Smart travellers know that the quickest way to find a capital's pulse is to head for the latest, greatest bar. Wherever you're from, here's where it's at in New York, London, Singapore, Vienna and Lisbon. Introduction by John Walsh

"There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn," opined Dr Johnson in the days when bars meant foaming stoups of Rhenish, drawstring-bloused strumpets and oafish potmen. Today they're more likely to resemble a clinic, a therapy centre or the VIP lounge of an international airport than a pub. Minimal, utilitarian, their bottles standing in parade-ground ranks, modern bars radiate edgy correctness rather than ramshackle booziness. The names give it away: names as addresses (St Martins Lane, 57 Jermyn Street), names as curt monosyllable (Lux, K, Met), names as generic title (Bar, Canteen - what's next? Counter? Gents? Fag Machine?).

"There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn," opined Dr Johnson in the days when bars meant foaming stoups of Rhenish, drawstring-bloused strumpets and oafish potmen. Today they're more likely to resemble a clinic, a therapy centre or the VIP lounge of an international airport than a pub. Minimal, utilitarian, their bottles standing in parade-ground ranks, modern bars radiate edgy correctness rather than ramshackle booziness. The names give it away: names as addresses (St Martins Lane, 57 Jermyn Street), names as curt monosyllable (Lux, K, Met), names as generic title (Bar, Canteen - what's next? Counter? Gents? Fag Machine?).

The modern bar is a chill-out zone where you're not supposed to relax. Look into the Light Bar of St Martins Lane hotel and the faces are in display mode, as though auditioning for a Calvin Klein commercial. Check out that voluble sextet ranged around the Fauvist walls of The Groucho's upstairs bar, and you'll see social vertigo and nervy desperation imprinted on their brows. Are they in the right place? Are they seeing the right people? Because the bars of our major cities, and what we do in them, now define who we are - we Londoners, we Bristolians, we Mancunians. Visible Londoners - anonymous on the Tube, scattered in the shops, and salted with tourists in theatres and art gallery queues - are most visible in the bars of the capital. Fired by God knows what impulse of patriotic cool, they want to be their city's best advertisement, and bask in the glamour feedback. Restaurants won't do; they're for couples on display. Bars are where the gang, the entourage, the court can pass judgement on the rest of the world. They are where we play at being metropolitan. And as we now reveal, the playgrounds share certain characteristics, from Portugal to Singapore.

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