Illustration by Victoria Fernandez.
Around two-thirds of the world’s population lives under light-polluted skies, which means it’s pretty rare to find a dark, starry sky these nights. For the best stargazing, there are three conditions you need: high altitude, dry air, and darkness (ideally, completely free of artificial light). Sadly, most city skies are virtually empty of stars, so we’ve rounded up seven places that offer the most spectacular stargazing.
But first, let’s shine some light on the magical star. The Latin word for “star” is stella, which was embraced by the Italians and tweaked by the Spanish to make estrella. Even English has adopted it to some extent. While “star” comes from the Old English steorra (similar to the German Stern), we still reference the Latin origin in “constellation” — our name for a grouping of stars in the sky. Now, let’s find some stars and constellations for the budding astronomer in all of us!
1. Atacama Desert, Chile
The crema de la crema of stargazing is undoubtedly found in the high-altitude Atacama Desert in Chile. It’s the world’s driest non-polar location, complete with transparent skies and red, crusty earth for miles around. The ALMA Observatory is located there, and as the world’s largest astronomical project, it captures star and planet formations from billions of light years away. (Fun fact: Its name, alma, means “soul” in Spanish.)
According to Dutch-American astronomer Bart Bok, “the Southern Hemisphere holds all the good stuff,” and it’s easy to see why. Looking up from the Atacama Desert, you’ll spot Omega Centauri, the largest globular cluster in the Milky Way, found within the Centaurus constellation.
2. Mauna Kea, Hawaii
Across the Pacific Ocean sits Mauna Kea, the dormant and sacred volcano that is the highest point in Hawaii. “Mauna Kea” is a shortened form of the original Hawaiian name Mauna a Wakea, referring to the central god in the Hawaiian tradition. In English, the volcano is often just called the White Mountain in reference to the seasonally snow-capped summit.
What makes Mauna Kea some of the best stargazing is that the summit is above the inversion layer, which keeps cloud cover low, the air dry, and the atmosphere free from pollution. One of the most striking astronomical features (and one that’s obvious to the naked eye) is the Pleiades star cluster, also known as the Seven Sisters. It belongs to the constellation of Taurus, the bull, and is a blue, smoky mess of stars that could easily mesmerize you for hours.
3. La Palma, Canary Islands
About 260 miles off the coast of north-western Africa sits the volcanic La Palma Island, part of Spain’s Canary Islands archipelago. Atop the island, at the edge of Caldera de Taburiente, you can bask under an ocean of stars and take in the familiar asterism (or pattern of stars), Carro Mayor, which we know as the Big Dipper in English. It’s made up of seven bright stars and translates to “big cart” in Spanish.
Carro Mayor sits within the larger constellation Ursa Major (or la Osa Mayor in Spanish), meaning “the great female bear.” Beside the great female bear is a little bear, la Osa Menor (the Little Dipper, as we know it), so presumably, la Osa Mayor is the momma bear. Interestingly, the concept of these stars being depicted as two bears is seen across a wide variety of cultures.
4. NamibRand National Reserve, Namibia
In the heart of the world’s oldest desert is the NamibRand National Reserve. Not only is the Namib desert home to incredible wildlife, sun-scorched trees, and a utopian Martian landscape, but it also has some of the most pristine skies to view the southern stars. Namibians speak a diverse range of languages: English (as the official language), German, Portuguese, and indigenous languages such as Oshiwambo and Nama/Damaea. You can get a real linguistic workout with the assortment of star terms to utilize, such as Estrela for “star” in Portuguese.
Here you’re bound to see Canopus, the second brightest star in the sky. Canopus belongs to the Carina constellation (Kiel des Schiffs in German), which is named after the keel of a ship. One thing sure to blow your mind about Carina is that the star system, Eta Carinae, is expected to go supernova within the next thousand years. If it happened, the explosion would be so bright that you could see it during the day and would be able to read a book by its light come nightfall.
5. Nambung National Park, Australia
Further down under is perhaps the darkest region of them all, Western Australia’s Nambung National Park. Head a couple of hours north from Perth and you’ll find incredible pinnacle rock formations contrasting with the murky haze of the Milky Way. From here, the galaxy is visible from horizon to horizon and arches over the entire sky. Nearby, the Pointers — the stars Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri — aim brightly at the Southern Cross, the Southern Hemisphere’s most famous constellation. The Southern Cross is so important that both Australia and New Zealand carry the five stars on their flags — they’re visible on practically any night of the year.
You’re also likely to notice two bright smudges in the sky. These are the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds — a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way. They too have a poignant history. The migration of humans to Australia from Africa and the Middle East over 50,000 years ago were the ancestors of Aborigines. Their cultures have many stories about the Vaalnapa — two men who rose from fire to form the Magellanic Clouds and watch over us.
6. The Alps, Austria
The last remaining natural sky of Western Europe is in the Alps, specifically in the Tyrol region of Austria. Here you can view the almighty Orion, one of the most recognizable constellations in the northern night sky. And if you have a soft spot for the lego-like German language, the word for “constellation” is Sternbild in German, which literally translates to “star picture.”
To find Orion, the easiest way is to locate Orion’s Belt, an asterism containing three bright stars more or less in a straight line. Once you’ve found them, you’re bound to see the Orion Nebula too — one of the brightest diffuse nebulas situated south of Orion’s Belt.
7. Death Valley, California
The final destination you simply must visit is the wonderfully dark (and very hot) Death Valley. Located in the Mojave Desert, it features the lowest, driest, and hottest conditions in North America — optimum, as we know, for stargazing. The zodiac constellation Gemini is especially visible at this location. Gemini, meaning “twins,” is often represented by the Unicode symbol ♊, which is mirrored in its dramatic formation in the sky. And before we finish this list, planets also deserve a turn in the limelight. In Death Valley, you’ll also be able to see the bright blue gas-filled Jupiter come wintertime (though its natural color is a mix of warm sands).