The city encompasses a land area of about on the banks of the Waikato River, and is home to people, making it New Zealand's fourth most-populous city. Hamilton City is part of the wider Hamilton Urban Area, which also encompasses the nearby towns of Ngaruawahia, Te Awamutu and Cambridge.
Initially an agricultural service centre, Hamilton now has a growing and diverse economy and is the third fastest growing urban area in New Zealand (behind Pukekohe and Auckland). Education and research and development play an important part in Hamilton's economy, as the city is home to approximately 40,000 tertiary students and 1,000 PhD-qualified scientists.
The area now covered by the city was originally the site of a handful of Māori villages (kāinga), including Pukete, Miropiko and Kirikiriroa ("long stretch of gravel'), from which the city takes its Māori name. Local Māori were the target of raids by Ngāpuhi during the Musket Wars, and several pā sites from this period can still be found beside the Waikato River.In December 2011 several rua or food storage pits were found near the Waikato River bank, close to the Waikato museum. Magistrate Gorst, estimated that Kirikiriroa had a population of about 78 before the Waikato Kingitanga wars of 1863–64. The government estimated the Waikato area had a Maori population of 3,400 at the same time. By the time British settlers arrived after 1863, most of these villages had been abandoned as the inhabitants were away fighting with the Kingitanga rebels further west in the battlefields of the upper Waipa river. Missionaries arrived in the area in the 1830s. At the end of the Waikato Campaign in the New Zealand wars the four regiments of the Waikato Militia were settled as a peace-keeping force across the region. The 1st Regiment was at Tauranga, the 2nd at Pirongia, the 3rd at Cambridge and the 4th at Kirikiriroa. The settlement was founded on 24 August 1864 and named by Colonel William Moule after Captain John Fane Charles Hamilton, the popular Scottish commander of HMS Esk, who was killed in the battle of Gate Pā, Tauranga. Many of the soldier/settlers who intended to farm after the 1863 war, walked off their land in 1868 disgusted at the poor quality of the land. Much of the land was swampy or under water. In 1868 Hamilton's population, which was about 1,000 in 1864, dropped to 300 as farmers left.
The road from Auckland reached Hamilton in 1867 and the railway in December 1877. That same month, the towns of Hamilton West and Hamilton East merged under a single borough council. The first traffic bridge between Hamilton West and Hamilton East, known as the Union Bridge, opened in 1879. It was replaced by the Victoria Bridge in 1910.
The first railway bridge, the Claudelands Bridge, was opened in 1884. It was converted to a road traffic bridge in 1965. Hamilton reached 1,000 people in 1900, and the town of Frankton merged with the Hamilton Borough in 1917. Between 1912 and 1936, Hamilton expanded with new land in Claudelands (1912), Maeroa (1925), and Richmond – modern day Waikato Hospital and northern Melville (1936). Hamilton was proclaimed a city in 1945.
The city is near the southernmost navigable reach (by the settlers steam boats) of the Waikato River, amidst New Zealand's richest and now fertile agricultural land that was once largely Raupo and Kahikatea swamp Beale Cottage is an 1872 listed building in Hamilton East.
From 1985 MV Waipa Delta provided excursions along the river through the town centre. In 2009 Waipa Delta was moved to provide trips on Waitemata Harbour in Auckland, but replaced by a smaller boat. That too ceased operation and the pontoon at Parana Park was removed in 2013. The Delta moved to Taupo in 2012.
On 10 March 2013 a statue was erected in honour of Captain John Charles Fane Hamilton, the man whom the city is named after.
Hamilton's population growth has been rapid in recent decades –
1931 15,400 
1936 16,150 
1945 21,982 
1951 29,838