Ravensburg was first mentioned in 1088. In the Middle Ages, it was an Imperial Free City and an important trading centre. The "Great Ravensburg Trading Society" (Große Ravensburger Handelsgesellschaft) owned shops and trading companies in all over Europe.
The historic town centre is still very much intact, including three town gates and over 10 towers of the medieval fortification.
The town's most popular festival is the "Rutenfest" in mid year.
By a contract of inheritance, in 1191 the Hohenstaufen Frederick Barbarossa acquired the ownership of Ravensburg from Welf VI, Duke of Spoleto and uncle of both Frederick Barbarossa and Henry the Lion.
With the death of Conradin 1268 in Naples the Hohenstaufen line became extinct. Their former estates became imperial property of the Holy Roman Empire. Like many other cities in Swabia, at the end of the 13th century Ravensburg became an Imperial Free City in 1276.
The "Great Ravensburg Trading Society" (Große Ravensburger Handelsgesellschaft) was founded at Ravensburg and Konstanz around 1380 by the merchant families of Humpis (from Ravensburg), Mötteli (from Buchhorn, modern-day Friedrichshafen) and Muntprat (from Constance). The society dealt first mostly in the domestic linen and fustian. With the opening of one of the first paper mills north of the Alps in 1402 in Ravensburg, paper became another commodity, but the stores held also oriental spices, Mediterranean wines and Bohemian ores. After the liquidation of the Great Ravensburg Trading Society in 1530, Ravensburg stagnated economically. The Thirty Years' War caused a grave decline of the population. Swedish troops destroyed the old castle, now named "Veitsburg" after the St. Veit chapel at the castle grounds.
Following the Reformation a "paritetic" government emerged, meaning an equal distribution of public offices between the Catholic and Protestant confession. The city council was one half each Protestant and Catholic. For some time there was even a Catholic and a Protestant mayor at the same time, and the both confessions celebrated the village fair, the "Rutenfest", apart of each other. This system was approved at the end of the Thirty Years' War in the Peace of Westphalia (1648) which named four "Paritetic Imperial Cities": Augsburg, Biberach, Dinkelsbühl and Ravensburg.
In 1803 the Immerwährende Reichstag passed the Reichsdeputationshauptschluss, a bill which included the secularisation and mediatisation of many German states — the first meaning the confiscation of the estates belonging to the church, the second the incorporation of the imperial estates and Imperial Free Cities into larger regional states. As a result, Ravensburg first became a Bavarian exclave within Württemberg. After a swap of estates between Bavaria and Württemberg it was incorporated in the Kingdom of Württemberg in 1810.
In the 1970s, Ravensburg increased in population and territory by the incorporation of smaller communities like Eschach, Schmalegg and Taldorf.
Since Ravensburg was impoverished and depopulated after the Thirty Years' War, only a few new buildings were raised during the 18th and the early 19th century. The benefit of this economic stagnation was the conservation of a widely intact medieval city with nearly all towers and gates of the historic fortification.
During the World War II Ravensburg was strategically of no relevance. Ravensburg didn't harbour any noteworthy arms industry (unlike the nearby Friedrichshafen with its large aircraft industry), but a big aid supplies center belonging to the Swiss Red Cross. So no air raid destroyed the historical city center. In the 1980s, the Old Town was renovated and all transit traffic was banned from the city center.
Ravensburg is part of an urban agglomeration that also comprises Weingarten (Württemberg) and several suburbs. Ravensburg, Weingarten, and Friedrichshafen (on the shores of Lake Constance) share the functionality of a Oberzentrum (that is, the highest-ranked centre in the system of spatial planning and development in Baden-Württemberg).
In 1847, the railway station of Ravensbug was put in operation, part of the so-called "Swabian Railroad" from Stuttgart to Friedrichshafen, the oldest railroad of Württemberg and well-known in all of Germany by the folk-style song Auf der schwäbsche Eisebahne.
The pastry factory Tekrum (Theoder Krumm GmbH & Co. KG), formerly purveyor to the Imperial court, is another company with an internationally-known brand name. Since January 2005 it has been a wholly-owned subsidiary to Griesson–De Beukelaer.
But the main industry branch of the region is machine construction. Based on the demand of the paper and textile industry (now widely reduced) and a long tradition of flour, paper and other mills many engineering factories arose at the end of the 19th century. Today the primary exponents of this branch in Ravensburg are the left-overs of the former Escher-Wyss AG (a subsidiary of the Swiss Sulzer AG) which are now subsidiaries to the Austrian VA Tech and the German Voith AG.
Worthy of mention are furthermore the component supplier Nothelfer GmbH (subsidiary of ThyssenKrupp Automotive), the packaging manufacturers Autobar Packaging (formerly Zach Verpackungen) and Moosmann & Co., the tools factory Hawera Probst and the pharma company Vetter Pharma.
The radio companies Radio 7 and Südwestrundfunk run broadcasting studios at Ravensburg. In Horgenzell near Ravensburg, the Ravensburg-Horgenzell transmitter transmits Deutschlandfunk on the medium wave frequency 756 kHz.