Mounting evidence supports the presence of biologically relevant G-quadruplexes in single-cell organisms, but the existence of endogenous G-quadruplex structures in mammalian cells remains highly controversial. This is due, in part, to the common misconception that DNA and RNA molecules are passive information carriers with relatively little structural or functional complexity. For those working in the field, however, the lack of available tools for characterizing DNA structures in vivo remains a major limitation to addressing fundamental questions about structure–function relationships of nucleic acids. In this review, we present progress towards the direct detection of G-quadruplex structures by using small molecules and modified oligonucleotides as fluorescent probes. While most development has focused on cell-permeable probes that selectively bind to G-quadruplex structures with high affinity, these same probes can induce G-quadruplex folding, thereby making the native conformation of the DNA or RNA molecule (i.e., in the absence of probe) uncertain. For this reason, modified oligonucleotides and fluorescent base analogues that serve as “internal” fluorescent probes are presented as an orthogonal means for detecting conformational changes, without necessarily perturbing the equilibria between G-quadruplex, single-stranded, and duplex DNA. The major challenges and motivation for the development of fluorescent probes for G-quadruplex structures are presented, along with a summary of the key photophysical, biophysical, and biological properties of reported examples.