See A. E. Kahn, Days with Ulanova (1962).
Vishnevskaya was born in Leningrad. She made her professional stage debut in 1944 singing operetta. After a year studying with Vera Nikolayevna Garina, she won a competition held by the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow (with Rachmaninoff's song "O, Do Not Grieve" and Giuseppe Verdi's aria "O patria mia" from Aida) in 1952. The next year, she became a member of the Bolshoi Theatre.
On 9 May 1960, she made her first appearance in Sarajevo at the National Theatre, as Aida. In 1961, she made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Aida; the following year she made her debut at the Royal Opera House with the same role. For her La Scala debut in 1964, she sang Liù in Turandot, opposite Birgit Nilsson and Franco Corelli.
In addition to the roles in the Russian operatic repertoire, Vishnevskaya has also sung roles such as Violetta, Tosca, Cio-cio-san, Leonore, and Cherubino. She also played the lead role in Alexander Sokurov's Alexandra, a film about the Chechen War that premiered at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.
Vishnevskaya was married to the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich from 1955 until his death in 2007; they performed together regularly (he on piano or on the podium). Both she and Rostropovich were friends of Dmitri Shostakovich, and they made an electrifying recording of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk for EMI. According to Robert Conquest, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn stayed at their dacha from 1968 while writing much of The Gulag Archipelago.
In 1974, they left the Soviet Union and eventually settled in the United States and Paris. In 1982, the soprano bade farewell to the opera stage, in Paris, as Tatyana in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. In 1987, she stage directed Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar’s Bride in Washington, D.C. In 1984, Vishnevskaya published a memoir, Galina: A Russian Story (ISBN 0-15-134250-4), and in 2002, she opened her own opera theatre in Moscow, the "Galina Vishnevskaya Opera Centre".
The diva made many recordings, including Eugene Onegin (1956 and 1970), Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death (1961 and 1977), Britten's War Requiem (with Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, conducted by the composer; 1963), The Poet's Echo (1968), Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov (1970 and 1987), Puccini's Tosca (1976), Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades (with Regina Resnik, 1976), Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1978), Tchaikovsky's Iolanta (with Nicolai Gedda, 1984), and Prokofiev's War and Peace (1986).
In 2006, she was featured in Alexander Sokurov's documentary Elegy of a life: Rostropovich, Vishnevskaya. In 2007, she starred in his film Aleksandra, playing the role of a grandmother coming to see her grandson in the Second Chechen War.