12 Out-Of-This-World Observatories

Star trails in the sky above a white building
Photo: tobkatrina/Shutterstock

There’s nothing like sprawling out on a blanket on a darkened field, somewhere far from the city, to view a celestial light show. Staring off into a star-filled sky is one of life's simplest yet most profound pleasures, a humbling experience that reminds us of the staggering immensity of the universe we call home.

Sometimes, however, serious stargazers need to seek out the big guns. And for that, there are observatories, telescope-housing institutions dedicated to the exploration of celestial objects: the moon, the sun, the stars and planets far away. Observatories have played a crucial role in the development of our understanding of the cosmos for millennia.

We've rounded up 12 of the world's most spectacular earthbound observatories, including the Griffith Observatory pictured here, with an emphasis on architecture, public accessibility and historical importance. While contemporary observatories are equipped with impressive high-tech hardware (we're looking at you, Mauna Kea), there's nothing quite like a classic observatory where a view of the heavens is just a glimpse into a vintage refractor telescope away. (Text: Matt Hickman)

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Einstein Tower

Photo: Claudio Divizia/Shutterstock

Of all the buildings named in honor of the world's favorite frizzy-haired German physicist (and there are many), the Einsteinturm, as it's known locally, is perhaps the most striking: an eccentric expressionist landmark that serves as the stucco-clad centerpiece of Potsdam’s Alfred Einstein Science Park.

Completed in 1921, the Erich Mendelsohn-designed tower houses a solar telescope — that is, a telescope for observing the sun — conceived specifically by astronomer Erwin Finlay-Freundlich to support Einstein’s theory of relativity. The amorphic edifice itself, damaged heavily and stripped of its name during World War II, defies easy description. The Twentieth Century Society likens it to a "wind swept submarine with the sprawled arms of a phoenix" while others have remarked on its Middle Earth-y architectural qualities. Legend has it that Einstein had a rather cool reaction to Mendelsohn's structure when taken on a tour by the young and in-demand architect, simply calling it "organic." Compliment? Burn? We'll never know. Regardless, this iconic astrophysical observatory, now operated as part of the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam (AIP), lives on with a special emphasis placed on its preservation. The building was recently awarded a Keeping It Modern architectural conservation grant from the Getty Foundation, a grant that, in the words of Matthias Steinmetz of the AIP, "allows us to develop a sustainable long-term conservation plan and maintain the Einstein Tower as a science-technical landmark, monument and active research facility."

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Fabra Observatory

Photo: Doc Searls/flickr

In an incline-heavy metropolis surrounded by slopes and scenic overlooks most easily accessed by cable car or funicular, many of the most stunning buildings in Barcelona, calf-strengthening capital of Catalonia, just happen to be perched up there.

Located in a grand Modernista palace, Fabra Observatory — Observatori Fabra as the locals say — has the both breathtaking views and historic architecture firmly squared away (refreshingly, minus Barcelona’s patented maddening crowds). Perched high atop Mount Tibidabo at an elevation of over 1,350 feet, this Royal Academy of Sciences and Arts-operated institution has served as a scientific triple-threat dedicated to the study of meteorology, seismology and astronomy since 1904. Daytime guided tours of the facility along with nighttime star-peeping sessions are both offered. However, the most memorable — and delicious — way to experience Fabra Observatory is to feast al fresco at dusk on the observatory's main terrace. Offered during the summer months, the Sopars amb Estrelles (Dinner under the Stars) series combines high-end gastronomy with geek-friendly lectures concerning a range of celestial bodies. Commencing with a glass of cava, astronomy-inspired menu offerings include tomato tartar with tuna fillets and mushroom risotto with truffle oil. Following the dessert course, guests are invited into the observatory’s great dome where they can step up to a century-old refractor telescope for a closer glimpse of the night sky. Talk about a heavenly dining experience.

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Griffith Observatory

Photo: Ron Reiring/flickr

The Beverly Hills Hotel. Chateau Marmont. The Ivy. Malibu Country Mart. While these are all fine places in La-La Land to partake in stargazing, for the real celestial deal, you must ascend Mount Hollywood and pay a visit to the Griffith Observatory.

The magnificent art deco crown jewel of Griffith Park, L.A.'s iconic astronomical observatory has been open to the public, for free, since 1935. The observatory’s planetarium and telescopes, including a historic 12-inch Zeiss refracting telescope, remain top draws although it's not so much what's in the (light-polluted) night sky that keeps tourists and native Angelenos alike coming in droves. Even through layers of smog and haze, the sweeping city views commanded from the observatory grounds are nothing short of breathtaking. The building is perched 1,134 feet above sea level atop one of America's premier urban parks, so hiking is also a popular activity around the observatory, which is also home to a Tesla coil, Foucault pendulum and Wolfgang Puck-helmed café. Also not to be missed are Hugo Balin's murals. And in terms of the other stars that populate Los Angeles, you might have a decent chance of seeing them, too, as Griffith Observatory is used for chi-chi industry events and as a frequent filming location that’s appeared in hundreds of films and TV shows including, most famously, "Rebel Without a Cause." The observatory’s association with the 1955 teens-gone-wild melodrama is immortalized with a monument featuring the bust of star-crossed actor, James Dean. Visitors will find the monument on a terrace that offers full-on views of the observatory's most popular non-astronomical sight: the Hollywood Sign.

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Kitt Peak National Observatory

Photo: Waqas Bhatti/flickr

Astronomical observatories are often thought of as being single buildings: stately and historic structures, frequently found near the campuses of large universities, that resemble museums but with telltale domes. And, once upon a time, most observatories were confined to a single large building. In a more contemporary context, however, observatory is used to refer to a specific location, a campus, an entire cupola-heavy complex of research facilities and telescope-housing structures.

The largest collection of astronomical hardware in the world belongs to Kitt Peak National Observatory, located about an hour outside of Tucson in the Sonoran Desert. Composed of impossible-to-miss domed white structures that rise about the arid landscape like mammoth mushrooms, Kitt Peak Observatory, administered by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, is home to upwards of 20 stunning 'scopes. One in particular, the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope (pictured), sticks out from the predominately rotund crowd. The largest solar telescope in the world, McMath-Pierce is housed within a dramatic — and very much non-domed — structure designed by Myron Goldsmith of prominent Chicago architecture firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM). Best known for super-tall skyscrapers such as Chicago's Willis Tower, One World Trade Center and the Burj Khalifa, SOM writes: "Glowing like an American Stonehenge, this giant, upside-down concrete 'V' looks like a tribute to the Sun God, which in a sense it is." Even President John F. Kennedy had nice things to say about the audacious, 110-foot-tall structure, calling it "bold in concept and magnificent in execution" at its 1962 unveiling.

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Palomar Observatory

Photo: Jack Miller/flickr

Sure, Los Angeles's Griffith Observatory rules when it comes to art deco structures in Southern California dedicated to the study of astronomy — after all, it's the most visited public observatory in the world. Just as iconic in the eyes of SoCal stargazers, however, is Palomar Observatory, a fabled research facility in north San Diego County that's dominating dome is referred to as the "Cathedral of Astronomy."

Established in 1928, Palomar Observatory — owned and operated by the California Institute of Technology — predates Griffith Observatory by several years and involves several of the same key players including influential, elf-befriending astronomer, George Ellery Hale. Russell W. Porter, an M.I.T-educated architect, artist, Arctic explorer and amateur telescope-maker (they sure don't make polymaths like they used to), oversaw the observatory's design, including the Hale Telescope Dome. Understated yet commanding, Porter’s alabaster art deco cupola is as tall as a 12-story building. That's certainly big enough room to house a 200-inch telescope — a "workhorse of modern astronomy" referred to in its early years as the "Giant Eye" — that, for decades beginning in the late 1940s, reigned as the world's largest. While the Palomar Observatory is a private research facility, visitors are welcome during designated hours. Undaunted by spotty cell reception, white-knuckle mountain roads and bone-chilling temperatures maintained inside the Hale Telescope Dome (nighttime temps for an elevation of 5,598 feet), thousands of astronomy buffs make the pilgrimage to Palomar every year.

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Parkes Observatory

Photo: Amanda Slater/flickr

Our list wouldn't be complete without the inclusion of an observatory dedicated to radio astronomy, a subfield of astronomy that taps into the electromagnetic spectrum to detect and study celestial bodies. In lieu of optical telescopes that gather waves of visible light, radio observatories rely on hulking, technologically complex instruments equipped with jumbo antennas that look like and function in a similar manner to plus-sized rooftop satellite dishes.

We're partial to Australia's mega-photogenic Parkes Observatory. Fondly referred to Down Under as, simply, "The Dish," the observatory's movable, 64-meter (210-foot) radio telescope is most famous for receiving live images of 1969's Apollo 11 moon landing. Sticking out like a space-agey sore thumb in a middle of a sprawling sheep farm in the Goobang Valley, you can tell Parkes apart from other radio observatories thanks to its unusual base: a cylindrical three-story concrete tower that, if it weren't for the fact that there's a 1,000 metric ton astronomical instrument plopped on top of it, wouldn't look too entirely out of the ordinary. And the telescope isn't actually fixed to the tower, which houses a control room and offices: it simply sits on top of it.

In 2018, the observatory will be used to search for signs of extraterrestrial life along the Milky Way's galactic plane. Project Breakthrough Listen will use a staggering 130 gigabits per second to search millions of stars in the galactic plane with the hope of separating human signs from other signals.

While Parkes Observatory is home to Oz's most iconic telescope, the county is home to numerous traditional optical observatories including Gingin Observatory in Perth, Siding Spring Observatory, the historic Sydney Observatory and the privately owned observatories of Arkaroola Resort and Wilderness Sanctuary in South Australia’s Outback.

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Pic du Midi Observatory

Photo: Pascalou petit/Wikimedia Commons

Those who have a thing for spectographs, cornographs and hunkering down for the night in insanely vertiginous places should consider Observatoire du Pic du Midi de Bigorre — or, simply, Pic du Midi Observatory — for their next European getaway.

The only astronomical observatory on this list that we know of that permits the general public to spend the night (advance bookings are a must), Pic du Midi's early 20th century research-facility-in-the-sky is perched at an elevation of nearly 9,500 feet in the French Pyrenees. Accessible via a white-knuckle ascent above the clouds aboard an aerial tramway, the massive, multi-domed concrete-and-stone complex, also home to the highest museum in all of Europe, looks, well, otherworldly — "an alien fortress on a frozen planet" to quote The Telegraph. Offering Phillippe Starck-designed guest rooms, a "dinner with local produce" (not too local, we're guessing) and a "VIP visit" to the observatory's telescopes, a stay at this high-altitude, high-end hostelry doesn't come cheap: a single night package starts upwards of $220 dollars per person. But when you think about it, it's not that expensive — after all, it's safe to assume that this is the world's only overnight accommodation that has also been used by scientists to study the surface of the moon in advance of the Apollo landing.

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Royal Observatory

Photo: Son of Groucho/flickr

On the south bank of the Thames, not too far from the center of London, you'll find a sprawling urban oasis where a fanciful and somewhat mysterious building looms atop a steep hillside over 180 acres of well-groomed parkland. With its prominent onion-shaped dome, bright red time ball affixed to the roof and green laser shooting out from a second-story window, the eccentric brick edifice resembles a sort of 17th century funhouse. It also happens to be the site of the world's Prime Meridian: longitude zero, the split between east and west, the home of GMT, the place where time begins and ends.

In terms of actual astronomical research, that concluded at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich decades ago due to light pollution and space constraints. However, the historic, hemisphere-straddling hillside complex at Greenwich Park — commissioned by King Charles II and designed by Christopher Wren as the home and workplace of England's first Astronomer Royal, John Flamseed — remains open to the public as a museum complete with a top-notch planetarium (the only in London); 28-inch equatorial refracting telescope (the seventh largest in the world); camera obscura (fun!); and so many horology-dedicated displays that it'll take you a couple of solid days for the infernal tick-tocking to clear your head.

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Photo: Peter Leth/flickr

While the Tycho Brahe Planetarium and Jens Olsen's planetary movement-tracking World Clock often garners most of the astronomy-related attention in the delightful Danish capital city of Copenhagen, not to be overlooked is the Rundetårn (Round Tower), a cylindrical 17th century landmark that's home to Europe's oldest functioning astronomical observatory.

While Rundetårn, completed in 1642 under the rule of Christian IV, is still known as a hotspot for amateur astronomers (the University of Copenhagen moved to more spacious, less light-polluted digs, Østervold Observatory, in 1861), it's how one gets to the tower-topping observatory that's the real fun part. In lieu of a proper staircase, Rundetårn sports a 686-foot equestrian staircase wrapping around the hollow core of the building. This spiraling, 7.5-turn ramp made it easier for astronomers to haul heavy scientific equipment from the bottom of the tower up to the rooftop observatory — with draft animals doing most of the heavy lifting. In 1716, Russian czar Peter the Great most famously ascended the tower via horseback, his wife towed behind in a two-wheeled carriage. In more recent years, Rundetårn's famed ramp has hosted bicycle — and unicycle — races. Aside from stargazing activities and glimpses into Denmark's history as an astronomical heavyweight, Rundetårn is now the site of concerts, art exhibitions and numerous cultural events. As for the views from up top, they remain among the best in Copenhagen.

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Quito Astronomical Observatory

Photo: Charles Pence/flickr

A refreshing, non-rural deviation from the norm on a continent that's dominated by mega-advanced observatories located in the middle of nowhere, Observatorio Astronómico de Quito — Quito Astronomical Observatory — has been in the business of both boreal and austral star-peeping since the 1870s.

The distinctive centerpiece of La Alameda Park, the oldest public green space in Ecuador's hemisphere-straddling, high-altitude capital city, the observatory functions as both a research institute of the National Polytechnic School (EPN) and as an open-to-the-public museum that houses an array of 19th century scientific tools including a meridian circle, seismometers and enough vintage telescopes to keep even the most fervent astronomy aficionados occupied for the better half of an afternoon. Between the turret-heavy Victorian architecture and the wealth of old-timey gadgets and gizmos, the observatory — all arched windows and wrought iron detailing — is the closest you'll come, in Ecuador anyways, to stepping into the pages of an H.G. Wells novel. And while light pollution in Quito has put a damper on the observatory's stargazing prominence in recent decades, on clear nights (Wednesdays and Thursdays, specifically) the observatory still invites the general public to ascend the building's aluminum-sided central tower and gaze toward the heavens through a 9.4-inch Merz refracting telescope.

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Sphinx Observatory

Photo: Petr Louzensky/Shutterstock

Despite a whoa-inducing, stomach-churning appearance that may beg otherwise, the Sphinx Observatory is indeed a very real place, not a work of Photoshop trickery. Situated at the tip-top of the European continent at an elevation of nearly 12,000 feet above the Jungfraujoch in the Swiss Alps, the Sphinx Observatory — a high-altitude research station since the late 1930s — is also, gulp, open to the public.

And visitors needn't fret about scaling a mountain to reach the precipice-bound Sphinx Observatory and its terrifying observation deck. The observatory, home to a weather research center, laboratories and an astronomical cupola that houses a 30-inch telescope, is easily accessible by train: just take the famed Jungfrau railway to the highest rail station in Europe, exit into a series of underground tunnels and keep an eye out for an elevator built inside of a hollowed mountain peak that will take you straight up to the top. Easy peasy — just don't forget to wear sensible shoes and pack your portable hyperbaric chamber. And while the Sphinx Observatory's dramatic siting may give the impression that it's the world's highest, there are numerous astronomical observatories situated at even more dizzying elevations including Hawaii's mighty Mauna Kea Observatory (13,700 feet) and Llano de Chajnantor, a group of high-altitude observatories with elevations of well over 15,000 feet located in northern Chile's Atacama Desert.

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Yerkes Observatory

Photo: munford/Wikimedia Commons

Founded in 1897 by prominent solar astronomer George Ellery Hale, for what the Yerkes Observatory lacks in dizzying altitude it makes up for in history as the self-proclaimed "birthplace of modern astrophysics." Home to the world's largest (40 inch) refracting telescope, the University of Chicago-operated Yerkes Observatory doesn't fare too bad on the architecture and landscape design fronts, either.

Situated along the shore of southeastern Wisconsin's Geneva Lake on nearly 80 acres of tranquil, park-like grounds (an Olmsted, go figure, can take credit), the Yerkes Observatory, with its imposing, cruciform shape executed in Greco-Roman Revival style by architect Henry Ives Cobb, is also something of an architectural showstopper that the Chicago Tribune likened to a "Byzantine church." Visitors who might not be easily wowed by the observatory's role in the development of cosmic cartography or its associations with a one Edwin Hubble will delight in the menagerie of terra-cotta creatures, some mythological and some not, carved into the observatory's pillars and exterior walls: turtles, dolphins, satyrs, dragons, gargoyles, griffins, sea monsters, owls and on. There's also several gents depicted within the observatory's ornate design scheme including John D. Rockefeller, a major benefactor of the University of Chicago, the university's founding president William Rainey Harper and Charles Yerkes, the mustachioed Chicago financier who footed the bill for the entire observatory.