Approximately 2% of the worldwide population is infected with hepatitis C virus (HCV), the major causative agent of non-A, non-B hepatitis. Although substantial progress has been made in developing tools to dissect the viral life cycle, most in vitro studies rely on hepatoma cell lines, which are functionally disparate from the natural in vivo target of the virus – hepatocytes. To gain insights into virus–host interactions, there is a need for HCV-model systems that more closely mimic the physiological environment of the liver. Here, we discuss recent advances in culture and detection systems that facilitate the study of HCV in primary cells. Use of these new models may help bridge the gap between in vitro studies and clinical research.