Dendritic cells (DC) are professional antigen-presenting cells with a unique T-cell stimulatory aptitude that play a crucial role in the instruction of adaptive immune responses upon infection. By controlling the initiation of a diverse set of effector functions, which are suitable for the elimination of a wide range of pathogens, DCs form the pivotal link between the innate and the adaptive immune system. The innate pattern recognition pathways that trigger DC activation are central for skewing of the adaptive immune responses that are subsequently induced. Thus innate activation not only precedes adaptive immune activation, it also controls it and tailors the effector functions to the requirements of the infection. The adaptive immune response has to match the nature of the infection, but this does not only concern the type of pathogen, it is also affected by the localization of the infection. Tissue homeostasis has to be ensured and thus tissue-derived environmental factors influence the functional activity of activated DCs and thereby contribute to shaping of the immune response. Adaptive immune responses are vital for the elimination of pathogens, have the potential to attack tumor cells and play a detrimental role during transplant rejection and in a variety of autoimmune diseases. Better understanding of the mechanisms that control the induction of different T-cell effector functions will enable the development of strategies to manipulate the immune system in the context of vaccination, tumor immunotherapy, transplantation and autoimmunity.