The Jinan area was split between the Qi and Lu states during the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period. It was during this time that the the Great Wall of Qi was built to defend the state of Qi from the kingdom of Chu. The wall began in Jinan and ended at Qingdao: sections are still open to tourists.

The name Jinan dates to the Han Dynasty, when Jinan Shire was formed. It was during this period that the body of the last King of Jibei was entombed in a chamber in Shuangru Mountain alongside over 2000 relics many of which were carved from jade including swords, masks and pillows, discovered when the site was excavated in the mid 1990s. Around 500 AD Buddhism was introduced to the area. Temples such as the Lingyan Temple recall this historic development. The first of the delicate statues on Thousand Buddha Mountain (Qianfo Shan) were also carved during this time, and the area has been an important Buddhist site ever since.

During the Song Dynasty, a long series of wars saw Jinan lost to Jurchen invaders, though it retained much of its cultural importance. The evolution of Jinan culture survived into the Mongolian occupation too, and Jinan was officially made capital of Shandong province during the Ming and Qing Dynasties.

In 1904, the Jinan-Qingdao railway was completed, which had an important influence on the city's development: a German concession was granted near the railway station. German, English and Japanese colonial traders set up consulates, foreign exchanges, schools and hospitals. At this point, the city became a real hub for communications in the area and in 1929 it was officially named Jinan city by the government of the Republic of China.

One of Jinan's most famous residents was Li Qingzhao, one of the greatest Chinese poets, whose works on love and loss are commemorated in Li Qingzhao Memorial Hall at the site of her former home.

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