The district was established in 1972 by merging the former districts of Bayreuth and Pegnitz, adding the town Gefrees of the former district of Münchberg and the town of Speichersdorf of the former district of Kemnath.
The sources of the White Main and the Red Main are both located in the district. The Red Main rises in the very south in the hills of the Frankish Alb, the White Main has its source in the Fichtelgebirge mountains in the east. Both rivers run to the northwest, but do not meet within the district's borders.
The valley of the Red Main separates the two major geographical regions of the district from each other: the hilly countryside of the Frankish Alb and the much higher Fichtelgebirge.