In eukaryotes, all DNA-templated reactions occur in the context of chromatin. Nucleosome packaging inherently restricts DNA accessibility for regulatory proteins but also provides an opportunity to regulate DNA-based processes through modulating nucleosome positions and local chromatin structure. Recent advances in genome-scale methods are yielding increasingly detailed profiles of the genomic distribution of nucleosomes, their modifications and their modifiers. The picture now emerging is one in which the dynamic control of genome accessibility is governed by contributions from DNA sequence, ATP-dependent chromatin remodelling and nucleosome modifications. Here we discuss the interplay of these processes by reviewing our current understanding of how chromatin access contributes to the regulation of transcription, replication and repair.