The ability to form tiny droplets of liquids and control their movements is important in printing or patterning, chemical reactions and biological assays. So far, such nanofluidic capabilities have principally used components such as channels, nozzles or tubes, where a solid encloses the transported liquid. Here, we show that liquids can flow along the outer surface of solid nanowires at a scale of attolitres per second and the process can be directly imaged with in situ transmission electron microscopy. Microscopy videos show that an ionic liquid can be pumped along tin dioxide, silicon or zinc oxide nanowires as a thin precursor film or as beads riding on the precursor film. Theoretical analysis suggests there is a critical film thickness of ∼10 nm below which the liquid flows as a flat film and above which it flows as discrete beads. This critical thickness is the result of intermolecular forces between solid and liquid, which compete with liquid surface energy and Rayleigh-Plateau instability.