Franeker was founded around 800 as a Carolingian stronghold. The name probably derives from Froon-acker, meaning "country of the king"; the oldest street in the city is still called Froonacker. Beginning around the 11th century, Franeker developed into the administrative center Westergoa.
Franeker received city rights in 1374. In the 15th century, Albert, Duke of Saxony established himself in Franeker. The city appeared for a time to be growing into the primary city of Friesland, but was eventually overshadowed in this role by Leeuwarden.
During the period of the Dutch Revolt, the town sided early on with William I.
From 1585 to 1811, the city housed the University of Franeker, which was the second Protestant university in the Netherlands. It was closed shortly after the incorporation of the Kingdom of Holland into the French Empire. A successor institution, the Rijksatheneum, was founded in 1815, but in 1847 it, too, closed.
Before 1984, the city was a municipality of its own before it became part of Franekeradeel.
Franeker is located at 53°12′N 5°32′E / 53.200°N 5.533°E / 53.200; 5.533 in the municipality of Franekeradeel in the west of the province of Friesland in the north of the Netherlands. It is east of the city of Harlingen and about 20 km (12 mi) west of the provincial capital Leeuwarden. It is situated on the Van Harinxma Canal.
As of 1 January 2014, the city of Franeker had a population of 12,781.
The Eisinga Planetarium and the Museum Martena are museums located in the city. The Planetarium is an orrery built by a local wool carder to explain a conjunction of the planets and to help mitigate local fears of what would happen during the planets' alignment. Built in Eisinga's own living room, it is one of the oldest operating orreries in the world. The Museum Martena, opened in 2006, is housed in a manor house built in 1498 and is devoted to the history of the city and the region.
The windmill Arkens is a hollow post mill which has been restored. It originally stood in Arkens and was moved in 1972. It is the only windmill in the Netherlands equipped with Vlinderwieken (English: Butterfly sails).
Since 1852 Franeker is the home of the PC (nl). the most important tournament in Frisian handball.
Franeker is a regular host of the Frisian draughts competitions.
Being one of the Frisian cities, Franeker is also on the route of the 200 kilometres (120 mi) Elfstedentocht (Eleven-cities Tour), an endurance skating event held at irregular intervals depending on weather conditions.
In August 2014, Jeffrey Peereboom, a student from Franeker, introduced an idea of the speed limits for bicycles in order to make biking in the city safer.
Franeker railway station is a station on the NS line between Leeuwarden and Harlingen. It also had a station on the North Friesland Railway which was the terminus of a branch from Tzummarum. The line opened in October 1903 and closed in October 1933. The station building survives.