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?).

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.

Lisbon Practically on the banks of the Tagus, Lux is a harbourside haunt not for the lily-livered or faint-hearted. Expect a colour-saturated interior completed by furniture Austin Powers would kill for, with twists and turns through corridors that lead to a dancefloor only to be tackled when sober (or you'll never find your way back to your table). Tucked behind panels are speakers pumping out sounds, but one thing not to expect is Euro-disco or Ricky Martin. Lux is where Lisbon's young movers and shakers come to groove - and they don't leave until the doors close at 5am. (No wonder they look tired.)

Lux, Avenida Infante D Henrique, Santa Apolonia, Lisbon (00 351 1882 0890)

Vienna The American Bar in Vienna was designed not by a thrusting young Prada-clad blade, but Adolf Loos, a seminal figure in early 20th-century architecture. His "ornament is crime" edict was behind this tiny, onyx, marble, glass and wood cube that has stood up to and eclipsed newer establishments. Vienna's smart set relive Twenties decadence while swallowing exquisite Manhattans and extortionate bar bills. Ultravox music is not played in the American Bar.

American Bar, Karntherstrasse 10, Vienna (00 43 1512 3283)

London Don't want to go to a club where they'd have you as a member? 57 Jermyn Street has the solution. This discreet, ultra-slick subterranean haunt is relatively new on the capital's scene, but has already found favour due in part to its semi open-door policy. From 6pm till 9pm during the week, anyone can enter the bar, slide on to a banquette and order up a cocktail. From 9pm onward, it's members-only. The thinking is, once you've tried 57, you'll want to sign on the dotted line. Oh, and another thing, the name is also the location - just to make it easier for those who've had a Martini or three before they got in the taxi.

57 Jermyn Street, 57 Jermyn Street, London SW1 (0171-495 5570)

Singapore Can't decide what to drink? Bad luck if you're perched on a stool at Bar, Singapore's self-explanatory destination du jour. The near-encyclopaedic array of bottles which faces you may be daunting, but even if you sample something from each and every one, you'll come to no harm - the walls are padded and blood red. The people behind the somewhat austerely titled hangout already have three successful bars in the area, so they know what Singapore's hard-shopping, hard-living residents and visitors require in the way of rest and recuperation. This could be the best bar in the country - bar none.

Bar, 11 Unity Street, 01-23/24 Robertson Walk, Singapore (00 65 738 1318)

New York The clientele may be upwardly mobile, but they have to go down to enter Canteen, currently one of the prime pips in the Big Apple. This lower-ground floor bar is where the decade that taste forgot has been remembered and reinvented for the Nineties. At Canteen the furnishings are in Day-Glo orange and chocolate brown, and the best dish to order is a prawn cocktail (served in a Martini glass, natch). The mix of utilitarian name, institutional decor, chi-chi crowd and comfort food is perhaps unlikely - but it works well enough for Canteen to be thriving in Manhattan's new hub, NoLiTa.

Canteen, 142 Mercer Street, New York 10012 (001 212 431 7766) n