Balaklava has changed possession several times during its history. A settlement at its present location was founded under the name of Symbolon (Σύμβολον) by the Ancient Greeks, for whom it was an important commercial city.
During the Middle Ages, it was controlled by the Byzantine Empire and then by the Genoese who conquered it in 1365. The Byzantines called the town Yamboli and the Genoese named it Cembalo. The Genoese built a large trading empire in both the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, buying slaves in Eastern Europe and shipping them to Egypt via the Crimea, a lucrative market hotly contested with by the Venetians.
The ruins of a Genoese fortress positioned high on a clifftop above the entrance to the Balaklava Inlet are a popular tourist attraction and have recently become the stage for a Medieval festival. The fortress is a subject of Mickiewicz's penultimate poem in his 1825 cycle of Crimean Sonnets.
In 1475 Cembalo City was conquered by Turks and they rename it to Balyk-Yuva (Fish's Nest) which subsequently became Balaklava.
During the Russo-Turkish War, 1768-1774, the Russian troops invaded Crimea in 1771. Thirteen years later, Crimea was definitively annexed by the Russian Empire. After that, Crimean Tatar and Turkish population was forcefully replaced by Greek Orthodox people from the Archipelago.
In 1787 the city was visited by Catherine the Great.
The town became famous for the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War thanks to the suicidal Charge of the Light Brigade, a British cavalry charge due to a misunderstanding sent up a valley strongly held on three sides by the Russians, in which about 250 men were killed or wounded, and over 400 horses lost, effectively reducing the size of the mounted brigade by two thirds and destroying some of the finest light cavalry in the world to no military purpose. The British poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson immortalized the battle in verse in his Charge of the Light Brigade.
The balaclava, a tight knitted garment covering the whole head and neck with holes for the eyes and mouth, also takes its name from this settlement, where soldiers first wore them. Also numerous towns founded in English-speaking countries in later parts of the 19th Century were named "Balaklava" (see Balaklava (disambiguation)).
During the Second World War, Balaklava was the southernmost point in the Soviet-German lines.
In 1954 Balaklava, together with the whole Crimea, passed from Russia to Ukraine. It became part of the independent state of Ukraine in 1991. Today there are over 50 monuments in the town dedicated to the remembrance of military valour in past wars, including the Great Patriotic War, the Crimean War and the Russian Civil War.
In 2014, due to the 2014 Crimean crisis, Balaklava, along with the rest of the Crimea, was annexed by Russian Federation.