At about 1000 days after the launch of Gaia we present the first Gaia data release, Gaia DR1, consisting of astrometry and photometry for over 1 billion sources brighter than magnitude 20.7. We summarize Gaia DR1 and provide illustrations of the scientific quality of the data, followed by a discussion of the limitations due to the preliminary nature of this release. Gaia DR1 consists of: a primary astrometric data set which contains the positions, parallaxes, and mean proper motions for about 2 million of the brightest stars in common with the Hipparcos and Tycho-2 catalogues and a secondary astrometric data set containing the positions for an additional 1.1 billion sources. The second component is the photometric data set,consisting of mean G-band magnitudes for all sources. The G-band light curves and the characteristics of ~3000 Cepheid and RR Lyrae stars, observed at high cadence around the south ecliptic pole, form the third component. For the primary astrometric data set the typical uncertainty is about 0.3 mas for the positions and parallaxes, and about 1 mas/yr for the proper motions. A systematic component of ~0.3 mas should be added to the parallax uncertainties. For the subset of ~94000 Hipparcos stars in the primary data set, the proper motions are much more precise at about 0.06 mas/yr. For the secondary astrometric data set, the typical uncertainty of the positions is ~10 mas. The median uncertainties on the mean G-band magnitudes range from the mmag level to ~0.03 mag over the magnitude range 5 to 20.7. Gaia DR1 represents a major advance in the mapping of the heavens and the availability of basic stellar data that underpin observational astrophysics. Nevertheless, the very preliminary nature of this first Gaia data release does lead to a number of important limitations to the data quality which should be carefully considered before drawing conclusions from the data.