Human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) nucleocapsid protein (NC) plays several important roles in the viral life-cycle and presents an attractive target for rational drug design. Here, the macromolecular reactivity of NC and its binding to RNA is characterized through determination of electrostatic and chemical descriptors derived from linear-scaling quantum calculations in solution. The computational results offer a rationale for the experimentally observed susceptibility of the Cys49 thiolate toward small-molecule electrophilic agents, and support the recently proposed stepwise protonation mechanism of the C-terminal Zn-coordination complex. The distinctive binding mode of NC to SL2 and SL3 stem–loops of the HIV-1 genomic RNA packaging signal is studied on the basis of protein side-chain contributions to the electrostatic binding energies. These results indicate the importance of several basic residues in the 310 helical region and the N-terminal zinc finger, and rationalize the presence of several evolutionarily conserved residues in NC. The combined reactivity and RNA-binding study provides new insights that may contribute toward the structure-based design of anti-HIV therapies.