Internal ribosome entry site (IRES) elements were first identified about 20 years ago within the 5' untranslated region of picornavirus RNAs. They direct a cap-independent mechanism of translation initiation on the viral RNA. Within the picornavirus family it is now known that there are four classes of IRES element which vary in size (450-270nt), they also have different, complex, secondary structures and distinct requirements for cellular proteins to allow them to function. This review describes the features of each class of picornavirus IRES element but focuses on the characteristics of the most recently described group, initially identified within the porcine teschovirus-1 RNA, which has strong similarities to the IRES elements from within the genomes of hepatitis C virus and the pestiviruses which are members of the flavivirus family. The selection of the initiation codon by these distinct IRES elements is also discussed.