The town comes from the local Slavic tribe of the Smolyani, probably cognate to the Slavic word smola ("resin").
According to archaeological evidence, the area around Smolyan was first settled in the 2nd-1st millennium BC. In the Middle Ages it acquired its name from the Slavic tribe, the Smolyani, who settled in the region in the 7th century. During the Middle Ages, it was ruled by the Part of the Byzantine and Bulgarian Empires. For a while during the 14th century it came under the control of the Bulgarian feudal lord Momchil, alongside the whole Rhodope mountains, before eventually being subjugated by the Ottoman Empire. Smolyan remained under Ottoman rule for five centuries, a township of the Ottoman Sanjak of Gümülcine in the Adrianople Vilayet between 1867 and 1912. It was known in Ottoman Turkish as Paşmaklı or Ahiçelebi.
The area was liberated by the 21st Sredna Gora Regiment led by Vladimir Serafimov in 1912, during the First Balkan War. The modern town of Smolyan was formed by the merger of three existing villages — Ustovo, Raykovo and Ezerovo — in 1960.
The population of Smolyan just after World War II was about 5,000. Since then it started growing decade by decade, mostly because of the migrants from the rural areas and the surrounding smaller towns, reaching its peak in the beginning of the 1990s, exceeding 34,000.
According to the latest 2011 census data, the individuals declared their ethnic identity were distributed as follows:Bulgarians: 25,045 (97.0%)
Gypsies: 258 (1.0%)
Turks: 153 (0.6%)
Others: 120 (0.5%)
Indefinable: 248 (1.0%)
Undeclared: 4,818 (15.7%)
In Smolyan Municipality 32708 declared as Bulgarians, 301 as Gypsies and 170 as Turks and 9,000 did not declare their ethnic group.
In 1912, Aha Celebi said that 8,252 families already live, including 2,815 of Bulgarians Exarchists, 140 of Bulgarians Patriarchists and 5,297 of Bulgarian Muslims or Pomaks. (Lyubomir Miletich, "The Destruction of Thracian Bulgarians in 1913") In 1912, in the town live 320 families of Bulgarians Muslims, 80 of Bulgarians Exarchists and 40 Patriarchists. In Ustuvo live 420 families Bulgarians Exarchists, in Raykovo - a total of 700 families of Bulgarians Exarchists, 100 of Bulgarians Patriarchists и 70 of Bulgarian Muslims. Currently the religion of the vast majority is the Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the rest are mostly the Muslim minority.
Due to its suitable location on top of Mount Rozhen, the Bulgarian National Astronomical Observatory is located nearby, with a planetarium in operation in the town. There is one theatre, the Rhodope Drama Theatre, and a gathering of theatre practitioners and scholars known as The Rhodopi International Theatre Laboratory is held every summer. There is also a regional historical museum founded in 1935.
Smolyan has an elite division football team, PFC Rodopa Smolyan, that had been playing in the A Professional Football Group between 2003-2007.
The largest church in southern Bulgaria, the Cathedral of Saint Vissarion of Smolyan, was inaugurated in the city in July 2006.
Smolyan is also the seat of Smolyan municipality (part of Smolyan Province), which includes the following 79 villages:
Smolyan Point on Livingston Island in the South Shetland Islands, Antarctica is named after Smolyan.Victor Houteff, founder of the Davidian branch, an offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.