Lithium-ion batteries have had a profound impact on our daily life, but inherent limitations make it difficult for Li-ion chemistries to meet the growing demands for portable electronics, electric vehicles and grid-scale energy storage. Therefore, chemistries beyond Li-ion are currently being investigated and need to be made viable for commercial applications. The use of metallic Li is one of the most favoured choices for next-generation Li batteries, especially Li–S and Li–air systems. After falling into oblivion for several decades because of safety concerns, metallic Li is now ready for a revival, thanks to the development of investigative tools and nanotechnology-based solutions. In this Review, we first summarize the current understanding on Li anodes, then highlight the recent key progress in materials design and advanced characterization techniques, and finally discuss the opportunities and possible directions for future development of Li anodes in applications.