The crystal structure of elements at zero pressure and temperature is the most fundamental information in condensed matter physics. For decades it has been believed that lithium, the simplest metallic element, has a complicated ground-state crystal structure. Using synchrotron x-ray diffraction in diamond anvil cells and multiscale simulations with density functional theory and molecular dynamics, we show that the previously accepted martensitic ground state is metastable. The actual ground state is face-centered cubic (fcc). We find that isotopes of lithium, under similar thermal paths, exhibit a considerable difference in martensitic transition temperature. Lithium exhibits nuclear quantum mechanical effects, serving as a metallic intermediate between helium, with its quantum effect–dominated structures, and the higher-mass elements. By disentangling the quantum kinetic complexities, we prove that fcc lithium is the ground state, and we synthesize it by decompression.