Background In recent years, biorefining of lignocellulosic biomass to produce multi-products such as ethanol and other biomaterials has become a dynamic research area. Pretreatment technologies that fractionate sugarcane bagasse are essential for the successful use of this feedstock in ethanol production. In this paper, we investigate modifications in the morphology and chemical composition of sugarcane bagasse submitted to a two-step treatment, using diluted acid followed by a delignification process with increasing sodium hydroxide concentrations. Detailed chemical and morphological characterization of the samples after each pretreatment condition, studied by high performance liquid chromatography, solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance, diffuse reflectance Fourier transformed infrared spectroscopy and scanning electron microscopy, is reported, together with sample crystallinity and enzymatic digestibility. Results Chemical composition analysis performed on samples obtained after different pretreatment conditions showed that up to 96% and 85% of hemicellulose and lignin fractions, respectively, were removed by this two-step method when sodium hydroxide concentrations of 1% (m/v) or higher were used. The efficient lignin removal resulted in an enhanced hydrolysis yield reaching values around 100%. Considering the cellulose loss due to the pretreatment (maximum of 30%, depending on the process), the total cellulose conversion increases significantly from 22.0% (value for the untreated bagasse) to 72.4%. The delignification process, with consequent increase in the cellulose to lignin ratio, is also clearly observed by nuclear magnetic resonance and diffuse reflectance Fourier transformed infrared spectroscopy experiments. We also demonstrated that the morphological changes contributing to this remarkable improvement occur as a consequence of lignin removal from the sample. Bagasse unstructuring is favored by the loss of cohesion between neighboring cell walls, as well as by changes in the inner cell wall structure, such as damaging, hole formation and loss of mechanical resistance, facilitating liquid and enzyme access to crystalline cellulose. Conclusions The results presented herewith show the efficiency of the proposed method for improving the enzymatic digestibility of sugarcane bagasse and provide understanding of the pretreatment action mechanism. Combining the different techniques applied in this work warranted thorough information about the undergoing morphological and chemical changes and was an efficient approach to understand the morphological effects resulting from sample delignification and its influence on the enhanced hydrolysis results.