Classical cadherin transmembrane cell-cell adhesion proteins play essential roles in tissue morphogenesis and in mediating tissue integrity. Cadherin ectodomains from opposing cells interact to form load-bearing trans dimers that mechanically couple cells. Cell-cell adhesion is believed to be strengthened by cis clustering of cadherins on the same cell surface. This review summarizes biophysical studies of the structure, interaction kinetics and biomechanics of classical cadherin ectodomains. We first discuss the structure and equilibrium binding kinetics of classical cadherin trans and cis dimers. We then discuss how mechanical stimuli alters the kinetics of cadherin interaction and tunes adhesion. Finally, we highlight open questions on the role of mechanical forces in influencing cadherin structure, function and organization on the cell surface.