For many years, it was believed that the laws of diffraction set a fundamental limit to the spatial resolution of conventional light microscopy. Major developments, especially in the past few years, have demonstrated that the diffraction barrier can be overcome both in the near- and far-field regime. Together with dynamic measurements, a wealth of new information is now emerging regarding the compartmentalization of cell membranes. In this review we focus on optical methods designed to explore the nanoscale architecture of the cell membrane, with a focal point on near-field optical microscopy (NSOM) as the first developed technique to provide truly optical super-resolution beyond the diffraction limit of light. Several examples illustrate the unique capabilities offered by NSOM and highlight its usefulness on cell membrane studies, complementing the palette of biophysical techniques available nowadays.