Widor was born in Lyon, and initially studied music there with his father, who was himself an organist. He got his first major job as an organist at the church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris in 1870, a post he held for the next 67 years. In 1890 he took over from Cesar Franck as organ professor at the Paris Conservatoire, where he later also became composition professor.
Widor had several students in Paris who were to become famous composers in their own right, most notably Darius Milhaud and Marcel Dupré. He wrote music himself for a wide variety of instruments and ensembles, but only his works for organ are played with any regularity today. He wrote ten symphonies for the organ, of which the fifth is probably the best known thanks to its toccata finale.