City, town, village or hamlet – differences

How do I know if a place is a city or a town or a village?

In British English we can distinguish between a city, a town, a village or a hamlet using a historical perspective.

Using this generally held historical perspective we can see the following  distinctions between cities, towns, villages and hamlets:


has a cathedral or a university or both *(see below for modern day definitions)


has a market


doesn’t have a cathedral or a market but it will have a church


is very small with only a handful of houses and usually doesn’t have any shops or other services. It would be unusual for it to have a church, but occasionally they do

A historical explanation for these distinctions can be found >>>> here

* In fact the definition of a city has changed over the years.

In 1907 the government decided that for a town to have city status it should have a population of over 300,000 and/or have a significant role in its geographical region. This has been adjusted a number of times over the last century, towns must apply for city status, they are not awarded it automatically.

This means that some places can have a cathedral but not be a city:

St.James church in Bury St.Edmunds became a cathedral in 1914 when the diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich was created. Bury doesn’t comply with the new criteria for city status and, to my knowledge, has never applied for such status.

After the industrial revolution the population of Britain has grown and many industrial towns became larger, and more important, than some historical cities:

An example of an English town that has been awarded city status following the new criteria is Stoke-on-Trent, which does not have a cathedral. It was deemed to be a significantly important town for its role as the centre of the pottery industry in the area. It officially became a city in 1925.


    • there are only a few Cities; cities are usually very big
    • more towns ; towns are smaller
  • even more villages; villages are even smaller. There are some exceptions.

 St. Davids in Wales is a city because it has a cathedral but it only has a population of around 2,000 (2001). There are many villages that are bigger.

Other countries have also developed a system where a region has a city which is the administrative headquarters  for the region. Sub regional areas have towns that administer this smaller area.

You will find additional interesting information in the comments section below

See the comments about the British/European situation compared with the use of City and Town in the USA.

18 Responses to “City, town, village or hamlet – differences”

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  1. Maite García says:

    I just found this website and I found it quite useful. I am an English teacher in Spain (Alicante, Valencian Community) and I remember my English teacher at primary school telling us that cities in Britain had a cathedral. Then, when I teach my students I use population to decide whether we should consider a city, town or village, even hamlets. The historical criteria in Spain was that the monarch gave the privilege to a village (villa) and upgraded it to city (ciudad) status. It didn’t have to do with the fact of having a cathedral. My hometown, only 35,000 inhabitants has been a “ciudad” since the 16th century while Madrid with its several millions of inhabitants is “villa y corte”. My students tend to talk about their town as a “city” and write such things as “I live in the city centre”. For me a translation of “hamlet” would be “pedanía” since they are dependent on bigger villages, towns or cities.
    I lived in the USA for 5 years and I realised that over there they don’t follow the same criteria, but I never quite grabbed the concept of the charatecteristics that a city must have in the US.

    • admin says:

      Maite, Thank you for your interesting information about towns and cities in Spain. As there are effectively only two terms (villa/pueblo and ciudad) in Spanish for the English words city, town and village I can see the problems of Spanish students not knowing how to refer to their town/city.
      Just for your information:
      – Bedford (pop 81,000) is a town
      – Luton (pop 240,000) is a town
      but Portsmouth (pop 205,000) was given city status in 1926 using the new rules I mentioned in a previous post.

      I live in Catalonia and I refer to any provincial capital ( I think they all have cathedrals as they are designated as the centre of a diocese by the church) as a city. I usually refer to other places as towns if they have a regional importance (like in a “comarca in Catalonia)

  2. John says:

    I’m certainly no expert, and would bow to your knowledge, but I feel perhaps with regards to towns, you might be confusing the issue slightly for non-English visitors, England is comprised of both Towns and Market Towns, and in the modern era, most of the markets have vanished, so identifying a town could be highly difficult for someone visiting, and asking about the market would no doubt cause confusion from most of the inhabitants of most towns… Admittedly, I have no idea how to better clarify this for non-English speakers, but I felt it was worth raising for your consideration.

    • admin says:

      John, thank you for your comment. I can see your point as even though all towns were market towns or boroughs, with the rise of supermarkets and out-of-town shopping areas they can’t be identified as such anymore. Despite this there are still a surprising number of street and indoor markets around the country, although there are very few that sell products from their hinterland as they would have in the not too distant past.
      To be honest I never imagined that this article would attract so many visits and comments from English speaking people. The original purpose for my writing it was because of the number of students from around the world who, when referring to where they live, use the word “city” whereas a native speaker would describe it as a “town”.
      Non-English visitors to England probably wouldn’t need to concern themselves with this matter. If the people are visiting on holiday they would easily find information highlighting traditional market towns like Ludlow, Morpeth, Wilton, Nantwich, Bury St Edmunds, Buxton etc as well as the street markets such as Walthamstow and Brixton in London. If they were living in England for a period they would surely discover the best places to do their shopping by talking with fellow immigrants, workmates, schoolmates etc., this is what I do when I am in another country. Once in Britain you soon learn whether to describe where you are as a town or city, without knowing why probably.
      Thanks once again John

  3. Jean-Pierre Durand says:

    Dear Admin,

    Thank you for creating this very useful site, and helping me check certain perceptions I had about how the different statuses were attributed.

    I was also very impressed by the patient way you dealt with certain comments and their writers, showing both knowledge AND diplomacy. 😉

    • admin says:

      Thank you for your encouraging comments. We always try to do our best but all comments are greatly appreciated.


  4. cjfox says:

    Thank you for making this page. I am pleased to have the information, especially the historical context.

  5. Bob says:

    Not quite correct about the definition of a city in the UK. Some cities do not have a Cathedral (eg York), and some towns do have a Cathedral (eg Bury St Edmunds). For a town to become a city, it must have City Status conferred upon it by Royal Decree.
    Also, the main difference between a village and a hamlet is that a village has a church, whereas a hamlet doesn’t.

    • admin says:

      Bob, thanks for your comments.In fact the definition of a city has changed over the years. In 1907 the government decided that for a town to have city status it should have a population of over 300,000 and/or have a significant role in its geographical region. This has been ajusted a number of times over the last century, towns must apply for city status.
      Your information about York is not correct, York Minster is in fact a cathedral and a very important one within the Church of England. York also has a university therefore it met city status on both counts based on historical criteria.
      St.James church in Bury St.Edmunds became a cathedral in 1914 when the diocese of St Wednesbury and Ipswich was created. Bury doesn’t comply with the new criteria for city status and, to my knowledge, has never applied for such status.
      An example of an English town that has been awarded city status following the new criteria is Stoke-on-Trent, which does not have a cathedral. It officially became a city in 1925.

      My web page is designed for non-English speaking learners of the English language and the main purpose of my article was to help them distinguish between “town” and “city”. Spanish speakers have a word, “ciudad”, which looks similar to “city” but which is used to refer to both towns “and” cities.

      I will rewrite my article based on your comments and my reply

      • Eric says:

        Admin, very interesting your words, but there’s something not completely exact in what you said. In Spanish, “ciudad” means “city” so you got it right here. However, there’s an exact word for referring to a town: “pueblo”.
        “Pueblo” is a smaller conglomerate of people and buildings, less important than a “ciudad”. There’s a clear difference between the two words and concepts.
        “Pueblo” has the exact meaning of “town” and it’s its perfect equivalent.
        Spanish is my first language, so you can trust me on this.

        • admin says:

          Eric, thank you for your contribution.
          I have been living in Spain for 28 years and I know very clearly what a “pueblo” is and how the word “ciudad” is used in Spanish. But in English we use THREE words (city, town and village) for these TWO Spanish concepts (ciudad y pueblo). As well as being an English teacher, I’m also a Historical Geographer (University of London, Goldsmith College) specialising in the dynamic change of settlements and the influence of terrain, climate and historical perspectives on their growth.
          In Spain all the Provincial capitals (Tarragona and Gerona in Cataluña; Jaén and Huelva in Andalucia etc.) are “cities” (ciudades in Spanish) the capitals of Comarcas would normally be considered as “ciudades” in Spanish but as “towns” in English. “Pueblos” are villages. I live in the town of Valls which is the capital of the Alt Camp comarca in the Province of Tarragona. Many of my students come to me from the villages (pueblos) surrounding Valls (Brafim, Alió, Alcover, Figuerola, Nulles, Vilabella etc)
          So “ciudades” in Spanish are cities or towns. Provincial or regional capitals (with cathedrals and universities) such as Madrid, Sevilla, Burgos, León etc are Cities, less important “ciudades” (normally they have a traditional market which attracts people from their area. They do NOT have a cathedral or a university) such as Valls, are “towns”. And all the pueblos y pueblecitos are villages.

          • Eric says:

            Hi Admin, I’m a computer engineer by profession, but also a writer and I write in Spanish.

            I was born in Cuba and we speak Spanish. The firsts words I heard and pronounced were Spanish words. I graduated from all educational levels from Elementary to University, speaking, reading and writing in Spanish. What’s more important: I THINK in Spanish which I doubt you do and that’s a big difference. I’m 50 years old so my practice with the language is long enough to know what I’m talking about regarding my mother tongue. I live in the USA now but only for the last 8 years.
            Spanish is a language that has much words than English, it is a richer language in many ways and you can express ideas in many more ways than in English, so there’s hard to find an English word without its Spanish equivalent.
            You should also remember that Spanish is not only from Spain nowadays but from all Latin American countries too, so you maybe hearing words, phrases and ideas at your current home that maybe taken for something else somewhere else.
            That being said, you should know that “ciudad” is nor the same as “pueblo”. Ciudad means “city” and is always bigger and more important tha “pueblo” (town). You can never use one of then instead of the other if your goal is to be properly understood.
            There is a word in Spanish for “Village” and that word is nor “pueblo” but “aldea”. You can also use “villa”. If the place is smaller and less important it can be a “caserío”.
            Another detail is that “poblecito” is not a Spanish word. The correct words are “pueblecito” or “pueblito” and both are diminutive for “pueblo”.
            Never take what online translators say for granted, not even Google. It’s a known fact that computer translation still sucks no matter the effort and the years spent trying to develop it. It will get better with time but currently is not good enough.

          • admin says:

            Hi Eric, thanks for your reply.
            Let’s not make this into a competition about who is the best qualified at something, please 🙂
            I didn’t use Google translator, I don’t need to. My Spanish is at a similar level to your English, very, very good but not perfect. I give several presentations a year to companies, education departments and universities in Spanish and/or Catalan. The problem about “poblecito” (you will see that I had already corrected it) is because I was with a group of Spanish/Catalan and English people as I was writing and I started to write the word “poblet” in Catalan – I shouldn’t try to do so many things at once!
            Your basic points are ones that I didn’t contemplate in my original article, I started by saying that I would be looking at the “British English” use of the words City, town, village and hamlet based on a historical perspective. In my previous reply I compared these with the situation in Spain, another country like Britain that has a lot of historical baggage that many other Spanish and English speaking countries around the world don’t have.
            I can 100% assure you that my analysis based on European countries is correct and nobody can deny that. The great thing about the USA, Australia, New Zealand and, I suppose, South and Central America is that these “new” countries felt no obligation to apply antiquated European criteria to their urban areas. I find this very refreshing.
            I have just been checking and it seems that in the USA every state is allowed to decide what population size, or services provided can be used to define a city or a town. Most states tend to base it on administrative function rather than size but there are a number of exceptions. The word “village” is rarely used in many states; sometimes associated with places like Greenwich Village in NY.
            Your comment about “aldea” is, I suppose yet again, another example of the difference between European and non-European countries. In Britain a “hamlet” is the equivalent of an “aldea” in Spain, see my definition in the article above.
            Although my website is read in over 100 countries most days, I write and teach from a British standard English perspective. I am very conscious of the regional and cultural differences in the English used in Britain and find it very exciting how the language is developing so quickly around the globe.
            Another day I will post an article with examples of British cities, towns, villages and hamlets with their population size, administrative function, geographical location etc to illustrate more clearly the meanings of the words in British English. Then maybe I will do a similar exercise with the USA and perhaps Australia.

  6. valerio says:

    Right down to the point! A very exact meaning of each. I looked and looked but the general description even in the dictionaries were the same and even on line with no explanation of each. Just …are bigger or ..are smaller explanations. Thank you!