Many aspects of host interactions with microbes can only be studied in the context of a whole organism. The zebrafish as a model organism has shown to be highly successful for studies of infection biology and the interactions of commensal microbiota with their hosts. Zebrafish are transparent during embryo and larval development and these early life stages are optimally suited for high-resolution imaging of host–microbe interactions in a vertebrate organism. This is facilitated by the development of a variety of fluorescent reporter lines that mark different immune cell types or subcellular compartments where pathogens reside. The zebrafish is an excellent vertebrate model for forward genetic screening and efficient tools for gene knock-down and targeted mutagenesis add further to the strength of this model organism. The use of zebrafish larvae for studying microbial infections has recently led to important new insights in host defence mechanisms, which are highlighted in this review focused on bacterial pathogens. Considering the highly conserved nature of the processes involved, including innate immune recognition, immunometabolism and autophagy, it is to be expected that these recent findings in zebrafish will have great translational value for biomedical applications.