The tumor suppressor protein p53 interacts with DNA in a sequence-dependent manner. Thousands of p53 binding sites have been mapped genome-wide in normal and cancer cells. However, the way p53 selectively binds its cognate sites in different types of cells is not fully understood. Here, we performed a comprehensive analysis of 25 published p53 cistromes and identified 3,551 and 6,039 high-confidence binding sites in normal and cancer cells, respectively. Our analysis revealed two distinct epigenetic features underlying p53-DNA interactions in vivo. First, p53 binding sites are associated with transcriptionally active histone marks (H3K4me3 and H3K36me3) in normal-cell chromatin, but with repressive histone marks (H3K27me3) in cancer-cell chromatin. Second, p53 binding sites in cancer cells are characterized by a lower level of DNA methylation than their counterparts in normal cells, probably related to global hypomethylation in cancers. Intriguingly, regardless of the cell type, p53 sites are highly enriched in the endogenous retroviral elements of the ERV1 family, highlighting the importance of this repeat family in shaping the transcriptional network of p53. Moreover, the p53 sites exhibit an unusual combination of chromatin patterns: high nucleosome occupancy and, at the same time, high sensitivity to DNase I. Our results suggest that p53 can access its target sites in a chromatin environment that is non-permissive to most DNA-binding transcription factors, which may allow p53 to act as a pioneer transcription factor in the context of chromatin.