The world's top stargazing spots

written by Lucy Cowie
updated 5/27/2019
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On January 31, 2018, stargazers and keen astrologists watched the arrival of a rare lunar event – a super blue blood moon. This spectacle is a combination of three astronomical phenomena: a blue moon, the second full moon of the month; a supermoon, when the moon is closer to Earth in its orbit so appears much brighter than normal; and a blood moon, when the moon passes through the Earth’s shadow and adopts a reddish hue.

While the UK only experienced two of these events – the supermoon and the blue moon – those based in other countries got to appreciate the full trio of moons. This lunar trifecta was first seen in Australia, before reaching Asia and America.

Didn't get to see it? Although NASA predict a super blue blood moon won’t be seen again in the USA until 2028, there's always a whole sky-full of constellations to enjoy. From remote islands to national parks and deserts, here’s our pick of the world’s best stargazing spots.

1. Brecon Beacons, Wales

Wales’s first "Dark Sky Reserve" has effectively minimised light pollution with the involvement of local communities, creating conditions clear enough to view meteor showers, nebulas and, more rarely, the Northern Lights. City-dwellers from nearby Cardiff and Bristol can bring their binoculars to Hay Bluff or to the atmospheric ruins of medieval Llanthony Priory to experience truly starry nights.

Milky Way over the Brecon Beacons National Park © Charles Palmer/Shutterstock

2. Aoraki Mackenzie, New Zealand

The night skies above mountainous Aoraki Mount Cook National Park and glacial Lake Tekapo are so clear and dark that the distant Magellanic Clouds are visible year-round. Earth & Sky introduce astrotourists to the southern hemisphere’s celestial highlights during tours of Mt John Observatory.

Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve © Matt Makes Photos/Shutterstock

3. Death Valley National Park, USA

Death Valley’s desolate canyons, salt flats and dunes were home to Timbisha Shoshone Indians for centuries before 19th-century pioneers struggled to cross its inhospitable terrain during the gold rush. But despite its history of habitation and proximity to the vivid glow of Las Vegas, it maintains "gold-tier" night skies, believed to offer a view of the stars close to those our ancestors experienced before the rise of cities. Powerful telescopes are used to zoom in on star-filled skies during special night events.

Zabriskie Point star trails, Death Valley © Jane Rix/Shutterstock

4. Pic du Midi, France

Hovering above the clouds amid the spectacular peaks of the Pyrenees, the Pic du Midi is an extraordinary viewpoint by day and night. As sunset gradually dims the mountainous panorama, bright stars blanket the skies. Space enthusiasts can spot constellations and planets on evening or overnight trips with cable cars ascending to the summit, cocktails and guided stargazing sessions.

© HUANG Zheng/Shutterstock

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5. Atacama Desert, Chile

Exceptionally dry conditions and limited cloud cover combine with the desert’s 5000m elevation to make it one of the world’s leading sites for space observation. International scientists use the high-tech satellites at the ALMA Observatory to "search for our cosmic origins", documenting the earliest stars and galaxies. The vast antennas clustered in the Atacama Desert are an otherworldly sight, angled expectantly towards the skies. Amateur astronomers can catch a glimpse of the control room and labs at weekends, or sign up to a desert "star tour" with San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations.

Milky way in Licancabur volcano at Atacama Desert © Fotografo de los Andes/Shutterstock

6. Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Thirteen huge telescopes occupy the summit of 4200m-high Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano on the southernmost Hawaiian island. In the darkness enabled by its altitude and low light pollution, scientists can scan the limits of the observable universe, detecting light from distant galaxies. Between sunrise and sunset, the mountaintop is open to visitors who have acclimatised to the high elevation.

The Milky Way rising over Mauna Kea volcano © J nel/Shutterstock

7. Sark, Channel Islands

Designated as the world’s first "Dark Sky Island" in 2011, tiny Sark is free from cars and street lighting, keeping light pollution very low. After sunset, the skies above the smallest of the Channel Islands become an inky-black backdrop illuminated by thousands of bright stars. Planets and, occasionally, shooting stars can be spotted without telescopes. Sark also has its own observatory for closer encounters with the solar system.

© Allard One/Shutterstock

8. NamibRand Nature Reserve, Namibia

In daylight, the NamibRand Nature Reserve is a dazzling wilderness of rust-coloured dunes and sandy plains, framed by the Nubib Mountains. Leopards, oryx and zebra roam through the desert, tracked by low-impact safari groups. By dark, stargazing visitors are treated to magnificent sightings of the moon, planets and constellations, justifying NamibRand’s status as Africa’s first Dark Sky Reserve. Clued-up guides can offer an introduction to astronomy, while Sossusvlei Desert Lodge has an observatory on site.

Namib Desert sand dunes with Milky way © jirawatfoto/Shutterstock

9. Teide Observatory, Tenerife

If your idea of the Canary Islands is limited to package holidays and karaoke bars, think again. Since 1964, the high-altitude Teide Observatory, perched on a volcano in Tenerife, has been an international hub for solar astronomy, with teams from around the world using its sophisticated telescopes to make new discoveries about the sun. Volcano Teide offer fledgling astronomers guided tours of the observatory, while their "starlight guides" can point out constellations from both hemispheres, meteor showers and, in season, the Summer Triangle.

Night, starry sky above the astronomical observatory in the Teide volcano national park in Tenerife © Mike Mareen/Shutterstock

10. Kerry, Ireland

Star clusters, nebula and the Andromeda Galaxy are all visible to the naked eye in the unpolluted skies above the lush Kerry peninsula, which is flanked by the Kerry Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean. Although its "Dark Sky Reserve" title is a 21st-century acquisition, inscriptions found on the region’s prehistoric monuments suggest that its inhabitants have been observing the planets for thousands of years. Today, guides use laser beams and telescopes to further enhance visitors’ views of the heavens.

© Agatha Kadar/Shutterstock

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written by Lucy Cowie
updated 5/27/2019
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