In 1960, Fernand Quinet, then the director of the Conservatoire de Liège, founded the orchestra as the Orchestre de Liège, with a complement of 71 musicians. Funding was from the city of Liège and the Belgian National Ministry of Education. Quinet served as the OPRL's first music director until 1964. During the music directorship of Paul Strauss, from 1967 to 1977, the orchestra expanded its roster to 89 musicians. The orchestra's longest-serving music director was Pierre Bartholomée, from 1977 to 1999. During the tenure of Bartholomée, the orchestra came under the rubric of the Communauté française, and was renamed the Orchestre Philharmonique de Liège in 1983. In October 2010, the orchestra took on its current name of the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège.
While French and twentieth century music form the core of its repertoire, the OPRL has also performed works of such contemporary composers, most notably, Philippe Boesmans, Henri Dutilleux, Thierry Escaich, Michel Fourgon, Claude Ledoux, Magnus Lindberg, and Benoît Mernier. The OPRL has notably recorded works of Belgian composers, such as Albert Dupuis, César Franck, Joseph Jongen, Émile Mathieu, and André Souris. The orchestra has recorded commercially for the Naïve and Cyprès record labels.
The current music director of the OPRL is Christian Arming, who was named to the post in May 2011, with an initial contract is for 4 years, beginning with the 2011-2012 season. In 2016, the OPRL announced an extension of Arming's contract through 2019. Arming is scheduled to conclude his tenure as OPRL music director at the close of the 2018-2019 season. In February 2018, the OPRL announced the appointment of Gergely Madaras as its next music director, effective 1 September 2019, with an initial contract of 3 years.