Background For agricultural systems to achieve climate-smart objectives, including improved food security and rural livelihoods as well as climate change adaptation and mitigation, they often need to be take a landscape approach; they must become ‘climate-smart landscapes’. Climate-smart landscapes operate on the principles of integrated landscape management, while explicitly incorporating adaptation and mitigation into their management objectives. Results An assessment of climate change dynamics related to agriculture suggests that three key features characterize a climate-smart landscape: climate-smart practices at the field and farm scale; diversity of land use across the landscape to provide resilience; and management of land use interactions at landscape scale to achieve social, economic and ecological impacts. To implement climate-smart agricultural landscapes with these features (that is, to successfully promote and sustain them over time, in the context of dynamic economic, social, ecological and climate conditions) requires several institutional mechanisms: multi-stakeholder planning, supportive landscape governance and resource tenure, spatially-targeted investment in the landscape that supports climate-smart objectives, and tracking change to determine if social and climate goals are being met at different scales. Examples of climate-smart landscape initiatives in Madagascar’s Highlands, the African Sahel and Australian Wet Tropics illustrate the application of these elements in contrasting contexts. Conclusions To achieve climate-smart landscape initiatives widely and at scale will require strengthened technical capacities, institutions and political support for multi-stakeholder planning, governance, spatial targeting of investments and multi-objective impact monitoring.