.

4. Sacramento

Sacramento, California
Sacramento was declared the state capital of California in 1879.


In 1839, Sacramento was colonized by Captain John Sutter, who was given a land grant by Mexico and was given the name Nueva Helvetia (which translates to “New Switzerland), where he established Sutter Fort. However, settlers had already discovered this specific location, giving it a religious-inspired name. In 1848, the city was founded by John A. Sutter Jr., the son of Captain John Sutter and was an outgrowth of Sutter’s Fort. Then, when gold was discovered, the population grew, and it eventually became a charter a year before the state’s incorporation. Sacramento held a special place in the heart of those who resided there and in 1879, it became officially known as the state’s capital.

Sacramento has a radiant arts and history culture that pairs well with its food culture. Here, you can catch a live music performance, check out a museum, go for a hike, or just sit out and enjoy the outdoors. They host a Farm-to-Fork Festival and several music festivals, inviting both locals and visitors into the culture with open arms.

5. San Francisco

Golden Gate Bridge, The United States
The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco is the most iconic aspect of this old city in California.


In 1776, San Francisco was established as a Spanish mission. European explorers came across the land about seven years before this date and eventually, it would become the home of the well-known Golden Gate Bridge. In 1821, Mexico took possession but just before incorporation into the country (during the gold rush), the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo meant the U.S. acquired the territory.

The Golden Gate Bridge with its “International Orange” color is perhaps the most popular aspect of San Francisco. But did you know the U.S. Navy initially intended to paint it with yellow stripes? There’s certainly more to know and explore in San Francisco! Today, visitors can explore city tours, take day trips, check out wine tastings, and head out to explore nature and wildlife. Take a ride on cable cars, head out to witness Alcatraz Island, and, of course, take that drive over the famed bridge.

Summary Of The 5 Oldest Cities In California

RankCityDate EstablishedDate Incorporated
1San Diego17691850
2San Jose17771850
5San Fransisco17761850

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About the Author

Angie is a writer with over 10 years of experience developing content for product and brand reviews, focusing much of her time on animals of all types. A cat owner herself, she enjoys writing articles on beloved pets that both inform and entertain her audience.

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