Pedra da Gávea
The best views are always worth working a little harder for, and to conquer Pedra da Gávea you need to work harder than most. Starting out from Jardim Oceânico in Barra the going quickly gets tough and the incline pretty steep even before you come off the tarmac and into forest. Then there are the mini-abseils and free climbs to reach the flat peak (not for the faint of heart), but once there Rio sprawls out beneath, the full stretch of Barra beach to one side and Zona Sul to the other. Eagles swooping overhead complete the paradise, just don't forget to bring a picnic and plenty of water.
Dona Marta / Pedrão
Now that this favela has a permanent peacekeeping presence its upper reaches are well worth exploring, and from here the face-on view of Cristo Redentor's statue is unsurpassed other than from Corcovado itself. The elevator to the top takes about fifteen minutes and not only unleashes most of Zona Sul on the eyes, but also gives a fascinating look at how the removal of the drug factions has lifted this community. Gawping out towards the Lagoa and across Botafogo to Copacabana the sheer variety of buildings and the huge São João Batista cemetery are eye catching, but behind you from the Pedrão vantage point the sight of Botafogo beach twinkling in front of the mighty Sugarloaf is quite outstanding.
The classic sunset spot, Sugarloaf Mountain's cable cars were immortalised in James Bond's Moonraker as well as in the memories of anyone who has ascended in one. Undoubtedly spectacular on almost any day, an Autumnal dusk, when the clouds grow pink and stormy over Niteroi and the street lights of Copacabana begin to shine, is particularly mesmerising. From up here, too, Urca once again looks almost like the picturesque little fishing village of yore.
Pico da Tijuca
For the hiker who thinks Pedra da Gavea maybe 'sounds a bit much', the highest point in Tijuca Forest has the advantage of a car park three quarters of the way up, meaning the summit can be reached even in mid summer without any danger of anyone expiring. The sheer scale of Zona Norte and the Baixada Fluminense can be felt from up here, and the view of the Maracanã Stadium is magnificent. Also offers the perfect chance to figure out just how this geographical patchwork of the city all fits together, cueing all manner of 'oh that's where that is' comments.
Its not all about getting up high and looking on down, though, and the city looks just as beautiful from sea level - there's a good reason that the boat trips out of Gloria Marina are so popular and it isn't just the endless caipirinhas, bikinis and baile funk beats. It might not be such a worthwhile mission as far as getting your bearings is concerned, but for seeing just how this metropolis hugs the coastline all the way from Galeão Airport to Leblon beach, get your sea legs on and hit the water.