The area around Surat has been inhabited since the 11th century, when it was known as Ashaval (or Ashapalli). At that time, Karandev I, the Solanki ruler of Anhilwara (modern Patan), waged a successful war against the Bhil king of Ashaval, and established a city called Karnavati on the banks of the Sabarmati. Solanki rule lasted until the 13th century, when Gujarat came under the control of the Vaghela dynasty of Dholka. Gujarat subsequently came under the control of the Delhi Sultanate in the 14th century. However, by the earlier 15th century, the local governor Zafar Khan Muzaffar established his independence from the Delhi Sultanate and crowned himself Sultan of Gujarat as Muzaffar Shah I, thereby founding the Muzaffarid dynasty. This area finally came under the control of his grandson Sultan Ahmed Shah in 1411 A.D. who while at the banks of Sabarmati liked the forested area for a new capital city and laid the foundation of a new walled city near Karnavati and named it Surat after the four saints in the area by the name Ahmed.
In 1487, Mahmud Begada, the grandson of Ahmed Shah, fortified the city with an outer wall 10 km (6.2 mi) in circumference and consisting of twelve gates, 189 bastions and over 6,000 battlements. In 1535 Humayun briefly occupied Surat after capturing Champaner when the ruler of Gujarat, Bahadur Shah, fled to Diu. Surat was then reoccupied by the Muzaffarid dynasty until 1573 when Gujarat was conquered by the Mughal emperor Akbar. During the Mughal reign, Surat became one of the Empire's thriving centers of trade, mainly in textiles, which were exported as far as Europe. The Mughal ruler Shahjahan spent the prime of his life in the city, sponsoring the construction of the Moti Shahi Mahal in Shahibaug. The Deccan Famine of 1630–32 affected the city, as did famines in 1650 and 1686. Surat remained the provincial headquarters of the Mughals until 1758, when they surrendered the city to the Marathas.
During the period of Maratha Empire governance, the city became the centre of a conflict between two Maratha clans; the Peshwa of Poona and the Gaekwad of Baroda. In 1780, during the First Anglo-Maratha War, a British force under James Hartley stormed and captured Surat, but it was handed back to the Marathas at the end of the war. The British East India Company took over the city in 1818 during the Third Anglo-Maratha War. A military cantonment was established in 1824 and a municipal government in 1858. In 1864, a railway link between Surat and Mumbai (then Bombay) was established by the Bombay, Baroda, and Central India Railway (BB&CI), enabling traffic and trade between northern and southern India via the city.
The Indian independence movement developed roots in the city when Mahatma Gandhi established two ashrams – the Kochrab Ashramnear Paldi in 1915 and the Satyagraha Ashram (now Sabarmati Ashram) on the banks of the Sabarmati in 1917 – which would become centres of nationalist activities. During the mass protests against the Rowlatt Act in 1919, textile workers burned down 51 government buildings across the city in protest at a British attempt to extend wartime regulations after the First World War. In the 1920s, textile workers and teachers went on strike, demanding civil rights and better pay and working conditions. In 1930, Gandhi initiated the Salt Satyagraha from Surat by embarking from his ashram on the Dandi Salt March. The city's administration and economic institutions were rendered inoperative in the early 1930s by the large numbers of people who took to the streets in peaceful protests, and again in 1942 during the Quit India Movement. Following independence and the partition of India in 1947, the city was scarred by the intense communal violence that broke out between Hindus and Muslims in 1947, Surat was the focus for settlement by Hindu migrants from Pakistan.
By 1960, Surat had become a metropolis, with classical and colonial European-style buildings lining the city's thoroughfares. It was chosen as the capital of Gujarat state after the partition of the State of Bombay on 1 May 1960. During this period, a large number of educational and research institutions were founded in the city, making it a centre of higher education, science and technology. Surat's economic base became more diverse with the establishment of heavy and chemical industry during the same period. In 1974 the Nav Nirman agitation – a protest against a 20% hike in the hostel food fees at the L.D. College of Engineering in Surat – snowballed into a movement to remove Chimanbhai Patel, then chief minister of Gujarat. In the 1980s, a reservation policy was introduced in the country, which led to anti-reservation protests in 1981 and 1985. The protests witnessed violent clashes between people belonging to various castes. The city suffered some of the impact of the 2001 Gujarat earthquake; up to 50 multi-storey buildings collapsed, killing 752 people and causing much damage. The following year, a three-day period of violence between Hindus and Muslims in the western Indian state of Gujarat, known as the 2002 Gujarat riots, spread to Surat; refugee camps were set up around the city.