While everyone can enjoy the wonders of the night sky from their backyard or a nearby dark sky destination, there’s nothing quite like visiting an observatory. Observatories offer awe-inspiring views of objects in our solar system and deep space.. Often what we can see at these astronomy centers is better than we’ll ever see on our own, even if we own a telescope.
Additionally observatories usually include programs where amateur or professional astronomers can teach you about all those amazing things you’re seeing. But wait: How do we know which observatory to visit? Which are the best observatories in the U.S.?
In this post, you’ll learn about the 25 best observatories across the U.S. from the East Coast to the West – from the Pacific Northwest to New England to the Southeast. Whether you live near one of these great observatories or are planning a trip, consider spending an evening at one of these – the 25 best observatories in the U.S.
How These Observatories Were Chosen: To create this list of the best observatories, best planetariums, and best science museums across the USA, Kuoni compared 117 locations to find the top 25 with the best average review score on TripAdvisor. These locations were then re-ordered by highest volume of ‘Excellent’ reviews and cross-referenced with whether they have been awarded a Certificate of Excellence.
1. Oregon University Observatory
- Location: Sunriver, Oregon
- Score: 5/5 on TripAdvisor, 84% Excellent Reviews, Certificate of Excellence
- Website: snco.org
Sunriver’s elevation, pitch-dark surroundings, and crystal clear air make it the perfect place to witness a meteor shower, get a glimpse of globular clusters, nebulae and deep space binary stars, as well as our closest star, the Sun.
The Oregon University Observatory in Sunriver is open for public Night Sky Viewing on Wednesdays and Saturdays and Daytime Solar Viewing on Wednesday to Sunday. With over 30 telescopes from Tele Vue refractors to a 30-inch Newtonian, don’t be surprised if you want to try and peek through them all – or at least the one’s they’re using any given day or night! Entry is $10 per person.
2. McDonald Observatory
- Location: Fort David, Texas
- Score: 4.5/5 on TripAdvisor, 77% Excellent Reviews, Certificate of Excellence
- Website: mcdonaldobservatory.org
Every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday evening, the McDonald Observatory Visitor Center opens for Twilight and Star Party programs. The Twilight Program is a theatre-based session led by the centre’s education staff, while the Star Parties offer access to several telescopes in the Rebecca Gale Telescope Park.
During these events, visitors receive a guided orientation in the open-air amphitheater. Then you’ll rotate through various telescopes to view stars or planets targeted by staff. Entry costs $15 per person.
3. National Radio Astronomy Observatory
- Location: Socorro, New Mexico
- Score: 4.5/5 on TripAdvisor, 73% Excellent Reviews, Certificate of Excellence
- Website: public.nrao.edu
The NRAO Visitor Center features an award-winning documentary narrated by Jodie Foster, who starred in the movie Contact which filmed here back in the 1990s. You can also explore exhibits describing radio astronomy and the Very Large Array – affectionately known as the VLA.
If you want to visit, the VLA hosts three free guided tours on the first and third Saturdays of each month at 11am, 1pm, and 3pm. These guided tours last about 50 minutes and take visitors to areas behind-the-scenes at the VLA. The First Saturday Tour event culminates in an evening of free Guided Night Sky Telescope Viewing at the Etscorn Observatory on the Campus of NM Tech located in Socorro. The night-time event begins at dark and lasts two hours.
4. National Air & Space Museum
- Location: Washington, D.C.
- Score: 4.5/5 on TripAdvisor, 69% Excellent Reviews, Certificate of Excellence
- Website: airandspace.si.edu
From 12pm-3pm on every Wednesday to Saturday, visitors at the National Air & Space Museum in Washington D.C. can view the wonders of the sun and the universe at the Phoebe Waterman Haas Public Observatory.
Staff are on hand to help observe the Sun, Moon and other objects in space using solar-filtered telescopes. White-light telescopes show a view of the Sun’s surface and the hydrogen-alpha (red light) and calcium-K (purple light) telescopes show the Sun’s atmosphere, too. Entry is free.
5. Kitt Peak National Observatory
- Location: Tuscon, Arizona
- Score: 4.5/5 on TripAdvisor, 67% Excellent Reviews, Certificate of Excellence
- Website: naoa.edu
Kitt Peak National Observatory is home to one of the largest arrays of optical and radio telescopes in the world. In addition to conducting ground-breaking astronomical research, the Visitor Center programs are open for daytime guided tours and a variety of evening stargazing programs.
Kitt Peak runs a number of different public astronomy programs throughout the year, including a Nightly Observing Program, the small group Dark Sky Discovery program where you can look through the telescopes, and even an Overnight Telescope Observing program. These typically every night of the year except July 15th to September 1st, which is commonly known as ‘monsoon season’ in Arizona.
6. Griffith Observatory
- Location: Los Angeles, California
- Score: 4.5/5 on TripAdvisor, 65% Excellent Reviews, Certificate of Excellence
- Website: griffithobservatory.org
Colonel Griffith J. Griffith left funds in his will to build a public observatory in Los Angeles because he believed in the transformative power of observation. Since opening in 1935, Griffith Observatory has fulfilled his vision by offering public telescope viewing through the historic Zeiss telescope, historic coelostat (solar telescope), and portable telescopes on the lawn.
Free public telescopes are available each evening the Observatory is open and skies are clear with knowledgeable volunteers available to help guide visitors. If you want more guidance, public star parties are held monthly at Griffith Observatory; the dates vary throughout the month, can be found on the Griffith Observatory website, and are free to attend.
7. Bishop Museum
- Location: Honolulu, Hawaii
- Score: 4.5/5 on TripAdvisor, 65% Excellent Reviews, Certificate of Excellence
- Website: bishopmuseum.org
Hawaii is spectacular for stargazing and the Bishop Museum’s J. Watumull Planetarium was the first planetarium to open in all of Polynesia. The Chronos II star machine provides one of the most vivid, realistic recreations of the night sky available today, with 8,500 pinpoint stars and realistic, bright planets.
The Stars Tonight show (first Saturday of the month) offers public viewing through the observatory telescope and from the observatory deck – weather permitting. The cost is $10 per person.
8. Cincinatti Observatory Center
- Location: Cincinnati, Ohio
- Score: 4.5/5 on TripAdvisor, 64% Excellent Reviews, Certificate of Excellence
- Website: cincinnatiobservatory.org
Open on Thursday, Fridays, and some Saturdays throughout the year, the Cincinnati Observatory Center’s Astronomy Evenings typically include short astronomy presentations on a wide variety of topics, a short tour of this National Historic Landmark and then time for stargazing through the 1845 telescope.
This family-friendly evening (perfect for ages 7+) is the perfect way to see the moon, Saturn, Jupiter and stars. Program held rain or shine, viewing is weather permitting. The entry fee $7 per person.
9. Museum of Science
- Location: Boston, Massachusetts
- Score: 4.5/5 on TripAdvisor, 63% Excellent Reviews, Certificate of Excellence
- Website: mos.org
The Astronomy After Hours program at Boston‘s Museum of Science are run every Thursday evening in July and August, and Fridays in October. At these events, you’re invited to view stars, planets, the moon and other astronomical phenomena from the museum’s Gilliland Observatory, on the roof of the parking garage. Even better, these events are free to attend!
10. Orlando Science Center
- Location: Orlando, Florida
- Score: 4.5/5 on TripAdvisor, 60% Excellent Reviews, Certificate of Excellence
- Website: osc.org
Atop Orlando Science Center sits a domed observatory. From there, you can see wonders such as the four moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, and deep sky objects – galaxies, nebulas, and binary star systems, oh my!
Peer into the cosmos at Star-Studded Evenings with the Crosby Observatory’s 10″ Byers refracting telescope for an out-of-this world experience. These events typically occur on Friday and Saturday nights when the skies are clear, and the cost is $10 per person.
11. Chabot Space & Science Center
- Location: Oakland, California
- Score: 4.5/5 on TripAdvisor, 52% Excellent Reviews, Certificate of Excellence
- Website: chabotspace.org
Nestled in the Oakland hills of the San Francisco Bay Area, Chabot’s three large historic telescopes offer a unique way to experience the awe and wonder of the universe. The observatory deck offers breath-taking views 1,500 feet above the Bay.
Experience spectacular night sky viewing on Friday and Saturday evenings; during the summer months, telescopes open once the skies are dark.
12. The Ralph Buice Jr. Observatory
- Location: Atlanta, Georgia
- Score: 4/5 on TripAdvisor, 46% Excellent Reviews, Certificate of Excellence
- Website: fernbank.edu
Located in Atlanta, the Dr. Ralph L. Buice Jr. Observatory at Fernbank Science Center houses a 0.9 meter Cassegrain reflector beneath a 10 meter dome. This is the largest telescope in the south-eastern United States and one of the largest instruments ever dedicated to education and public viewing.
Free public observations are offered every Thursday and Friday evening from 9pm (or dark) until 10:30pm, weather permitting. An astronomer will be available to position the telescope and answer questions, all for free!
13. Gunnison Valley Observatory
- Location: Gunnison, Colorado
- Score: 5/5 on TripAdvisor, 86% Excellent Reviews
- Website: gunnisonvalleyobservatory.org
The Gunnison Valley Observatory is open for public viewings Friday and Saturday evenings from mid-June to mid-September. When it is dark, 15 visitors at a time will ascend the spiral staircase into the dome. You will experience the rotation of the computer-driven dome above your head and will each take turns viewing a night sky object. This could be a nebula, double star, globular cluster, planet, the moon or many other wonders.
If the classroom is full, a second program will take place after the first. While you wait for the classroom program, or if you don’t want to sit through the program, head outside the facility where smaller telescopes will be set up and staffed to expand your viewing opportunities. These events are free, but a donation of $5 is recommended.
14. Mauna Kea
- Location: Hilo, Hawaii
- Score: 4.5/5 on TripAdvisor, 80% Excellent Reviews
- Website: maunakeaobservatories.org and ifa.hawaii.edu
The best astronomical observations in the world are happening in Hawaii, high atop the sacred mountain Mauna Kea. It is home to some of the most scientifically productive telescopes in the world, making Hawaii an international leader in astronomical science.
While the majority of the Mauna Kea observatories are closed to the public, you can stop by the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station (VIS) to inquire about access to the summit during the daylight hours – and some tours get access after dark.
15. Goldendale Observatory
- Location: Goldendale, Washington
- Score: 4.5/5 on TripAdvisor, 80% Excellent Reviews
- Website: goldendaleobservatory.org
The Goldendale Observatory in Washington State recently underwent its first major refurbishment in 46 years and now includes an advanced learning centre to compliment the iconic observatory dome. A limited schedule of public nights and request visits will be running through the soft launch of the newly refurbed observatory (until the end of 2019). Admission is free, but a park pass is $10 for the day.
16.-25. The Other Observatories that Made the List
- Golden Pond Observatory, Golden Pond, Kentucky – 4.5 on TripAdvisor (75% Excellent Reviews) – Open daily 10am-5pm. Check the website for special events throughout the year.
- Bruneau Dunes Observatory, Bruneau, Idaho – (4.5 on TripAdvisor; 74% Excellent Reviews) Friday and Saturday evenings, mid-March through October.
- Adirondack Sky Center & Observatory, Tupper Lake, New York – (4.5 on TripAdvisor; 72% Excellent Reviews) Every clear Friday evening from Memorial Day through Labor Day; after Labor Day it is open for public viewing on the 1st and 3rd Friday of each month.
- Mount Wilson Observatory, Pasadena, California – (4.5 on TripAdvisor; 71% Excellent Reviews) Public guided tours most weekends, 11.30am-1pm.
- Cranbrook Institute of Science, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan – (4.5 on TripAdvisor; 70% Excellent Reviews) Friday and Saturday 8.30pm-10pm, and Sunday 1-4pm.
- Centennial Observatory Open House, Twin Falls, Idaho – (4.5 on TripAdvisor; 68% Excellent Reviews) Public stargazing events on the 2nd Saturday of the month, year around, from one hour after sunset until midnight.
- DuPont Planetarium, Aiken, South Carolina – (4.5 on TripAdvisor; 66% Excellent Reviews) RPSEC Observatory open post-Planetarium shows on Saturday evenings.
- Lick Observatory, San Jose, California – (4.5 on TripAdvisor; 65% Excellent Reviews) Open daily for tours of the historic telescopes. For evening viewing, consider the summer series of concert, lecture and viewing packages. Prices between $35 and $150.
- Chamberlin Observatory, Denver, Colorado – (4.5 on TripAdvisor; 63% Excellent Reviews) Public stargazing events are held once a month on Saturdays 7-10pm; see the website for specific dates.
- Frosty Drew Nature Center and Observatory, Charlestown, Rhode Island – (4.5 on TripAdvisor; 62% Excellent Reviews) Events held every Friday night from 7pm weather permitting.
A World to Explore the Wonders Above
As you can see, the best observatories stretch from coast to coast across the United States. From California to Washington and Rhode Island to Florida, there are great opportunities for you to visit an observatory and learn about the wonder of the night sky. All you need to do is find the one closest to you – or add one on to a trip you’re already planning!
Which of these observatories would you most like to visit? Let us know in the comments.
Featured photo credit: ESO/José Francisco Salgado (www.josefrancisco.org)