Telomeres play important roles in maintaining the stability of linear chromosomes. Telomere maintenance involves dynamic actions of multiple proteins interacting with long repetitive sequences and complex dynamic DNA structures, such as G-quadruplexes, T-loops and t-circles. Given the heterogeneity and complexity of telomeres, single-molecule approaches are essential to fully understand the structure–function relationships that govern telomere maintenance. In this review, we present a brief overview of the principles of single-molecule imaging and manipulation techniques. We then highlight results obtained from applying these single-molecule techniques for studying structure, dynamics and functions of G-quadruplexes, telomerase, and shelterin proteins.