Phenolic acids are secondary plant metabolites that may have protective effects against oxidative stress, inflammation and cancer in experimental studies. To date, limited data exist on the quantitative intake of phenolic acids. We estimated the intake of phenolic acids and their food sources and associated lifestyle factors in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study. Phenolic acid intakes were estimated for 36 037 subjects aged 35–74 years and recruited between 1992 and 2000 in ten European countries using a standardised 24 h recall software (EPIC-Soft), and their food sources were identified. Dietary data were linked to the Phenol-Explorer database, which contains data on forty-five aglycones of phenolic acids in 452 foods. The total phenolic acid intake was highest in Aarhus, Denmark (1265·5 and 980·7 mg/d in men and women, respectively), while the intake was lowest in Greece (213·2 and 158·6 mg/d in men and women, respectively). The hydroxycinnamic acid subclass was the main contributor to the total phenolic acid intake, accounting for 84·6–95·3 % of intake depending on the region. Hydroxybenzoic acids accounted for 4·6–14·4 %, hydroxyphenylacetic acids 0·1–0·8 % and hydroxyphenylpropanoic acids ≤ 0·1 % for all regions. An increasing south–north gradient of consumption was also found. Coffee was the main food source of phenolic acids and accounted for 55·3–80·7 % of the total phenolic acid intake, followed by fruits, vegetables and nuts. A high heterogeneity in phenolic acid intake was observed across the European countries in the EPIC cohort, which will allow further exploration of the associations with the risk of diseases.