This critical review focuses on the development of photochromic compounds as sensors for cations, anions, and biologically important molecules. The review commences with a brief description of photochromism and the strategies to exploit photochromic molecular switches’ properties for sensing application. This is followed by a summary of photoswitchable receptors emerged to date and classified according to the photochromic structure they are based on. These include azobenzenes, fulgides, dithienylethenes, dihydroindolizines, chromenes and spiropyrans. © 2012 The Royal Society of Chemistry.