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2009 is the International Year of Astronomy. What better time to rediscover the wonders of the night sky?

Chile’s Atacama Desert mixes high altitude, dry air, and an absence of light pollution — a perfect recipe for some of the world’s best stargazing.

Photo: jovengandalf

The highest desert on Earth is not necessarily an easy place to get to, but if you go you’ll be rewarded with some of the clearest skies on the planet.

The Observatorio Cerro Mamalluca offers public tours.

Or, for a more personal experience, book a room at the Hotel Elqui Domos, where seven geodesic domes feature upstairs bedrooms with detachable roofs so guests can enjoy a stunning view of the heavens from the comfort of their bed.


Hawaii is also a highly regarded destination for viewing the stars. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, it’s relatively untouched by light pollution. The best spot in the island chain is the volcano of Mauna Kea on the Big Island.

At an altitude of 9,000 feet, it’s home to the Keck Observatory and one of the world’s largest optical telescopes.

It’s also the future site of the Thirty-Meter Telescope, which will be the most advanced telescope ever built when finished in 2018.

Hawaii beat out Chile for the honor of hosting this telescope after these two destinations were judged the best stargazing locations on the planet.

Visitors should begin at the Onizuka Visitors Center, which runs free nightly stargazing programs.

Southwestern United States

The Sonoran Desert in the American Southwest has particularly clear skies, and Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson houses the world’s largest collection of optical telescopes and offers nightly viewing opportunities.

Other sites in the region that are open to the public include Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles; Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona; and McDonald Observatory near El Paso, Texas. Or, in New Mexico, you can visit New Mexico Skies, rent a cabin in the Sacramento Mountains, and discover the stars from their mini-observatories.

Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah was the first place to be named an International Dark Sky Park and is considered to have some of the world’s best night views. Rangers lead summertime astronomy workshops.

Photo: photofish12

DIY stargazing is another way to go.

Bryce Canyon in Utah; the Grand Canyon in Arizona; Chaco Culture in New Mexico; and Joshua Tree, Yosemite, and Death Valley in California are all Southwest parks that put on spectacular nighttime shows.

Southern Africa

Many destinations in Africa are excellent for stargazing due to their low population density, low levels of light pollution, and frequent cloudless nights.

South Africa and Namibia have particularly good opportunities for public viewing. The South African Astronomical Observatory offers tours at facilities in Sutherland and Cape Town, while Kruger National Park has astronomy programs for safari tourists.

For a unique lodging experience in Namibia, the Sossusvlei Desert Lodge is not only near the world’s largest sand dunes, but also has its own observatory and astronomers.

Australia and New Zealand

Like Chile, South Africa, and Namibia, Australia’s and New Zealand’s positions in the Southern Hemisphere mean you’ll be able to see stars that aren’t visible in the North, most notably the constellation of the Southern Cross.

An easily accessible destination in Australia is the Sydney Observatory, located near Sydney Harbor.

If you want to escape the city, the Astronomical Society of New South Wales hosts the annual South Pacific Star Party at a 100-acre site three hours from Sydney.

Photo: a4gpa

Or, for a truly spectacular setting in the center of Australia, make your way to Uluru (Ayers Rock) for the Sounds of Silence experience, where you’ll dine in the open air and then listen to an astronomer give you a tour of the southern sky.

New Zealand has several good observatories, including the Auckland Stardome with its 360-degree dome theater. On the South Island, in Lake Tekapo township, the Mount John Observatory offers clear skies and a majestic location in the Southern Alps.


If you’re looking for a stargazing destination in Europe, Scotland has some of the darkest skies on the continent. The northern lights are even visible occasionally, a phenomenon that usually requires a trip closer to the Arctic Circle.

An organization called Dark Sky Scotland now promotes dark sky parks in the Scottish Highlands. For organized viewing, you can check out the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh.

Community Connection

Read about Matador managing editor Julie Schwietert’s night out in Shakespeare Under the Stars: A Night at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival.

For unforgettable Earth-bound vistas, check out Photo Essay: The Most Alien Landscapes on Earth.

About The Author

Bob Riel

Bob Riel is a freelance writer based in Arizona and author of the travel memoir, "Two Laps Around the World." Learn more by following him on Twitter.

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  • eileen

    oh good! glad to see Mamalluca got its due. Worth noting that you can choose your tour to be straight astronomy or astronomy plus indigenous myths and legends up there. Bring a coat, it’s freezing! Also, you can take tours from Vicuña, which is only an hour or so from La Serena, with frequent flights from Santiago (or take an overnight bus from Santiago to Vicuña and book a tour when the agency opens).

    Now to check out the other locations!

    • Hal Amen

      Yeah, the Mamalluca trip is a good time. It’s also worth noting that it can be combined with a tour of the Elqui Valley, which is probably the #1 tourist activity out of La Serena.

  • JoAnna

    Great list of stargazing spots in the Southwest, but you missed a major one. I just got back from Great Basin National Park, five hours north of Las Vegas on the Utah border, and it is scientifically one of the darkest places in the lower 48 states. We arrived two days after the meteor shower and still saw falling stars. It was amazing!

  • Caroline

    New Zealand is a phenomenal place for star gazing, especially on the west coast of the south island. Clear views of the southern cross, and its cool how some constellations (notably Orion) lay at different angles than they do in the N hemisphere.

  • Megan Hill

    Man….this has been on my radar for a while. Nice piece!

  • Amanda, traveling wedding photographer

    That’s awesome!

    The Uintah mountains in Utah also aren’t bad ( and they win for me because they are close ). I’ve watched the same Meteor shower there a few times !

  • Tom Gates

    I just got to Scotland now and didn’t have any idea that it could be so starry here. I’ll keep an eye out as I head north this weekend. Good tip!

  • Kelly

    Thanks for mentioning Mount John on the South Island in New Zealand! Im living in Christchurch right now, and am planning a weekend trip down to Tekapo in a few weeks just to go stargazing. Glad to know it’s among the top places in the world to do this!

  • Michelle

    Oh, I’ll keep this in mind next time I’m in Scotland! Thanks!

  • Tim Patterson

    Best stargazing I’ve experienced was on a cold winter night in the mountains of Vermont. Frigid nights make for the clearest skies.

  • South African

    I’m not so sure about Cape Town city for viewing stars (too much light pollution), but Sutherland is one of the best spots in the world for doing it.

  • Dani

    Best stargazing tour in Hawaii is offered by Tradewind Tours Hawaii. They are the only tour group that has access to a private ranch on the North Shore of Hawaii which is one of the better places for Star Gazing.

  • Tony

    Star Gazing in the Tahoe area is fantastic from the shores of the north side of the lake and from Northstar Ski Resort.

  • bruce picken

    GOOD TO SEE this site. the milky way was fantastic outside queenstown on the south island in n.z. yellowknife in the north west territories in canada was superb too as were taketomi island in japan and around monument valley in arizona. amazes me that there wasn’t a mention of anywhere in canada being great places for star gazing.

  • elctronyc

    One of the best places in the east cost in USA is Cherry Springs State park in PA.  It is a very dark place to go and look for the stars.

  • Kenitra R.

    We were camping in the northern part of Morocco (Ceuta) and the stars seemed to
    be totally touching each other there were so many!
    I have star gazed in many countries and Morocco was the greatest!

  • Jamie Glover

    Scotland? Are you fucking kidding me? We have pretty much PERMANENT fucking cloud cover, only get to use my telescope about once a month at best, away yes go >:|.

  • ambosc

    Not only is Scotland very cloudy, it doesn’t get properly dark there from May-July when you’re most likely to get clear skies. It might have large areas with little light pollution, but it’s not a place I’d recommend. And it’s so far north you can’t see some of the best sights in the night sky- Scorpius barely rises there for example.

    New Zealand on the other hand is fantastic- clean air, often clear, never too hot or cold and large empty dark spaces. And it gets all the best constellations, as a northerner I’d happily swap Polaris for Crux, Canopus, the Magellanic Clouds and 47 Tucanae!

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