Cellular development, morphology and function are governed by precise patterns of gene expression. These are established by the coordinated action of genomic regulatory elements known as enhancers or cis-regulatory modules. More than 30 years after the initial discovery of enhancers, many of their properties have been elucidated; however, despite major efforts, we only have an incomplete picture of enhancers in animal genomes. In this Review, we discuss how properties of enhancer sequences and chromatin are used to predict enhancers in genome-wide studies. We also cover recently developed high-throughput methods that allow the direct testing and identification of enhancers on the basis of their activity. Finally, we discuss recent technological advances and current challenges in the field of regulatory genomics.