Before settlers reached the coasts of California, the Newport area and surrounding areas were very prominent Indian lands. Indian shells and relics can still be found today scattered throughout the area. Though, throughout the 1800s, settlers began to settle the area due to the availability of land. The State of California sold acre-plots of land for $1 a piece in the Newport area. Anglo-American inhabitation in the area grew substantially following the events of 1870 when a 105-ton steamer named The Vaquero, captained by Captain Samuel S. Dunnells (against warnings posted by surveyors) safely steered through the lower and upper bay of Newport where it unloaded its cargo. James Irvine, after hearing the astonishing news, quickly traveled from his home in San Francisco to the San Joaquin Ranch. Meeting in Irvine's ranch house near current day UC Irvine with his brother, Robert Irvine, and friend James McFadden, they all agreed that the newly found port should be named simply, "Newport" thus where Newport Beach gets its name. James McFadden built a long McFadden Wharf in 1888.
Beachgoers have flocked to Newport Beach since the Pacific Electric Railway started bringing them in 1905. Attractions include the city beaches from the Santa Ana River to the tip of the Balboa Peninsula, Corona del Mar State Beach, and the beaches at Crystal Cove State Park. Newport Beach is known for good surfing, especially between Newport Pier and the Santa Ana River. At the tip of the Balboa Peninsula, The Wedge offers world-class bodyboarding and bodysurfing. Newport Pier and Balboa Pier draw fishermen and sightseers. A boardwalk runs 2.9 miles (4.7 km) from 36th Street in West Newport, past Newport Pier and Balboa Pier, to between E and F Streets on the Balboa Peninsula for both pedestrians and bikers.
In 1905, city development increased when Pacific Electric Railway established a southern terminus in Newport connecting the beach with downtown Los Angeles. In 1906 (with a population of 206 citizens), the scattered settlements were incorporated as the City of Newport Beach.
The City of Newport Beach was incorporated on September 1, 1906 and adopted its charter on January 7, 1955. The city implements a council–manager form of government, directed by a seven-member council who reside in specific geographic districts, but are elected at-large. Council elections take place in even-numbered years, and councilmembers serve four-year terms. The mayor is chosen annually by the city council.
The annual Christmas Boat Parade started in 1908. The New York Times has called it, "One of the top ten holiday happenings in the nation".
Settlements filled in on the Peninsula, West Newport, Newport Island, Balboa Island and Lido Isle. In 1923 Corona del Mar was annexed and in 2002 Newport Coast, East Santa Ana Heights and San Joaquin Hills, were annexed. In 2008, after a long battle with the city of Costa Mesa, Newport Beach annexed West Santa Ana Heights.
In 1927 a home was built at the mouth of the entrance of Newport Harbor that came to be known as the China House of China Cove. The home was built using the traditional Chinese architecture. It was a landmark in the Newport Beach Harbor until it was demolished in the 1980s. Some of the original roof can be seen on a home located in the China Cove.
Until 1927, the governing body of the City was known as a Board of Trustees with a President as its head. An act of the Legislature in 1927 changed the Board to City Council with a Mayor as the head.
In the seven presidential elections from 1964-1988, the Republican candidate exceeded 70% of the vote in Newport Beach in all seven elections. In 2016, even as Donald Trump became the first GOP presidential candidate to lose Orange County since Alf Landon in 1936, Trump won Newport Beach by a margin of 14 points.
Upper Newport Bay is an estuary that was formed by a prehistoric flow of the Santa Ana River. Today it is fed by a small stream from San Diego Creek. Much of Upper Newport Bay is a protected natural area known as the Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve, established in 1975.
Newport Beach has also supported Republicans for Governor. In 2018, even as he became the first Republican gubernatorial nominee in 40 years to lose Orange County, John Cox carried Newport Beach by a margin of nearly 20 points. In 2006, 1966, and 1962, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ronald Reagan, and Richard Nixon each carried the city with over 80% of the vote. Nixon of whom did so despite losing his gubernatorial bid.
The Marine Division of the NBFD is responsible for lifeguarding the nearly 10 million annual visitors to Newport Beach's 6.2 miles (10.0 km) of ocean and 2.5 miles (4.0 km) of bay beaches. In 2013 alone the marine division performed 3,811 water rescues. Newport Beach Lifeguards are recognized as the top agency in the nation, considering their relatively small size. They are also recognized as an advanced agency by the United States Lifesaving Association.
The north end of the Newport Harbor channels around Lido Island have a number of small business centers and were at one time used by the fishing fleets as their home. On the North East side of the channel, the Lido Marina Village now provides the local port to many "Newport Party Boats" as well as small merchants and local restaurants. It also hosts the area boat show each year as well as an organic "Farmers Market" Sundays, in addition to being the port for the local Gondola Company. In 2014, the center was closed for a renovation.
As of February 2020, the California Secretary of State reported that Newport Beach had 57,408 registered voters; of those, 14,097 (24.56% vs. 35.63% in Orange County) are registered Democrats, 27,472 (47.85% vs. 34.16% in Orange County) are registered Republicans, 12,996 (22.64% vs. 25.29% in Orange County) have stated no political party preference, and 2,843 (4.95% vs. 4.92% in Orange County) are registered with a third party. According to a March 2018 report by the Sacramento Bee, Newport Beach has the second highest percentage of conservative voters among large cities in California.