Drug sales in the open. Puddles of urine on the sidewalk. Trash. Music late into the night. And even a new kind of tourism: the pub crawl. This is a portrait of the nightlife in and around Cais do Sodré, which for several years has created a climate of tension between residents, shopkeepers, and the Lisbon City Hall itself.

This is not new, and Cais do Sodré has always been the hub of nightlife in Lisbon. Jamaica, Europa, and Tokyo bars were a staple in the 80’s. The bohemia always existed in a port area.

But those who live and work here notice a shift in nightlife: “We went from discos and prostitution to more insecurity and noise everywhere. Those who come here at six in the morning find a midnight vibe.”

It’s not the bars and discos – the law requires that they be soundproofed after 11 pm and that windows and doors be closed. It’s the restaurant spaces that turn into open bars and discos. It is the noise that spreads across the streets. Not even the closing of the terraces can prevent that – the only difference is that people stand and don’t sit.

Since 2014 the Urbanization Plan for this area has limited the opening of new bars with dance and music spaces, but they dominate Cais do Sodré – by evading the law.

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In Cais do Sodré there are almost no residents left

As these spaces take over the neighborhood, legally or illegally, the families that used to live there leave and, with them, the spirit of the area.

“In my building, all the families with children have left,” says Ana, a resident in the lower area. Another resident, Maria, from the upper zone, says that “two families” in her building have already left their flats. They have now been occupied by “French and South Africans.” Innocent?

In the early evening, the trolleys of tourists who stay here still roll by.

In the whole Lisbon municipality, Misericordia’s parish, which includes Cais do Sodré, Bairro Alto, and Príncipe Real neighborhoods, was the one that lost the most population between 2011 and 2021, according to last year’s Census.

It went from 13044 inhabitants to only 9645.

The aging population in historic neighborhoods and the profusion of local accommodations for tourists help explain the decline. 

Around seven o’clock in the afternoon on Nova do Carvalho Street, known for years as Pink Street because of the color of its floor, Portuguese is no longer heard and the sound of trolley wheels on the sidewalk intensifies.

“The wheels of the trolleys, the tourists’ suitcases, are the most characteristic sound in the area while it’s daytime,” says Maria. Before going out to dinner, many tourists settle in the Local Lodgings. In 2021 there were more than 19 thousand units in the entire Lisbon Metropolitan Area and most were concentrated in the historic center – Misericórdia and Santa Maria Maior.

“I got out of here, or I’d be crazy by now!”

Twenty years ago, Ana (fictitious name) bought an apartment here, but for some months now she has been forced to use a secondary house, which she is lucky enough to have, “in a quiet part of Lisbon,” to sleep. “Otherwise, I would be crazy by now,” she confesses.

It is against the noise, the deafening music, and, above all, the lack of police supervision that the residents of Cais do Sodré are protesting, in complaints systematically made by the Aqui Mora Gente association.

“Everything has intensified since the end of the pandemic. In a few months, it has become just like Bairro Alto,” says Ana.

It’s when the sun sets over the 25 de Abril Bridge that the bars that are also restaurants come alive at night. They serve Portuguese, but also Mexican, Tapas, and Asian food and attract countless tourists. It is a hard task to find a traditional neighborhood café or a tasca.

Manuel (fictitious name, all the people who agreed to speak for this story do not want to reveal their names, due to the tension in the area), who has been working in Cais for 25 years, says he has a café “for local people” and is one of the few that opens in the morning and not at night. He has seen Cais do Sodré change from bohemian prostitution to bohemian tourists.

And now, every day, Manuel, who arrives at the store a little before six in the morning, finds problematic situations: drunk people blocking his door, above all. “If there are too many people in the street, I don’t put the terrace up. The problem can only be solved with police action, but security is not assured. People are living here, and children go to school in the morning. The little ones can’t play in the playgrounds without finding broken glass from bottles, beer, and vodka…”

That’s what happens in Jardim D. Luís, at Mercado da Ribeira. The playground is a dry space, covered with cigarette butts, plastic cups, and wine bottles. In the trees, homeless people keep blankets and small belongings that they use at night when they sleep there. And there are syringes all over the floor.

Late night in Cais do Sodré, drugs in abundance

And it’s when the sun falls that everything gets worse – as witnessed by this Message reporter who spent a night in the area between 9 pm and 4 am and slept in an apartment in the area.

On every corner of São Paulo Street and Nova do Carvalho Street groups of men deliberately and openly sell drugs. No one knows if it is drugs or the pressed laurel that is usually offered to tourists in the Downtown area. What is certain is that the locals already know and identify them. At 9 pm, there are seven of the usual ones.

A tourist walks by and one of them asks, in Spanish, if she wants “coca”. The reporting team itself was asked four times by men in white T-shirts or gray polo shirts to buy “coke” and “hashish”.

It is at 11 pm that the music explodes and there is a sea of people, mostly foreigners, on the streets. To deal with the noise and the concentration of people, the parish council ordered, as of August 1, the closing of the terraces on São Paulo Street only, after 11 pm. This has been complied with but is of little use.

In São Paulo Square, spontaneous groups gather with loudspeakers to listen to music and dance. On the ground, a man and a woman play guitar, in a kind of unplanned concert, side by side with a tent where a homeless man sleeps. On the ground, the garbage they leave is abundant.

Largo de São Paulo, late at night. The dirt and noise are visible.

And in São Paulo Street, the bars, now without terraces, continue to play music with the doors open. The clients concentrate on the street – even because bars are small in this area. The only difference is that they are standing.

The entire area of Cais does Sodré is covered by the 2014 Urban Plan for the historic nucleus of Bica and Bairro Alto, which provides for the limitation of new “drinking establishments” and “entertainment venues”. The creation of “restaurant points” was approved. The door was open: these bars start by serving dinner and later turn into authentic dance spaces – some with DJs.

“The restaurant activity is just a way for them to open up,” Ana explains.

One of the bars that has no terrace but puts on music playing so loud that you can hear it all over the street – even after 11pm.

Many recreate a bohemian night atmosphere provided by neon lights, which are projected onto the residents’ homes in the buildings. “There is a neighbor who has vision problems and is forced to live constantly with her window closed because she has immense sensitivity,” says Ana.

The route of the “open” bars for tourists

Almost at midnight, in São Paulo Street a caricatured scene takes place: three “tour guides”, dressed from head to toe in florescent yellow, are carrying umbrellas that serve as guides for a line of dozens of tourists, who accompany them. On the hats, they denounce the activity: pub crawl.

The Pub Crawl guide.

It is a type of tourism that replicates the so-called rally das tascas and is intended to tour several bars in Cais do Sodré. It is advertised online as “a night in Lisbon to meet places and tourists in one of the liveliest nightlife areas in the city. And promises “an hour of all sangria and beer you can drink”, as well as a free drink in each bar visited.

You don’t have to get very close to the next bar to hear the music it plays. One of pop singer Rihanna’s most popular songs says in the chorus, “Mister DJ, put the music on.” That’s what it does, indeed.

With the doors open, the music echoes down the street. In front of the bar, some customers gather to drink and dance. “An older man lives upstairs”, comments Ana. This is another flagrant case of violation of the law and lack of supervision.

What the Lisbon night rules say

The City Hall Regulation states that, after 11 pm, the establishment “with music or sound-emitting equipment” must ensure the “soundproofing of the space” and operate “with closed doors and windows”. Violation of the rules can lead to fines of up to 1,500 euros for “individuals” and 15,000 for “companies”.

But that is not what is seen and heard in Cais do Sodré.

The situation is different in Santos, traditionally a nightlife area, in Largo Vitorino Damásio. Here there is no music after 11 pm, although there is a concentration of people and noise in the street. And one difference: most of them are Portuguese, in their twenties.

Further on, in nightclubs, the noise becomes more evident when the doors open. “It’s more organized here,” says Ana.

Maria says there are differences in the groups that go out at night. ” At the time of Jamaica, more typical night people were coming, looking for fun. Today, Cais do Sodré is open to everyone and everything. It became a fashionable and cosmopolitan place. Everything has intensified. Whoever manages the city hasn’t kept up, more resources are needed.”

Residents fight against the absence of police and inspection

Aqui Mora Gente association has been making reports and complaints. “On the side of the residents, there is nothing against the shopkeepers. But there is against the business model being practiced,” says one of the people in charge. This is what they told CML again in recent weeks, more precisely on August 5th.

The office of councilman Ângelo Pereira, holder of the portfolios of Noise and Security and Municipal Police, answered the residents saying that “it is simply not feasible” to comply with “measures to respect the Noise Regulation”. And mentioned the “political costs” of possible restrictions and more “policing”.

Meanwhile, on August 18, the councilman advanced with the establishment of a Noise Line, which will operate as of September. Open 24 hours a day, the line will be used to report cases of excessive noise. The residents depreciate: “There is already the Municipal Police phone number, I can call and make a complaint. What’s different now?”

The absence of control is one of the main problems. The night we were there, around midnight, a municipal police car, with a single officer inside, drove by the bar that welcomed the pub crawl tourists.

It did not stop.

There is a mobile police station set up in Praça do Duque da Terceira, with three public security police officers (PSP), two from EPRI – which fights speeding on motorcycles, and other two from the Municipal Police, but from the traffic division.

The mobile police station in Cais do Sodré, right in the middle of the square. It has visibility, but does not enforce the noise law.

On the night she accompanied us on the reportage, Ana decided to question the officers about the functioning of a nearby disco that plays music with the door open at two in the morning. The answer she got from one of the PSP agents is that this problem “is the responsibility of the Municipal Police”.

But in Lisbon City Council’s Regulation on Noise, the 15th article says that ” the enforcement of the regulations is the responsibility of the municipal inspection services ” – among them “the National Republican Guard, the Public Security Police, the Lisbon Municipal Police”.

In several meetings, neighbors, and older business owners have considered hiring night guards. “Some people don’t agree, they say we pay taxes, we shouldn’t pay for our protection,” Manuel explains.

Garbage and condoms at the door

At night, there is another problem: the lack of hygiene and the garbage. In the small alley next to Alecrim Street, where there are several inhabited buildings, for example, the smell becomes unbearable. In the sidewalk holes, puddles are formed that mix alcoholic beverages and urine.

“It’s the public toilet,” says one of the people in charge of Aqui Mora Gente association. It’s not unusual for the inhabitants of these buildings to have human waste, condoms, and used sanitary pads at their doors. And cups, of course, and bottles. But this is almost taken for granted.

Bottles and cups is the very least you can find in terms of trash.

Between two and three in the morning, some bars on Street Nova do Carvalho start closing, as the law states. But this means little: everyone concentrates on the pink side. Spontaneously, a group of people turns on a giant column and a sort of dance floor with choreography is organized.

Some nightclubs are still open and there is a giant line outside the newly reopened Pension Amor.

Already at four in the morning, the UEP – the Special Police Unit – arrives. There has been a fight in one of the establishments. There is blood at the door and on the sidewalk.

Positioned in an apartment in Cais do Sodré, in the upper zone, further away from Pink Street, which is the center of late-night entertainment, we can understand the noise the neighbors face during the night.

In the bedroom, even with insulation, there is always a background noise, and everything becomes unbearable as soon as the door or window is opened.

This is the sound inside a house that is even relatively far away from the night – recorded at 2 am.

And the next morning, around nine o’clock, the traces of the night are still there. The garbage accumulated in the gutters and the street is what remains of a night in Cais do Sodré.

And this night, we are told, is just one more episode in a story that seems to have no end, and no one wants to solve it.

You can read this article in Portuguese.

If you like what you’ve seen us doing, if you get inspired by our stories, if you care about a new Lisbon, more engaging and liveable, if you see any use in this journalism, communitarian and close spare a little bit of your time and consider donating. If you want to be part of this community – join us!

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