Altering a material’s catalytic properties requires identifying structural features that give rise to active surfaces. Grain boundaries create strained regions in polycrystalline materials by stabilizing dislocations and may provide a way to create high-energy surfaces for catalysis that are kinetically trapped. Although grain-boundary density has previously been correlated with catalytic activity for some reactions, direct evidence that grain boundaries create surfaces with enhanced activity is lacking. We used a combination of bulk electrochemical measurements and scanning electrochemical cell microscopy with submicrometer resolution to show that grain-boundary surface terminations in gold electrodes are more active than grain surfaces for electrochemical carbon dioxide (CO2) reduction to carbon monoxide (CO) but not for the competing hydrogen (H2) evolution reaction. The catalytic footprint of the grain boundary is commensurate with its dislocation-induced strain field, providing a strategy for broader exploitation of grain-boundary effects in heterogeneous catalysis.