Five Destinations for the Astro-Tourist

If you’re traveling on vacation over the next couple of months, why not skip the usual tourist destinations and tend to your interest in the night sky? There are many fascinating destinations for stargazers, and if you’re lucky enough to find yourself near one of the following five landmarks, try to stop in for a few hours. There’s enough to grab the interest of nearly any astronomy buff.

1. Royal Observatory, Greenwich (ROG), Greenwich U.K.
Founded in 1675, the ROG was one of the key centers of astronomical research in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the workplace of famous historical astronomers such as John Flamsteed and Edmund Halley. The work done here, particularly in the areas of timekeeping and navigation, helped England become a dominant world naval power for more than 200 years.

The air here is thick with astronomical history. The observatory grounds, which is adjacent to the fascinating National Maritime Museum, marks the prime meridian, the great circle of 0 degrees longitude. You can straddle the line separating the eastern and western halves of our globe.

ROG also houses what were most important timepieces in the world… the series of astounding devices created by John Harrison in the 18th century which allowed maritime navigators to accurately determine longitude, making global circumnavigation far safer and more productive.

The observatory also hosts a 28-inch refractor, the largest in the U.K. On July 17-18, visitors who book ahead get a chance to look through the scope at the Moon or Venus.

The prime meridian running through the Royal Observatory, Greenwich.

2. Hayden Planetarium (New York City, USA)
While New York City offers no end of things to see and do, even the most casual stargazer will enjoy a visit to the Hayden Planetarium. Adjacent to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), the planetarium was completely rebuilt a decade ago and makes up part of the Rose Center for Earth and Space at AMNH. You can’t miss the new Hayden… the main section of the planetarium is an immense grey-white sphere set aglow after sunset with striking blue lights (see image at top of page).

The top section of the so-called Hayden Sphere hosts the Star Theater, which uses high-resolution video to project space shows on the inside of the dome. It also houses a Zeiss Star Projector system to replicate the night sky during regular planetariums shows.

In the lower half of the sphere, you’ll find the Big Bang Theater, which depicts the birth of the universe in a short but fascinating video program.

You can also visit the Hall of Planet Earth to explore the geology, weather, and plate tectonics of our own planets, or go down to the Hall of the Universe to explore the planets, stars, and galaxies.

3. Griffith Observatory (Los Angeles, USA)
Greater Los Angeles may not seem like a promising location for stargazing. But what the city lacks in dark sky, it makes up for with the world-famous Griffith Observatory, one of the prime attractions for thinking tourists in all of southern California.

Founded by real-estate and mining baron Griffith J. Griffith, the observatory sits on the slope of Mount Hollywood in Griffith Park. The site offers a stunning view of the Los Angels basin, including downtown L.A., Hollywood, and the Pacific Ocean.

Keen-eyed movie buffs know that several scenes from the movie Rebel Without a Cause were shot at the observatory; a bust of James Dean now sits on the west side of the grounds.

Griffith Observatory is entirely dedicated to education and public outreach. Along with the Samuel Oschin Planetarium and Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon theater, the observatory houses a 12-inch Zeiss refractor, the most looked-through telescope in the world. More than 7 million people have peered through its finely figured lens. As many as 600 visitors look through the telescope most clear nights, so arrive early in the evening if you can.

The Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles

4. Center of the Universe (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada)
If you’re lucky enough to find yourself on Canada’s beautiful West Coast, make an effort to get to Victoria, the capital of British Columbia on Vancouver Island. There, just 10 minutes north of downtown, you’ll find the cleverly-named Centre of the Universe on the campus of the renowned Herzberg Institute for Astrophysics.

The Centre is a 7000 square-foot interpretive centre, packed with interactive displays, a planetarium, and a multimedia theatre. On Saturday nights from July 19 through September 4, you’ll get a chance to see an image from the 1.8 m Plaskett Telescope, which was, for a short time in the early 20th century, the world’s largest telescope.

The grounds command a view of the city of Victoria, the deep-blue Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the jagged snow-capped peaks of Washington’s Olympic Mountains in the background. This view is almost as beautiful as the night sky itself!

5. Iziko Planetarium (Capetown, South Africa)

It’s winter in the southern hemisphere. But that hasn’t stopped tens of thousands of soccer fans from traveling to South Africa to watch the FIFA World Cup. If you’re planning a visit to this fascinating country (or if you’re already there), visit the planetarium in the Iziko South African Museum in Capetown. The planetarium offers regular sky shows… all the more interesting because they focus on the dazzling southern sky.

Until August 5, a special show features the geology and ecology of Cape Town’s famous Table Mountain, the only geographical feature represented by a constellation (the constellation Mensa).