Rio is an assault on the senses, but not necessarily for the reasons we were expecting. It’s not the crowds or the streetlife, which are of a piece with busier European cities; it’s not the noise, which goes on into the night – music, conversation, particularly dogs – but isn’t really oppressive; and it’s not even the traffic, which is doubtless causing Olympic organisers endless headaches yet is better behaved than we’d been led to expect. The surprise, even having seen all the usual photographs of the place, is the breathtaking, sometimes baffling landscape.

Its coastal location helped Rio develop after it was founded in the 16th century, and it’s what draws a large number of tourists today. The beaches go on for miles, an as-good-as-uninterrupted stretch running from close to Centro (the city’s fizzing, buzzing downtown) way out to Recreio dos Bandeirantes in the east and beyond. Most visitors seem to stick to the festive stretches of Copacabana and Ipanema, where the postcard-perfect sand and sea do a splendid job of distracting the eye from the undistinguished buildings that look out on to them. Viewed simply from the seaside, it’s a seductive place.

One surprise, for us, has been the hills: immense and numerous, which we’d expected, and absolutely integral to the life of the city, which we hadn’t. We’ve been staying in Santa Teresa, a mellow neighbourhood dotted with faded-grandeur mansions that’s less than a couple of kilometres from the sea but 100 metres above it. Whether on foot, up and down precipitous cobbled roads and staircases, or by bus or cab, an often hair-raising ride, we’re aware of the height every time we come and go.

Other neighbourhoods have similarly elevated locations, not least the city’s notorious but increasingly safe favelas (many of these formerly crime-packed shanty towns are currently being ‘pacified’, to use the slightly loaded local term; this recent article from the New York Review of Books is a worthwhile read on the subject). From street or beach level, built into impossibly steep hillsides, they resemble 1,000-piece jigsaws of cities tipped from their boxes on to the carpet but not yet pieced together. It’s hard to imagine how they work, but work they apparently do.

The only structures of note on Pão de Açúcar (Sugar Loaf Mountain), a unsuitably beautiful name for what’s basically a monolithic lump on the city’s Atlantic coast, are the mechanics that allow the city to funnel tourists to the top via a pair of cable cars. Below it is Urca, a tiny, elegant neighbourhood quietly worlds apart from nearby Botafogo and the traffic that runs along its border.

A few kilometres away, visible from everywhere, the statue of Christ atop the massive peak of Corcovado was overrun when we visited by some of the two million pilgrims in town for World Youth Day. (The views, needless to say, are extraordinary.) In a triathlon shop on the border between Copacabana and Ipanema, a couple of cyclists told us that they regularly use the 710-metre climb for training rides, setting off at 4am to avoid the traffic. Easier, perhaps, for some clearly-very-fit triathletes on carbon-fibre road bikes than for a couple of cake-filled laggards hauling a combined 50kg of baggage who haven’t yet got their bike legs. Maybe next time.

from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil