More than 2000 years ago this region was part of Ashoka’s great Buddhist empire, remnants of which can be found in the ruins at the pilgrimage centre of Sarnath near Varanasi. Muslim raids from the northwest began in the 11th century, and by the 16th century the region was part of the Mughal empire, with its capital in Agra, then Delhi and, for a brief time, Fatehpur Sikri.

Following the decline of the Mughal empire, Persians stepped in briefly before the Nawabs of Avadh rose to prominence in the central part of the region, notably around the current capital of Lucknow. The Nawabs were responsible for turning Lucknow into a flourishing centre for the arts, culture and culinary delights, which continues to this day. But their empire came to a dramatic end when the British East India Company deposed the last nawab, triggering the First War of Independence (Indian Uprising) in 1857. During the 147-day Siege of Lucknow, British Chief Commissioner Sir Henry Lawrence was killed defending the British Residency, which remains in remarkable preservation in Lucknow.

Agra was later merged with Avadh and the state became known as United Province. It was renamed Uttar Pradesh after independence and has since been the most dominant state in Indian politics, producing half of the country’s prime ministers, most of them from Prayagraj (Allahabad), the locus of the Nehru/Gandhi dynasty.

The people of UP don't seem to have benefited much from this, though, as poor governance, a high birth rate and low literacy have held back the state's economic progress. A long list of bad news stories seem to pour out of the state, from train accidents and communal violence to attacks by beef vigilantes and violence against local women, but foreign travellers (including women) seldom experience safety issues while visiting the state, just the occasional guide hassle and attempts at a scam.

In 2000, the mountainous northwestern part of the state was carved off to create the new state of Uttaranchal, now called Uttarakhand.