For years, riverside Cais do Sodré was one of Lisbon's seediest neighbourhoods. Its backstreets were the haunt of whisky-slugging sailors craving a little after-dark sleaze; a lacklustre place where brothels sidled up to sweaty  clubs.

Then suddenly everything changed. In late 2011, the district was given a makeover. Its main street, Rua Nova do Carvalho, was painted a welcoming bright pink and the call girls were sent packing, but the edginess and decadence on which Lisbon thrives remained. Live music venues, burlesque clubs and tapas bars began to pop up with astonishing frequency, and soon thereafter, Cais do Sodré had upstaged Bairro Alto as Lisbon's most happening nightlife district.

Similar to Bairro Alto, the vibe in Cais do Sodré is similarly bohemian. Do not bother turning up anywhere much before midnight, as this is when the crowds descend. If you want to get a full taste of the area, here are a few of the neighbourhood's hottest bars and live music venues, perfect for a late-night bar crawl.

Tinned fish 'tapas'

You do not need much imagination to see what Sol e Pesca once was. Rods, nets, hooks and fish charts give away the tiny bar's former life as a fishing-tackle shop. Glass cabinets are stacked with vintage-looking tins of sardines, tuna, octopus and other kinds of seafood (or conservas as the Portuguese say). The concept is simple: grab a chair, order a tin or two, and accompany it with bread, olives, white wine and good company. Sol e Pesca is open until 4 am on weekends.

Rising fado stars

Opinions are often mixed about fado, the bluesy, melancholic folk music for which Portugal – and in particular Lisbon – is famous, because it can be hard to find the real deal. Well, Povo is it. There is an unpretentious spirit and intimacy that traditionally defines Lisbon's fado clubs. A different fadista (fado singer) is in residence every month, there is no stage, petiscos (bite-size Portuguese snacks) are served, and the aim is to give young, little-known fadistas exposure. The fado stars of tomorrow? You heard them here first.

Bordello chic

If the name Pensão Amor (guesthouse of love), does not spell out what this place once was, the graffiti murals of cavorting nudes and the scarlet walls surely will. Reborn as an art space, you will find meeting spaces, a bordello-chic bar serving drinks and ceviche (a Peruvian dish of raw, marinated fish), a bookshop with erotic literature, and boutiques selling lingerie and vintage clothing. Concerts, DJ sessions, plays and poetry recitals attract the crowds. If you plan to come at the weekend, be prepared to queue – it is worth the wait.

Under the bridge

Tucked under the arches of a bridge on Rua Nova do Carvalho , the cave-like Music Box is, as its name suggests, all about the music. Locals are right when they say that this is one of the city's best gig venues and – this being Lisbon, one of Europe’s least expensive capital cities, you rarely pay more than 15 euro for a ticket. The concerts cover the entire spectrum, from jazz to indie, rock to metal, and British bands like Fink and sweet-voiced soloist Martina Topley Bird recently played here. DJs take over when the gigs finish, spinning everything from house to electro and techno until 7 am.

Come to the cabaret

Berlin, yes, Paris, of course – but cabaret in Lisbon? Apparently so. The fabulously burlesque Bar da Velha Senhora (Rua Nova do Carvalho 38; 021-346-8479) whisks you back to the hazy, crazy days of Cais do Sodré in the early 20th Century, with its low-lit interior and glittering revue shows. Tapas and cocktails with risqué names get the crowd in the mood for fado performances, cabaret, erotic poetry recitals and pianists bashing out songs, just as they did in the good old days.

Article updated 26 July 2012

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