Modern medicine is facing the spread of biofilm-related infections. Bacterial biofilms are difficult to detect in routine diagnostics and are inherently tolerant to host defenses and antibiotic therapies. In addition, biofilms facilitate the spread of antibiotic resistance by promoting horizontal gene transfer. We review current concepts of biofilm tolerance with special emphasis on the role of the biofilm matrix and the physiology of biofilm-embedded cells. The heterogeneity in metabolic and reproductive activity within a biofilm correlates with a non-uniform susceptibility of enclosed bacteria. Recent studies have documented similar heterogeneity in planktonic cultures. Nutritional starvation and high cell density, two key characteristics of biofilm physiology, also mediate antimicrobial tolerance in stationary-phase planktonic cultures. Advances in characterizing the role of stress response genes, quorum sensing and phase variation in stationary-phase planktonic cultures have shed new light on tolerance mechanisms within biofilm communities.