The European X-ray free-electron laser (XFEL) facility, under construction in the Hamburg region, will provide high-peak brilliance (greater than 10(33) photons s(-1) mm(-2) mrad(-2) per 0.1% BW), ultrashort pulses (approx. 10 fs) of X-rays, with a high repetition rate (up to 27 000 pulses s(-1)) from 2016 onwards. The main features of this exceptional X-ray source, and the instrumentation developments necessary to exploit them fully, for application to a variety of scientific disciplines, are briefly summarized. In the case of structural biology, that has a central role in the scientific case of this new facility, the instruments and ancillary laboratories that are being planned and built within the baseline programme of the European XFEL and by consortia of users are also discussed. It is expected that the unique features of the source and the advanced features of the instrumentation will allow operation modes with more efficient use of sample materials, faster acquisition times, and conditions better approaching feasibility of single molecule imaging.