The Royal Observatory Greenwich is one of the world’s top historic astronomy destinations.
King Charles II commissioned the Royal Observatory in Greenwich in 1675. Sir Christopher Wren originally chose the site, and the Royal Observatory in Greenwich began operations in 1676. In the nearly 350 years since, the Royal Observatory Greenwich has been one of the foundational observatories in the world. In fact, on a list of nearly 2100 observatories registered by the International Astronomical Union, the Royal Observatory Greenwich is the first: #000.
The Royal Observatory Greenwich has become a popular tourist attraction in London, but most people who visit don’t necessarily care about (or know about) the astronomical importance of the site. In this guide, you’ll learn about all of the astronomy attractions at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, as well as regular and special events, and tips for planning a day trip to the Royal Observatory Greenwich for a day of astronomy history and education.
Astronomy Attractions at the Royal Observatory Greenwich
Unsurprisingly, most of the main attractions at the Royal Observatory Greenwich are astronomy related. Even those that seem decidedly earth-focused are important for understanding our planet’s place in the solar system. Several buildings and terraces comprise the Royal Observatory Greenwich:
- the Flamsteed House (named after the first Astronomer Royal) and the tomb marker of Edmond Halley (second Astronomer Royal)
- the modern visitor center
- several telescope domes and buildings
- London’s only planetarium
- the Astronomy Centre (including exhibits and a cafe)
It’s easy to spend a whole day exploring the area; some parts require ticketed admission whereas others are free. We detail this more below on our tips for visiting the Royal Observatory Greenwich.
The Prime Meridian is perhaps the most popular attraction at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. The Greenwich Prime Meridian is generally accepted as the official meridian of the world. Without agreement about the Prime Meridian, we could not provide a coordinate system for the planet – which comes in handy when mapping or imaging earth, or for recording astronomical observations.
So what is the Prime Meridian? This line marks the vertical equator of the planet, dividing the east and west hemispheres. Its coordinates are 0°0’00” longitude, so all longitude around the rest of the planet is based on this line. The Prime Meridian in Greenwich was actually established in 1851, long after the establishment of the Royal Observatory Greenwich.
At the Royal Observatory Greenwich, you can stand directly on the Prime Meridian. Look for the brass strip that runs through the buildings and courtyard which marks the line. You can also see this brass line on an exterior wall, and denoted by several hash marks on a sidewalk further down the hill from the Royal Observatory Greenwich.
Great Equatorial Telescope
The Great Equatorial Telescope is another popular attraction at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. This attraction is actually free and accessible from the gift shop! At the top of several increasingly narrow staircases, you’ll discover a massive 28-inch Refractor telescope housed in the Great Equatorial Building dome (also called the 38-inch Telescope Dome). This telescope is the 7th largest refractor telescope in the world.
The Great Equatorial Telescope was used at the Royal Observatory Greenwich between 1893 when it was installed and 1939 and the outbreak of World War II. Today, the Great Equatorial Telescope is used for night sky observations with the assistance of a computer-aided guidance system and a CCD camera to improve the accuracy of observations.
The Annie Maunder Astrographic Telescope (AMAT)
The Annie Maunder Astrographic Telescope (AMAT) is the newest astronomy attraction at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. This telescope was unveiled in the summer of 2018 to observe the lunar eclipse that passed over Europe in late July 2018. It’s called an “astrographic” telescope because it uses cameras to record astronomical observations, rather than the human eye.
The AMAT is named after Annie Maunder, a pioneering Irish female astronomer and astrophotographer. This modern telescope is housed in a 19th-century building on the Royal Observatory Greenwich grounds, called the Altazimuth Pavilion. While the Altazimuth Pavilion has limited hours and is occasionally closed to the public, there are occasional tours and ‘telescope treks‘ to learn more about this brand new telescope and the work it does.
The Peter Harrison Planetarium
The Peter Harrison Planetarium is located as part of the Royal Observatory Greenwich planetarium and astronomy center building. It’s affectionately called “London’s Planetarium,” because it is the only planetarium in London! The facility was opened in 2007 (a former planetarium in the Marylebone Road closed in 2006) and can hold 120 people for laser planetarium shows.
Shows cover a variety of topics including The Sky Tonight, dark matter, a tour of the solar system, and children’s shows to educate young astronomers about the universe. Additionally, some recurring and special events including astronomy classes take place in the planetarium. Details about some of these can be found below.
The Astronomy Center is located within the Royal Observatory Greenwich building. It is home to galleries that focus on astronomy and the work conducted at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. There are three main galleries: the Astronomy Inspires gallery, the Astronomy Explores gallery, and the Astronomy Questions gallery.
Each gallery has interactive exhibits and displays for astronomers of all ages. The Astronomy Center also houses a meteorite you can touch, as well as information about how the meteorite came to be on display.
Yuri Gagarin Statue & Terrace
Located outside the Astronomy Center is the Yuri Gagarin statue and terrace of the same name. Here, you can see a statue of the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin. This statue was unveiled in 2011 to mark the 50th anniversary of Gagarin’s historic flight on April 12, 1961, aboard the Vostok 1 space capsule. Today, you can enjoy a bite from the Astronomy Cafe or Wen restaurant on the terrace as Yuri’s arm points skyward.
Related: Learn about the History of Space Exploration & Space Tourism
In addition to these sights, keep your eyes peeled all over the Royal Observatory Greenwich. You’ll see tons of astronomy instruments and telescopes around the property and in the exhibits.
Recurring Astronomy Events at the Royal Observatory Greenwich
In addition to the above sights that you can see every day, plus any daily programming or tours at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, there are some recurring events that either happen outside of normal business hours or offer something extra beyond the self-guided options. Here are a few of those recurring astronomy events:
Young Astronomers Workshop
The Young Astronomers Workshop occurs most weekends for families visiting the Royal Observatory Greenwich who have a particularly interested kid in the family. Observatory staff set up hands-on experiments and activities to help kids understand how space science and astronomy work. Admission is free.
For adults interested in astronomy and space science, the Royal Observatory Greenwich offers cool formal coursework. These courses occur outside business hours for an enrollment fee. You, your classmates, and your tutor may be the only ones on the property at class times!
- Introduction to Astronomy covers the absolute basics of astronomy. Courses range from six weeks to two years depending on your interest and knowledge.
- Introduction to Astrophysics follows on from the Introduction to Astronomy course to teach you the math and science behind astronomical research. The course covers Solar System exploration, exoplanets, dark matter and dark energy, cosmology, and the Big Bang.
- Introduction to Astrobiology is another interesting day class that is offered at least once each year. It covers the science of life and how life came to be on earth. It also discusses where we might find life elsewhere in our solar system and beyond.
If you’re looking to advance your personal knowledge of astronomy, these courses are a great option.
GCSE Astronomy for Adults
Some budding astronomers might look for formal certificates of their knowledge and the GSCE Astronomy for Adults course is a great non-school option. This course is offered over the academic year and prepares students to sit the GCSE Astronomy exam. Not for the faint of heart, this class requires two exams on naked-eye and telescopic astronomy plus the GCSE exam at the end of the course.
Amateur Astronomy for Beginners
At the other end of the spectrum, the Amateur Astronomy for Beginners course is great for those who want to learn astronomy as a hobby. This course is offered 1-2 times per year and teaches the basics of astronomy beyond the Introduction to Astronomy course.
An Evening with the Stars
Outside normal hours, the Royal Observatory Greenwich offers An Evening With the Stars. This programming is great for those who may have already visited the Observatory o want a new experience. In addition to a planetarium show, “The Sky Tonight,” you’ll have the chance to view through the Great Equatorial Telescope and meet with astronomers.
Special Astronomy Events at the Royal Observatory Greenwich
In addition to regular events, there are a variety of special events at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. These occur on a weekly, monthly, or yearly basis depending on the topic. While you might not be able to plan your trip to the Observatory around these, it’s fun to add them on to an already-planned one.
Great Equatorial Encounter
If you’re curious about the Great Equatorial Telescope, the Great Equatorial Encounter is a must-attend. In it, you’ll learn about the history of the telescope plus have a VR experience of using the telescope to view the night sky. Astronomers are also on hand to answer questions. While the Great Equatorial Telescope is typically free to visit, this special event occurs at set times. Admission is £6 for adults and £4.80 for children.
Astronomy Photographer of the Year Exhibition
The 2018 Astronomy Photographer of the Year winners make headlines every year. These stunning astrophotographs are on display in the National Maritime Museum (not the Royal Observatory Greenwich). The museum is free to enter but the exhibit costs £9 for adults or £5.85 for children. It’s a worthwhile stop if you’re already planning to visit the Royal Observatory Greenwich!
Silver Screen Science Fiction
Movie fans will want to attend this monthly event! Come to watch a famous or popular science fiction movie during Silver Screen Science Fiction on the giant Planetarium screen. Afterward, learn the science behind the films with an astronomer talk. Tickets are £10.30 for adults or £8.20 for children and probably the cheapest movie tickets in London!
Astronomy & Islam Morning
The Astronomy & Islam Morning event is arguably one of the more interesting options for astronomy fans visiting the Royal Observatory Greenwich. This event occurs monthly and focuses on the new crescent moon. Astronomers teach how to spot this sliver of moon, how ancient Arabic astronomers helped our understanding of the moon, and the significance of the new crescent moon. There’s also a family-friendly option. Admission is £8 for adults or £6.40 for children and includes access to the rest of the Observatory.
Members Tour of the Royal Observatory
If you live in London or travel there frequently and love the Royal Observatory Greenwich, you might consider becoming a member. As a member, you’ll have access to member-only events, including Members Tours. These volunteer-led tours occur several times throughout the year. During them, you’ll get an additional layer of knowledge and history of the Observatory beyond what you learn on the self-guided option. These events are free for members only.
Throughout the year, the Royal Observatory Greenwich also hosts holiday events. For example, you can attend A Valentine’s Evening with the Stars with your loved one, which includes a romantically-themed planetarium show. Or, attend a Christmas lecture by a prominent astronomer; in 2018 this focuses on the Juno mission to Jupiter. Dates, times, and prices vary based on the event.
Occasionally, the Royal Observatory Greenwich offers programming that combines science and art. In 2018, this included a concert called The Planets. Composers created original works about the planets, designed for the Planetarium acoustics! In 2019, look for any concert events if this sounds interesting to you!
Tips for Spending a Day at the Royal Observatory Greenwich
If you’re planning to spend a day at the Royal Observatory Greenwich enjoying all of these astronomical events, here are some tips:
- Book in advance. You can purchase admission in advance, online. This helps if you’re planning to attend a specific planetarium show too, so you know what time the showing begins.
- Check the events calendar. There are special and recurring events happening all the time at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. If you see any special programming you want to attend, be sure to book these in advance too. Most events sell out in advance, so it’s tough to get day-of tickets.
- Arrive early. It can be quite busy at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, so arrive early to try and beat the crowds. The Observatory opens at 10 am and it’s a 20-30-minute walk from the DLR stop in Greenwich up to the Observatory. You can also enjoy the view from the hill if you arrive early.
- Budget-friendly options exist. If you don’t want to blow your whole budget visiting the Royal Observatory Greenwich, choose free options. You can visit the Great Equatorial Telescope and the exhibits at the Astronomy Centre for free without having to pay admission.
- Stop by the cafes to refuel. Most people may not be aware that there are two cafes and two gift shops at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. If you’re feeling peckish or need a rest, these are a great spot to stop. You can also admire the Yuri Gagarin statue at that time.
There’s so much to see at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. It’s a perfect destination for astronomers of all ages who want to learn about the history and future of space science.
Have questions about the Royal Observatory Greenwich? Visit their website.
Featured photo credit: Marc Czerlinsky via Flickr