One thing that strikes you very quickly about Rio is how easy it is to get a sense of where you are in the city. You needn’t travel more than a few blocks in any direction before you encounter a landmark – near or distant – that offers you quite an accurate way to locate yourself.
It’s comforting not to simply feel lost in a sea of densely packed towers, not sure whether you’re smack dab in the middle of it all or trickling out into the city’s edge. In Rio neighbourhoods have boundaries; there’s a sense of place to each and this means learning what makes the city tick is all that much easier. Without being too much of a reductionist, being able to glean the socioeconomics of one patch versus another – wealthy, touristy or industrial – can help you piece together the elements that make Rio, Rio.
In no small part, this is due to its topography. The Sugarloaf or Two Brothers mountains, its lagoon and canal, the ocean and bays carve up Rio. The city twists along and away from beaches to peaks with the Corcovado at its centre, atop which sits Rio’s famous art deco statue of Christ. It means the views standing on the coast at Urca or in Botafogo can’t be mistaken for one another – but it means equally that the border between them isn’t like hopping from one side of a street to another (as in what’s south of Houston or north of it) but something of a more imposing divide.
There are places in Rio where this is played up, of course. You need only look to the promenade of Copacabana and the black-and-white mosaic waves of its paving stones, a pattern designed by Roberto Burle Marx. The pattern has been trickled through its upmarket neighbours of Ipanema and Leblon but the tone of those places also share more in common with each other than with the rest of city. Strong defining lines aren’t always property of the well-to-do: the boundaries of the city’s many favelas are perhaps even more severe. Vidigal favela climbs over the Two Brothers with such a distinctly different character that even from the most distant end of Ipanema you can identify what it is. And once you get any kind of height in Rio, you draw with your mind the border of every district – something that would be impossible down in São Paulo.
Vistas of Rio from its peaks have another effect, of course. A second advantage of its topography: it inspires. From many angles Rio makes for a postcard city but taking in the entire city at once, from up high, isn’t just a good geography lesson. You can imagine there must be some correlation between these views and keeping a city relaxed and creative: its landscape is both elegant and dramatic, as well as being organic and very urban. All thanks to a few hills.
David Michon is Monocle's managing editor.