The cellular environment impacts a myriad of cellular functions by providing signals that can modulate cell phenotype and function. Physical cues such as topography, roughness, gradients, and elasticity are of particular importance. Thus, synthetic substrates can be potentially useful tools for exploring the influence of the aforementioned physical properties on cellular function. Many micro- and nanofabrication processes have been employed to control substrate characteristics in both 2D and 3D environments. This review highlights strategies for modulating the physical properties of surfaces, the influence of these changes on cell responses, and the promise and limitations of these surfaces in in-vitro settings. While both hard and soft materials are discussed, emphasis is placed on soft substrates. Moreover, methods for creating synthetic substrates for cell studies, substrate properties, and impact of substrate properties on cell behavior are the main focus of this review.