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 you’ll ever see on our own, even if you 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 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 15 best observatories across the United States.
This post was originally published in December 2019, and was re-ranked and updated in December 2022.
The Best Observatories in the U.S.
Before jumping into the complete list with all the details, I thought it helpful to share a table showing my ranking of the best observatories across the U.S. This list of observatories was pulled from TripAdivsor, and the score was calculated using each observatories score, number of reviews, and percentage of “Excellent” reviews. The “Change” column was created comparing this list to my original one – which was put together by a third-party company (and pretty inaccurate, as you can see from how many observatories moved around a lot!).
Here’s the list of the best observatories in the U.S.:
|1||National Air & Space Museum||10.00||↑2|
|4||Yerkes Observatory||9.90 (79%)||New!|
|5||Bishop Museum||9.90 (65%)||↑3|
|6||Museum of Science||9.81||↑7|
|7||National Radio Astronomy Observatory||9.77 (72%)||↓1|
|8||Lowell Observatory||9.77 (65%)||↑2|
|9||Goldendale Observatory||9.72 (80%)||↓2|
|10||Kitt Peak National Observatory||9.72 (66%)||↓1|
|12||Cranbrook Institute of Science||9.59||↓1|
|13||Orlando Science Center||9.50||↑3|
|14||Chabot Space & Science Center||9.18||↑6|
|15||Dr. Ralph L. Buice, Jr. Observator||8.20||New!|
In the table above, observatories which received the same score were ranked by percentage of “Excellent” scores on TripAdvisor – higher Excellence scores won the higher ranking position.
Now I’ll go into greater detail about each one and how/when to visit. If there are any observatories you think I missed that should be on the list, let me know in the comments!
1. National Air & Space Museum
- Location: Washington, D.C.
- 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.
2. McDonald Observatory
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. Griffith Observatory
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.
4. Yerkes Observatory
- Location: Williams Bay, Wisconsin
- Website: yerkesobservatory.org
If you map out all of the observatories that made this year’s list of the best observatories in the U.S., you might notice a pattern: the vast majority of them are near the coasts. While this is in part because that’s where the majority of Americans live, it also means that’s where you’ll encounter some of the worst light pollution… so it’s well worth seeking out places that aren’t as affected by this when trying to get a good night of stargazing in.
That’s where Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin shines – no pun intended. The Yerkes Observatory actually began on a rooftop in Chicago in 1882, which is today one of the worst major U.S. cities for stargazing; a decade later, the observatory moved out of the city to neighboring Wisconsin and much better dark skies.
Today, you can visit Friday through Monday during the day to learn about Yerkes Observatory’s history and research, or keep an eye on their events page for special opportunities to come see the night sky from this historic Midwest observatory.
5. Bishop Museum
Hawaii is spectacular for stargazing and the Bishop Museum’s J. Watumull Planetarium was the first planetarium to open in all of Polynesia (geographically speaking!). 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.
6. Museum of Science
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!
7. National Radio Astronomy Observatory
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.
8. Lowell Observatory
I’m not quite sure how, but Lowell Observatory didn’t make my list when I first wrote it – I’m correcting that today by adding this famous Flagstaff observatory in its rightful place among the best observatories across the country.
As you might know, Lowell is famous as the place where Pluto was first discovered – and where astronomers first found evidence of the expansion of the universe. While this historic site is hallowed for many enthusiasts, it’s still a working observatory today and hosts a number of public events in addition to offering daily admission and stargazing opportunities. In 2020, the observatory added a 24″ Dyer telescope, which makes for great deep space gazing if you make a visit.
9. Goldendale Observatory
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.
10. Kitt Peak National Observatory
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.
11. Mauna Kea
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.
12. Cranbrook Institute of Science
Living in – or traveling to – the Great Lakes State? As you might imagine, being surrounded by water is generally a good thing for reducing light pollution, but Michigan is so big that you can still find plenty of the dreaded stuff near the state’s big cities. Despite this, Cranbrook Institute of Science – located on the outskirts of Detroit and one of Michigan’s great natural history museums – has an observatory where you can view the night skies.
The observatory is open Friday nights throughout the year, weather permitting, as well as Sundays during the day for safe solar viewing.
13. Orlando Science Center
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.
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.
14. Chabot Space & Science Center
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.
15. Dr. Ralph L. Buice, Jr. Observator (Fernbank Science Center)
- Location: DeKalb County, Georgia
- Website: fsc.fernbank.edu/observatory.html
Located inside Fernbank Science Center, the Dr. Ralph L. Buice, Jr. Observatory is a great option for those of you in the South, especially in the Atlanta area. While you’ll have a bit of light pollution to interfere with your experience, the price is well worth it to peer deeper into space than you can with unaided eyes alone.
Ferndale Science Center has both a planetarium and an observatory; the Jim Cherry Memorial Planetarium offers shows on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. The Observatory is only open when skies are clear, and there’s a phone number on the website to call and check if the telescopes will be open to the public on any given night.
There you go: 15 incredible observatories all over the country which you can plan a visit to 2023. Which of these observatories would you most like to visit this year? Let me know in the comments!