The mammalian innate immune response provides a barrier against invading pathogens. Innate immune mechanisms are used by the host to respond to a range of bacterial pathogens in an acute and conserved fashion. Host cells express pattern recognition receptors that sense pathogen-associated molecular patterns. After detection, an arsenal of antimicrobial mechanisms is deployed to kill bacteria in infected cells. Innate immunity also stimulates antigen-specific responses mediated by the adaptive immune system. In response, pathogens manipulate host defence mechanisms to survive and eventually replicate. This Review focuses on the control of host innate immune responses by pathogenic intracellular bacteria.