Studies performed in the liver in the 1960s led to the identification of lysosomes and the discovery of autophagy, the process by which intracellular proteins and organelles are degraded in lysosomes. Early studies in hepatocytes also uncovered how nutritional status regulates autophagy and how various circulating hormones modulate the activity of this catabolic process in the liver. The intensive characterization of hepatic autophagy over the years has revealed that lysosome-mediated degradation is important not only for maintaining liver homeostasis in normal physiological conditions, but also for an adequate response of this organ to stressors such as proteotoxicity, metabolic dysregulation, infection and carcinogenesis. Autophagic malfunction has also been implicated in the pathogenesis of common liver diseases, suggesting that chemical manipulation of this process might hold potential therapeutic value. In this Review--intended as an introduction to the topic of hepatic autophagy for clinical scientists--we describe the different types of hepatic autophagy, their role in maintaining homeostasis in a healthy liver and the contribution of autophagic malfunction to liver disease.