Professional phagocytes have a vast and sophisticated arsenal of microbicidal features. They are capable of ingesting and destroying invading organisms, and can present microbial antigens on their surface, eliciting acquired immune responses. To survive this hostile response, certain bacterial species have developed evasive strategies that often involve the secretion of effectors to co-opt the cellular machinery of the host. In this Review, we present an overview of the antimicrobial defences of the host cell, with emphasis on macrophages, for which phagocytosis has been studied most extensively. In addition, using Mycobacterium tuberculosis, Listeria monocytogenes, Legionella pneumophila and Coxiella burnetii as examples, we describe some of the evasive strategies used by bacteria.