The village of Riva San Vitale has ancient roots dating back over a thousand years. It is said to have been founded by the Ligurians who, in a way, could be considered the most remote ancestors of the people of Riva. The Ligurians were followed by the Etruscans, who were in turn driven out by the Gauls, who occupied the region and gave the village its first known name: Primo Subino.

This era was followed by Roman rule and the introduction of Christianity to the region, a period that is well documented due to the remains of the settlement and the number of finds, the best known being the Roman Baptistery, Switzerland's most important Roman and Paleochristian monument. Back then, Riva San Vitale was the commercial port of Como on Lake Ceresio, an important trading hub through which goods transited on their way to the San Gottardo, Lucomagno and San Bernardino passes. It was during the Roman Empire that the village's old name of Primo Subino was replaced by "Rippa Sancti Vitalis," which, over the centuries, was renamed as Riva San Vitale, the name that eventually appeared in documents.

Subsequent to the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Riva San Vitale was invaded in the Middle Ages by the Lombards, who gave Monte San Giorgio its name. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, owing to the confusion brought about by the frequent battles and the different influences on the area, mainly because of the French Revolution, the Mendrisiotto region entered a period of profound discontent.

Of all the villages, it was Riva San Vitale that most yearned to break away from Lugano and become part of the Cisalpine Republic. On February 23, 1798, representatives of the villages comprising the Parish of Riva San Vitale came together, a gathering that was to lead to the establishment of the independent, albeit short-lived, Republic of Riva San Vitale. On March 16, 1798, the end of the Republic was proclaimed.

In 1803, Riva San Vitale, like other Ticino Municipalities, became part of the Canton of Ticino. The first President of the Grand Council of the new Canton of Ticino was the Archpriest of Riva San Vitale at the time, don Gottardo Zurini.