The world's 10 best places to stargaze

Since the earliest of times, humans have gazed heavenwards in wonderment and pondered the mysteries of the universe. Here are 10 top places from which to stargaze and marvel.

MAUNA KEA, HAWAII

You can hardly get better for astronomical observations than the 2800-metre summit of this mid-Pacific mountain, which features very dark skies, the world's largest telescope and the assorted astronomy-related outposts of a dozen nations. Take a walking tour of the monster, eight-storey Keck Observatory and stargaze at Onizuka Visitor Information Station, which hosts free events on various evenings of the week and runs an interesting astronomy-related documentary. See ifa.hawaii.edu

CANARY ISLANDS, SPAIN

The quality of the Canary sky is protected by law, making astronomical research and astro-tourism an important business on these Atlantic islands where, unusually, you can see all the stars of the northern hemisphere and much of the southern too. Both La Palma and Tenerife have observatories atop volcanic peaks. Mount Teide is a UNESCO Starlight Reserve, and there are 12 other designated star-viewing points around La Palma. See hellocanaryislands.com

KIRUNA, SWEDEN

Head north of the Arctic Circle and you're guaranteed dark skies. That makes Kiruna a spectacle for stars, but the Northern Lights or aurora borealis is the headline act of winter. One of the world's most stunning natural phenomena is created when electric particles in solar wind and the Earth's magnetosphere collide and emit light that unfolds across the skies in undulating curtains of electric blue, eerie green and violet. See kirunalapland.se

PARKES, NSW

The CSIRO Parkes Radio Telescope is one of Australia's top-performing scientific research facilities and came to public attention after the 2000 movie The Dish. The telescope has played a crucial role in many NASA voyages and mapped the galaxies of the southern skies. It has helped discover quasars, interstellar magnetic fields and most known pulsars. The recently refurbished Discovery Centre explains the science and has 3D movies about the universe. See parkes.atnf.csiro.au

NAMIBRAND RESERVE, NAMIBIA

The largest private nature reserve in Africa is a member of the International Dark Sky Association, which recognises exceptional destinations for their night environment, starlit skies and astronomical sites. It has one of the darkest skies measured, with almost non-existent light pollution. The result? An amazing look at the shimmering spread of the Milky Way and Magellanic Clouds, plus the southern constellations surrounded by more stars than you've ever seen. See darksky.org/namibrand

ROYAL OBSERVATORY, ENGLAND

This observatory, sitting atop a hill above the Thames River in Greenwich some 12 kilometres from central London, provided the world with its time zones (the prime meridian crosses its courtyard) and explains how the British cracked the puzzle, crucial to sea travel, of how to measure longitude. There are child-friendly exhibitions on astronomy at adjacent Peter Harrison Planetarium, which also has good shows, narrated live by astronomers. See rmg.co.uk

FLORENCE, ITALY

The great 17th-century astronomer Galileo invented the refracting telescope, becoming the first human to view the moon's pitted surface, puzzling sunspots and Jupiter's moons. His telescopes and other instruments are displayed in the recently expanded Museo Galileo. Arcetri Astrophysical Observatory outside the city has guided evening visits for a look at the night sky, a great opportunity to spy Jupiter and Mars up close, as well as glimpse cosmic rays. See firenzeturismo.it

LAKE TEKAPO, NEW ZEALAND

You can gaze at the universe at both Cowan's Observatory and Mt John Observatory inside the world's largest Dark Sky Reserve. Although you can tour during the daytime (Mt John's Astro Cafe has spectacular mountain views), night visits allow a peek at planets, constellations, the moon's craters and distant star clusters. Various tour companies offer stargazing activities; you can even float in hot springs while you admire the stars. See tekapotourism.com

NAGOYA CITY SCIENCE MUSEUM, JAPAN

Here you'll find the biggest and most sophisticated planetarium in the world, with a 35-metre dome, 350 seats and the latest in technology. It appears to hang in midair, wedged between two museum buildings. Although narration is only in Japanese, it's still worth seeing the regular 50-minute projection, which can reproduce the motion of the 9000-odd stars visible to the naked eye from any one point on Earth. See

GRIFFITH OBSERVATORY, LOS ANGELES

Light interference and pollution seldom make cities ideal for stargazing, yet cities often have easily visited observatories with interesting astronomical histories. Los Angeles' hilltop Griffith Observatory and its remarkable Art Deco architecture has appeared in movies from Rebel Without a Cause to La La Land. Telescopes give you a glimpse of Venus, Jupiter and swirling nebulae, and the planetarium offers some of the world's best shows. See griffithobservatory.org

Brian Johnston was a guest of the host tourism organisations.

Gippsland Senior
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