Landau was first mentioned as a settlement in 1106. It was in the possession of the counts of Leiningen-Dagsburg-Landeck, whose arms, differenced by an escutcheon of the Imperial eagle, served as the arms of Landau (illustration at right) until 1955 The city was granted a charter in 1274 by Rudolf I von Habsburg, King of Germany, who declared the city an Imperial Free City in 1291; nevertheless the bishop of Speyer, a major landowner in the district, seized the city in 1324. The city did not regain its ancient rights until 1511, through the offices of Maximilian I.
An Augustinian monastery was founded in 1276.
Landau was later occupied by the French from 1680 to 1815, when it was one of the Décapole, the ten free cities of Alsace, and received its modern fortifications by Louis XIV's military architect Vauban, 1688–99, making the little city (population in 1789 was still only approximately 5,000) one of Europe's strongest citadels. After Napoleon's Hundred Days following his escape from Elba, Landau, which had remained French, was granted to the Kingdom of Bavaria in 1816 and became the capital of one of the thirteen Bezirksämter (counties) of the Bavarian Rheinpfalz. Following World War II, Landau was an important barracks city for the French occupation.
Wine-making continues to be an important industry. Landau's giant main square (Rathausplatz) is dominated by the city hall (Rathaus) and the market hall (Altes Kaufhaus). The former fortifications gave way in the 19th-century to a Hauptring that encircles the old town centre, from which the old industrial buildings have been excluded. A convention hall, the Festhalle, was built in Art Nouveau style, 1905–07 on a rise overlooking the city park and facing the modernist Bundesamt, the regional government building.
The familiar luxury open carriage called the "landau" was indeed invented in the city.