Maslinic acid is found in various natural sources, most notably in pomace olive oil, and exerts pro-apoptotic activities in various cancer cells in vitro. In the present study, DU145 human prostate cancer cells were cultured with 0–25 μm-maslinic acid to examine the effects of maslinic acid on the metastatic capacity of prostate cancer cells. Maslinic acid significantly (P <0·05) inhibited the basal and epidermal growth factor (EGF)-induced migration (27–64 %), invasion (23–60 %) and adhesion (8–40 %) of DU145 cells. Maslinic acid significantly (P <0·05) down-regulated both basal and EGF-stimulated secretion of matrix metalloproteinase (MMP)-9 (25–67 %), MMP-2 (50–86 %), urokinase-type plasminogen activator (uPA, about 100 %), vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF, 98–100 %) and tissue inhibitors of metalloproteinases (TIMP)-1, as well as expression of uPA receptor (uPAR), intercellular adhesion molecules (22–33 %), vascular cell adhesion molecules (23–46 %) and E-cadherin, whereas it increased TIMP-2 secretion. Maslinic acid dramatically reduced the levels of hypoxia-inducible factor-1α (HIF-1α) protein and mRNA; the reduction was accompanied by reduced stability, nuclear levels and transcriptional activity of HIF-1α. The levels of phospho-Akt and phospho-extracellular signal-related kinase (ERK) were reduced in cells treated with maslinic acid, and the phosphoinositide 3-kinase inhibitor LY294002 and the mitogen-activated protein kinase kinase inhibitor PD98059 reduced HIF-1α levels and VEGF secretion. The results show that maslinic acid markedly inhibited the migration, invasion and adhesion of DU145 prostate cancer cells. Suppressing HIF-1α activation by inhibiting Akt and ERK activation may be part of the mechanism by which maslinic acid inhibited uPAR, E-cadherin, VEGF and MMP expression in DU145 cells.