He was born in Zabrze and studied at the Katowice Conservatory under Andrzej Jasinki. He career was launched when he won the prestigious Warsaw Chopin Piano Competition in 1975. His American debut came in 1979 with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. He has since toured widely and made a number of recordings. Since 1996 he has taught piano at the Academy of Music in Basel.
Zimerman is best known for his interpretations of Romantic music, but has performed a wide variety of classical pieces, including some contemporary works (he gave the British premiere of Witold Lutoslawski's Piano Concerto in 1989, for example, and has recorded the work).