Archeological evidence discovered in the area surrounding Chernivtsi indicates that a population inhabited it since the Neolithic era. Later settlements included those of the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture, the Corded Ware culture; artifacts from the Bronze and Iron Ages were also found in the city.
A fortified settlement located on the left (north-eastern) shore of the Prut dates back to the time of the Principality of Halych and is thought to have been built by Grand Prince Yaroslav Osmomysl. Legendary accounts refer to this fortress-city as Chern, or Black city; it is said to owe its name to the black color of the city walls, built from dark oak layered with local black-colored soil. This early stronghold was destroyed during the Mongol invasion of Europe by Boroldai in 1259. However, the remaining ramparts of the fortress were still used for defense purposes; in the 17th century they were augmented with several bastions, one of which is still extant.
Following the destruction of the fortress, later settlements in the area centered on the right (south-western) shore of the Prut River, at a more strategically advantageous, elevated location. In 1325, when Kingdom of Poland seized control of Galicia, and came into contact with the early Vlach (Romanian) feudal formations, a fort was mentioned under the name Țețina; it was defending the ford and crossing point on the Prut River. It was part of a group of three fortifications, the other two being the fortress of Hotin on the Dniester to the east, and a fort on the Kolachin River, an upriver tributary of Prut.
Between 1359 and 1775, the city and its surroundings were part of the Principality of Moldavia, one of the historic provinces of Romania; the city being the administrative center of the homonymous ținut (county). Cetatea Ţeţina – Cernăuţi, Astra, 3 (13), 1998 The name Cernăuți/Chernivtsi is first attested in a document by Alexandru cel Bun (Alexander the Good) on 8 October 1408.Cernăuţi-600 de ani de atestare documentară internă, Astra, 4 (54), 2008, p.3 In Ottoman sources, the city was mentioned as "Çernovi", a phonetic transliteration of a Latin cognomen meaning new castle see French Castelnau Geographical Etymology - a dictionary of place-names giving their derivations, Christina Blackie (1887) or Welsh Carno.
In 1775, the northwestern part of the territory of Moldavia was annexed by the Habsburg Empire; this region became known as Bukovina. The city became the region's capital, which in 1849 was raised in status and became known as the Duchy of Bukovina, a crownland of the Austrian Empire. The city received Magdeburg rights. The city began to flourish in 1778 when Knight Karl von Enzenberg was appointed the chief of the Military Administration. He invited many merchants, craftsmen and entrepreneurs to help develop trade and other businesses. Saint Peter's Fairs ( 1–15 July) had given a new vibrant impulse to the market development from 1786. In the late 19th century the German language—due to the Habsburg and the very important Jewish influence—became the lingua franca and more and more newspapers were edited in German, also a remarkable literary production in German began in this period, featuring most prominently Karl Emil Franzos.Ion Lihaciu, Czernowitz 1848–1948. Das kulturelle Leben einer Provinzmetropole, Parthenon Verlag, Kaiserslautern und Mehlingen 2012,
During the 19th and early 20th century, Chernivtsi became a center of both Romanian and Ukrainian national movements. In 1908, it was the site of the first Yiddish language conference, the Czernowitz Conference, coordinated by Nathan Birnbaum. When Austria-Hungary dissolved in 1918, the city and its surrounding area became part of the Kingdom of Romania. In 1930, the city reached a population of 112,400: 26.8% Jews, 23.2% Romanians, 20.8% Germans, 18.6% Ukrainians, the remainder Poles and others. It was one of the five university centers of interwar Romania.
In 1940, the Red Army occupied the area; the area around the city became known as Chernivtsi Oblast, and was allotted to the Ukrainian SSR by the Soviet Union. The city's large Romanian intelligentsia found refuge in Romania; while the Bukovina Germans were "repatriated" according to a Soviet-Nazi agreement. Under the regime of military dictator Ion Antonescu, Romania had switched from an ally of France and Britain to one of Nazi Germany; subsequently, in July 1941, the Romanian Army retook the city as part of the Axis attack on the Soviet Union during World War II. In August 1941, Antonescu ordered the creation of a ghetto in the lowland part of the city, where 50,000 Bukovina Jews were crammed, two-thirds of whom would be deported in October 1941 and early 1942 to Transnistria, where the majority perished. The Romanian mayor of the city Traian Popovici managed to persuade Antonescu to raise the number of Jews exempted from deportation from 200 to 20,000.
In 1944, when Axis forces were driven out by the Red Army, the city was reincorporated into the Ukrainian SSR. Over the following years, most of the Jews left for Israel; the city was an important node in the Berihah network. Bukovina Poles were also "repatriated" by the Soviets after World War II. The city became a predominantly Ukrainian one.
Since 1991, Chernitvtsi has been a part of independent Ukraine. In May 1999, Romania opened a consulate general in the city. Contemporary Chernivtsi is an important regional center, which is situated on the picturesque banks of the Prut River and occupies an area of about 150km2.
In April 2016, amidst the Ukraine crisis, the Chernitvtsi city council banned the use of the word "Russia" on signboards, advertisements, billboards, tables and other public boards. Chernivtsi banned signs with the word "Russia", Ukrayinska Pravda (4 April 2016)