Solgaleo is a large, white Pokémon resembling a lion. It has a blunt muzzle with a blue-gray nose and pale blue eyes. The top half of its face is a deep blue area that shows a constantly changing starscape. Four yellow spikes frame Solgaleo's head like a crown and two more pairs of spikes adorn either side of its lower jaw. Each spike separates large tufts of Solgaleo's mane. Solid ridges—red nearest Solgaleo's head and yellow farther away—poke out of each tuft along the middle, except on the tufts on its cheeks and chin, with the topmost part wrapping around the tip of the tuft. Overall, its mane creates the impression of a stylized sun. Around each leg is a dark orange band, and there is a black spot on each foot. It has three black toes on each foot with long yellow claws. At the tip of its tail is a large black spot with a thin yellow rim.
When Solgaleo enters its Radiant Sun phase, its third eye appears on its forehead—a light blue symbol similar to a compass rose—and the starscape turns to streaks of light. The fur on its body glows a pale yellow and all other parts of its body except its nose turn bright yellow.
Known as the "beast that devours the sun," Solgaleo has long been honored as an emissary of the sun. It said to live in another world and returns there when its third eye activates. Its body is capable of holding a vast amount of energy and glows when active. The intense light it radiates can make nighttime look like midday. Solgaleo can create Ultra Wormholes to travel to and from Ultra Space. Along with its counterpart Lunala, it can create Cosmog, which it is said to be the male evolution of. It can also influence a Rockruff's evolution into Lycanroc's Midday form with solar energy. 
Solgaleo is the only known Pokémon capable of learning the move Sunsteel Strike and exclusive Z-MoveSearing Sunraze Smash.
Solgaleo and its counterpart Lunala are the only Legendary version mascots of a generation's primary pair of games with a base stat under 90. In Solgaleo's case, this is its Special Defense.
Solgaleo's Japanese name and its romanization were revealed in a tweet of their trademark on March 22, 2016.
Solgaleo is based on a lion with a sun motif, a fairly common motif in many Western and Middle-Eastern cultures. In particular, Solgaleo might reference the alchemical lion, being described as "devouring the sun", as well as connected to metals via its Steel type. Finally, being the emissary rather than personification of the sun as well as being able to pass through different dimensions, Solgaleo might lend some inspiration from the eye of Ra, a goddess usually described as a lion that is the sun's protector in Egyptian mythology as it travels through the underworld.
Solgaleo may be a combination of sol (Latin for sun) and leo (Latin for lion). It may also incorporate Galileo, an Italian astronomer who presented evidence that the Earth rotated around the Sun and advocated Copernican heliocentrism.
Solgaleo's verbal cry in Pokémon Sun, "La-liona", is based on the words lā (Hawaiian for sun) and liona (Hawaiian for lion).