Vishnevskaya was born in Leningrad. She made her professional stage debut in 1944 singing operetta. In 1952, she became a member of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.
In 1961, Vishnevskaya made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Aida; the following she year she made her debut at the Royal Opera House with the same role. For her La Scala debut in her debut in 1964, she sang Lił in Turandot.
In addition to the roles in the Russian operetic repertoire, Vishnevskaya has also sung Violetta, Tosca, Cio-ciosan, Leonore (Fidelio), and Cherubino.
Vishnevskaya has been married to the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich since 1955; they perform together regularly (he on piano). In 1974, they left the Soviet Union and settled in the United States. In 1987, she directed Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride in Washington, DC.
In 1984, Vishnevskaya published a memoir, Galina: A Russian Story.