Zev Vilnay was born Volf Vilensky in Kishinev. He moved to Palestine with his parents at the age of six and grew up in Haifa. He served as a military topographer in the Haganah, and later in the Israel Defense Forces. Vilnay and his wife Esther lived in Jerusalem. Their son, Matan Vilnai is a member of the Knesset  and Israel's deputy minister of defense. Their eldest son is Prof. Oren Vilnay, expert in structural Engineering who established a new department of Civil Engineering in Ben Gurion University.
Land of Israel studies
He was a pioneer in the sphere of outdoor hiking and touring in Israel. Vilnay lectured widely on Israeli geography, ethnography, history and folklore. His Guide to Israel was published in 27 editions and translated into many languages.
In the 1974 edition of his guide, Vilnay describes how he helped bring back to Israel the boat of a British naval officer, Thomas Howard Molyneux, who sailed the Jordan River from Lake Kinneret to the Dead Sea to map the region in the 19th century.
- In 1974, Vilnay received the Yakir Yerushalayim (Worthy Citizen of Jerusalem) award.
- In 1981, he was the co-recipient (jointly with Avraham Even-Shoshan) of the Bialik Prize for Jewish thought.
- In 1982, he was awarded the Israel Prize, for knowledge and love of the Land of Israel.
Published works in English
- Legends of Palestine (1932)
- The Guide to Israel (first published in 1955)
- The Holy Land in Old Prints and Maps (1965)
- The New Israel Atlas: Bible to Present Day (1968)
- The Changing Face of Acco
- Legends of Jerusalem (3 volumes)
- Legends of Judea and Samaria
- The Vilnay Guide to Israel: A new Millennium Edition (2 volumes) (1999), written and edited after his death and according to his instructions by Oren and Rachel Vilnay
Published works in Hebrew
- Entziklopediya Liyidiat Haaretz (3 volumes) (1956)
- Yerushalayim (2 volumes) (1960–62, 1970)
- Eretz Yisrael Betmunot Atikot (1961)
- Matzevot Kodesh Be'eretz Yisrael (1963)
- Tel Aviv-Jaffa (1965)
- Yehudah Veshomron (1968)
- Sinai, Avar Vehoveh (1969)
- Golan Vehermon (1970)
- Ariel – Entziklopediya Lidiyat HaAretz (10 volumes) (1976–82)
- Encyclopedia Judaica, "Zev Vilnay," Keter Publishing, Jerusalem, 1972, vol. 16, p. 151
- Jewish National Fund: Thousands Support JNF-KKL's Battle to Preserve Open Spaces in Jerusalem
- The Vilnay Guide to Israel 2 vols
- "Zev Vilnay, Geographer, 87". The New York Times. 1988-01-23.
- 19th-century British explorer's boat returns to Dead Sea - Haaretz - Israel News
- "Recipients of Yakir Yerushalayim award (in Hebrew)". City of Jerusalem official website
- "List of Bialik Prize recipients 1933-2004 (in Hebrew), Tel Aviv Municipality website".
- "Israel Prize Official Site - Recipients in 1982 (in Hebrew)".