Histones are fundamental structural components of chromatin. Eukaryotic DNA is wound around an octamer of the core histones H2A, H2B, H3, and H4. Binding of linker histone H1 promotes higher order chromatin organization. In addition to their structural role, histones impact chromatin function and dynamics by, e.g., post-translational histone modifications or the presence of specific histone variants. Histone variants exhibit differential expression timings (DNA replication-independent) and mRNA characteristics compared to canonical histones. Replacement of canonical histones with histone variants can affect nucleosome stability and help to create functionally distinct chromatin domains. In line with this, several histone variants have been implicated in the regulation of cellular processes such as DNA repair and transcriptional activity. In this review, we focus on recent progress in the study of core histone variants H2A.X, H2A.Z, macroH2A, H3.3, and CENP-A, as well as linker histone H1 variants, their functions and their links to development and disease.