Abbado was born in Milan. He studied piano at the Milan Conservatory with his father Michelangelo Abbado, and went on to study conducting with Hans Swarowsky at the Vienna Academy of Music.
In 1958, he won the Koussevitsky Competition, establishing him in Italy, and then won the 1963 Mitropoulos Prize, after which he rapidly became known internationally as an orchestral and opera conductor.
Abbado made his debut at La Scala in his Milan in 1960. He served as its music director from 1968 to 1986, conducting not only the traditional Italian repertoire but also presenting a contemporary opera each year, as well as a concert series devoted to the works of Berg and Mussorgsky. While at La Scala, Abbado also founded the Orchestra della Scala, for the performance of orchestral repertoire in concert.
Abbado conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra for the first time in 1965 in a concert at the Salzburg Festival. He served as Music Director of the Vienna State Opera from 1986 to 1991, with notable productions such as Mussorgsky's original Boris Godunov and his seldom-heard Khovanshchina, Schubert's Fierrabras, and Rossini's Il viaggio a Reims.
He was principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1987, and in 1989 he was succeeded Herbert von Karajan as principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, a post from which he retired in 2002.
In 1988, Abaddo founded the music festival Wien Modern, which has since expanded to include all aspects of contemporary art. This interdisciplinary festival takes place each year under Abbado's direction.
Abbado is also well-known for his work with young musicians. He is founder and music director of the European Union Youth Orchestra (1978) and the Gustav Mahler Jugend Orchestra (1986).