The Reformed Red-Light District

The Elevador da Bica runs between Cais do Sodré and Bairrio Alto in Lisbon.
The Elevador da Bica runs between Cais do Sodré and Bairrio Alto in Lisbon.Kevin Foy / Alamy

Near the heart of downtown Lisbon, Cais do Sodré used to be the sort of place where aging prostitutes worked street corners and sailors drank away their wages in amber-lit strip clubs and back alley bars. But a lot has changed in the last five years: New and stylish bars, clubs, and restaurants have replaced tired joints, and the working girls have (mostly) been chased away by the scenesters from Bairro Alto intent on making Cais do Sodré into the White City’s new nightlife center.

The anchor of the neighborhood is the Pensão Amor, a former flophouse that pays homage to its years in the flesh trade with bordello decor and murals of frolicking vixens. Other bars line the street, including O Bar da Velha Senhora (Bar of the Old Dame), which sometimes stages burlesque shows on its tiny stage, and O Povo, the neighborhood’s top choice for catching live Fado, the musical heart of the city. Just up the road, the cavernous Musicbox hosts a wildly eclectic lineup – with concerts featuring indie rock, folk, North African beats, and funk, followed by dub- and electronica-spinning DJs.

Rua Nova de Carvalho, which is closed to traffic, becomes an open-air party spot as the weekend arrives, with revelers packing the pavement until the early hours. To escape the mayhem, head a few blocks west to Taberna Tosca, an enticing spot for Portuguese tapas and refreshing wines from the Minho. Open-air seating is on the leafy plaza (Praça São Paulo) in front, opposite an 18th-century church  – it feels like a hidden corner of Lisbon, well off the radar of most visitors to the city.

Many of Lisbon’s charms – and to a large degree the city itself, since it’s one of the least-visited capitals of Western Europe – are hidden. This means that it’s surprisingly easy to find a spot to call your own among ancient Roman ruins, as well as an easy-to-access clifftop castle; roomy and leafy plazas; uncrowded and mazelike cobblestone streets; and looming, throng-free cathedrals. Vintage trams still rattle along the hilly streets, and windswept vantage points make the perfect setting to watch the sunset. What’s more, well-placed terrace cafes ensure you won’t go thirsty while admiring that view over the terra-cotta rooftops of old Lisbon and the sparkling bay below.

More information: US Airways and United Airlines fly from New York (JFK) to Lisbon: TAP Air Portugal flies nonstop from Miami (MIA) and Newark (EWR) to Lisbon. Cais do Sodré is reachable from anywhere in this eminently walkable city on foot or via one of the aging local trams.

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