Genomic DNA is packaged in chromatin, a dynamic fiber variable in size and compaction. In chromatin, repeating nucleosome units wrap 145-147 DNA basepairs around histone proteins. Genetic and epigenetic regulation of genes relies on structural transitions in chromatin which are driven by intra- and inter-nucleosome dynamics and modulated by chemical modifications of the unstructured terminal tails of histones. Here we demonstrate how the interplay between histone H3 and H2A tails control ample nucleosome breathing motions. We monitored large openings of two genomic nucleosomes, and only moderate breathing of an engineered nucleosome in atomistic molecular simulations amounting to 24 μs. Transitions between open and closed nucleosome conformations were mediated by the displacement and changes in compaction of the two histone tails. These motions involved changes in the DNA interaction profiles of clusters of epigenetic regulatory aminoacids in the tails. Removing the histone tails resulted in a large increase of the amplitude of nucleosome breathing but did not change the sequence dependent pattern of the motions. Histone tail modulated nucleosome breathing is a key mechanism of chromatin dynamics with important implications for epigenetic regulation.