Graphene is very popular because of its many fascinating properties, but its lack of an electronic bandgap has stimulated the search for 2D materials with semiconducting character. Transition metal dichalcogenides (TMDCs), which are semiconductors of the type MX2, where M is a transition metal atom (such as Mo or W) and X is a chalcogen atom (such as S, Se or Te), provide a promising alternative. Because of its robustness, MoS2 is the most studied material in this family. TMDCs exhibit a unique combination of atomic-scale thickness, direct bandgap, strong spin-orbit coupling and favourable electronic and mechanical properties, which make them interesting for fundamental studies and for applications in high-end electronics, spintronics, optoelectronics, energy harvesting, flexible electronics, DNA sequencing and personalized medicine. In this Review, the methods used to synthesize TMDCs are examined and their properties are discussed, with particular attention to their charge density wave, superconductive and topological phases. The use of TMCDs in nanoelectronic devices is also explored, along with strategies to improve charge carrier mobility, high frequency operation and the use of strain engineering to tailor their properties.