Nanoscale inorganic materials such as quantum dots (0-dimensional) and one-dimensional (1D) structures, such as nanowires, nanobelts and nanotubes, have gained tremendous attention within the last decade. Among the huge variety of 1D nanostructures, semiconducting nanowires have gained particular interest due to their potential applications in optoelectronic and electronic devices. Despite the huge efforts to control and understand the growth mechanisms underlying the formation of these highly anisotropic structures, some fundamental phenomena are still not well understood. For example, high aspect-ratio semiconductors exhibit unexpected growth phenomena, e.g. diameter-dependent and temperature-dependent growth directions, and unusual high doping levels or compositions, which are not known for their macroscopic crystals or thin-film counterparts. This article reviews viable synthetic approaches for growing high aspect-ratio semiconductors from bottom-up techniques, such as crystal structure governed nucleation, metal-promoted vapour phase and solution growth, formation in non-metal seeded gasphase processes, structure directing templates and electrospinning. In particular new experimental findings and theoretical models relating to the frequently applied vapour–liquid–solid (VLS) growth are highlighted. In addition, the top-down application of controlled chemical etching, using novel masking techniques, is described as a viable approach for generating certain 1D structures. The review highlights the controlled synthesis of semiconducting nanostructures and heterostructures of silicon, germanium, gallium nitride, gallium arsenide, cadmium sulphide, zinc oxide and tin oxide. The alignment of 1D nanostructures will be reviewed briefly. Whilst specific and reliable contact procedures are still a major challenge for the integration of 1D nanostructures as active building blocks, this issue will not be the focus of this paper. However, the promising applications of 1D semiconductors will be highlighted, particularly with reference to surface dependent electronic transduction (gas and biological sensors), energy generation (nanomechanical and photovoltaic) devices, energy storage (lithium storage in battery anodes) as well as nanowire photonics.