Context. Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is the target of the European Space Agency Rosetta spacecraft rendez-vous mission. Detailed physical characteristation of the comet before arrival is important for mission planning as well as providing a test bed for ground-based observing and data-analysis methods. Aims. To conduct a long-term observational programme to characterize the physical properties of the nucleus of the comet, via ground-based optical photometry, and to combine our new data with all available nucleus data from the literature. Methods. We applied aperture photometry techniques on our imaging data and combined the extracted rotational lightcurves with data from the literature. Optical lightcurve inversion techniques were applied to constrain the spin state of the nucleus and its broad shape. We performed a detailed surface thermal analysis with the shape model and optical photometry by incorporating both into the new Advanced Thermophysical Model (ATPM), along with all available Spitzer 8–24 μm thermal-IR flux measurements from the literature. Results. A convex triangular-facet shape model was determined with axial ratios b/a = 1.239 and c/a = 0.819. These values can vary by as much as 7% in each axis and still result in a statistically significant fit to the observational data. Our best spin state solution has Psid = 12.76137 ± 0.00006 h, and a rotational pole orientated at Ecliptic coordinates λ = 78◦(±10◦), β = +58◦(±10◦). The nucleus phase darkening behaviour was measured and best characterized using the IAU HG system. Best fit parameters are: G = 0.11 ± 0.12 and HR(1,1,0) = 15.31 ± 0.07. Our shape model combined with the ATPM can satisfactorily reconcile all optical and thermal-IR data, with the fit to the Spitzer 24 μm data taken in February 2004 being exceptionally good. We derive a range of mutually-consistent physical parameters for each thermal-IR data set, including effective radius, geometric albedo, surface thermal inertia and roughness fraction. Conclusions. The overall nucleus dimensions are well constrained and strongly imply a broad nucleus shape more akin to comet 9P/Tempel 1, rather than the highly elongated or “bi-lobed” nuclei seen for comets 103P/Hartley 2 or 8P/Tuttle. The derived low thermal inertia of <15 J m−2 K−1 s−1/2 is comparable with that measured for other comets scaled to similar heliocentric distances, and implies a surface regolith finer than lunar surface material.