Mike Horsley, city dweller, likes to be above it all. He and his friends like to go where the street sounds are muted, where the crowds seldom venture, where the pigeons play house.

Up on the roof.

In this city of tight spaces and omnipresent people, rooftops fill a tall order. They are a place to escape to, a substitute back yard. What's more, almost any roof offers an interesting scene; the District's restriction on the height of buildings ensures that no skyscrapers block the view. On a clear day, you can see Baileys Crossroads.

"You can zero in on situations down below like a television camera," said Horsley, 24, who works for a photographic firm.

The city's roofs are as varied as the buildings they cover.

Jackie Kienzle's roof at Carlton Towers, an eight-story residence at the corner of Cathedral and Connecticut, features both patio furniture and a pool, as well as a "lovely view of the Capitol."

"It's actually a very small pool," said Kienzle, who is assistant director of the education department of the AFL-CIO. "It's just big enough to dunk in and get wet and swim maybe three or four strokes."

Linne Sayers and her friends climb out the kitchen window of her Dupont Circle apartment and up the fire escape to sunbathe amidst the exhaust fans and the air-conditioning units on the small, unadorned roof of her five-story building.

"We like to watch the sun set and the planes fly in to National," said Sayers, 23, who works for the Office of State and Federal Relations for the state of Texas. "It's so quiet up there. And being from Texas and being used to wide open spaces, it almost feels like being back home."

Horsley and his pals may well be the unofficial experts on District roofs. They limit their excursions to so-called safe roofs -- the apartment buildings of friends or office buildings where someone they know works. They might scramble up a dozen stories, by way of steep fire escapes, to reach a roof with a particularly fine view; their pastime is not for people who fear heights.

"It's the urban equivalent of mountain climbing," said Jack Hannon, 21, a student.

"It's fun to climb roofs in other cities, too," said Rick Rodine, 22, also a student. "Anybody can see a town from the streets. Anybody can see New York from the top of the Empire State Building, but this is your own view that nobody else is getting. If we lived where there were mountains, we'd go climb them. People always go to the place with a view."

Bruce Merkle, 25, once drew up a color-coded map rating the best roofs in the District. Merkle -- whose band, "9353," performed at local clubs and recorded several albums before its recent breakup -- wrote and sang two songs celebrating rooftops.

"I like to go up on them because they're safe -- safe from all the people on the ground," said Merkle with a laugh.

The undisputed "King of D.C. Roofs," as Merkle put it, is the Cairo at 1615 Q St. NW, a former seedy hotel that has been converted into an exclusive condominium complex.

When the Cairo was built in 1894, it was Washington's first steel-framed skyscraper -- 156 feet tall. Its height stirred immediate protest, and eventually a zoning rule was enacted that still limits building heights in the city to 130 feet. The Cairo remains the District's tallest residence.

From the wooden deck atop the 12-story building on a recent evening, the city fanned out in a grand panorama, fading into a blue haze. To the south, the red light at the top of the Washington Monument blinked off and on. Far below, there was a red neon "Liquor" sign, a Safeway, a playground, the turrets and curving facades of town houses. The stately spires of Georgetown University rose in the distance.

Doll-like figures walked up and down the streets, unaware that they were being observed. An evening breeze that seemed several degrees cooler than the temperature on the ground lightly ruffled the hair. From this vantage point, the city is the color of red brick, tan stone, and green shade trees, almost European in its appearance.

"I love heights," Merkle said with a smile as darkness slowly fell and lights began to appear in the windows of the buildings. "I could sit up here all night."