The attachment strategy based on catecholic chemistry has been arousing renewed interest since the work on polymerized catecholic amine (polydopamine) (Messersmith et al., Science, 2007, 318, 426) was published. Catechols and their derived compounds can self-assemble on various inorganic and organic materials, including noble metals, metals, metal oxides, mica, silica, ceramics and even polymers. It opens a new route to the modification of various substrates and the preparation of functional composite materials by simple chemistry. However, there is still not a full review so far about the attachment chemistry despite the dramatically increasing number of publications. This critical review describes the state-of-the-art research in the area: the design and synthesis of catecholic molecules, their adsorption mechanisms and the stability of assemblies in solution, and their applications etc. Some perspectives on future development are raised (195 references).