San Fernando has been inhabited by settlers since prehistoric times. Relics from the Stone Age, the Palaeolithic Age, and from Roman times have been discovered there and show signs of primitive agricultural activities from very early on. The first historic finds date back to around 1,100 BC, with the arrival of the Phoenicians.
Later, during the time of the Roman occupation, there were small, agricultural holdings on the Isla de San Fernando, and archaeological remains which have been discovered in various areas such as Cerro de Los Martires, Cerro and Cerro de Calero. Other finds have been the remains of a fish salting factory and pottery kilns which show evidence of having produced farming equipment as well as sophisticated ceramics destined for ornamental as well as household use.
During the reign of Augustus, an aqueduct was built and made way centuries later for the construction of the Zuazo Bridge.
During the Visigoth time, the area became virtually deserted and then with the Arabic rule, who had little interested in the maritime spirit and preferring the more fortified areas further east along the coast such as Tarifa the ‘Isla’ remained more or less abandoned apart from a few solitary hermits.
Indeed it was not until around the middle of the 18th Century that San Fernando began to take on its form as the town it has become today. In 1773 the Town Hall, slaughter house and market are planned to create the town with the name of San Carlos, in honour of King Carlos III. The works began in 1786 and the San Carlos Hospital, Battalion barracks, along with that of many other key buildings. In 1798 the Naval Observatory and Astronomical Institute was opened. This remarkable building attracted a great deal of scientific interest both in Spain and from the rest of the world.
At the beginning of the 19th century the town defended itself against French invasion. In 1813 the town was named San Fernando in honour of the then king. The town had put up an strong defence against the French, but in the process had lost many people due to the death, injuries and sickness that always accompany war. Reconstruction of the town took place without much assistance from central government.
Then, after the capitulation of Fernando VII in 1820, San Fernando was occupied by the French for the next five years. However, by the mid 19th century there was renewed stability and the Spanish naval power was once again renewed. This, together with development in the agricultural sector, allowed San Fernando to recover some its lost prosperity.
The more recent history of San Fernando reflects that of the whole of Spain; the restoration, the monarchy of Alfonso XIII, the dictatorship of General Primo de Rivera, the Second Republic, the Civil War years, the Franco dictatorship and the present rule under the constitutional monarchy of King Juan Carlos I, with the establishment of the various autonomous regions.
As well as becoming ever more the focus of the discerning tourist in Andalusia, San Fernando is also becoming a thriving town for many Spanish people who live there and commute to work in the city of Cadiz.