For thousands of years, people have looked to the stars to find greater meaning in the celestial objects above them. Ancient civilisations relied on the stars to guide their travel, using them to develop calendars and even named constellations after people from their cultures.
According to the International Astronomical Union, wherever in the world you are, the 88 constellations are the same as those seen Plato, Cleopatra, William Shakespeare and Leonardo Da Vinci, when you’re looking at the night sky.
So, as it’s Interntational Astronmy Day, look to the heavens and join the world’s stargazers. Here are Europe’s best spots to sit back and enjoy the some of the most impressive performances the natural world can produce.
1. Northumberland, UK
In 2013, Northumberland National Park became an International Dark Sky Park. Along with Kielder Water and Forest Park, 572 square miles of land were given gold-tier status for the quality of starry nights on display, making it the biggest in Europe.
While many of us rarely see the night sky without the orange glow of urban living, visitors to the area can enjoy uninterrupted views of the Aurora Borealis, the Milky Way, ‘zodiacal light’ (where sunlight scatters over space dust), meteors and shooting stars.
Of the 2,000 stars you can see at any one time, the furthest object you can spot with your naked eye is the Andromeda Galaxy, a vast island of stars not too dissimilar to our own Milky Way, except 2.5 million light years away.
If you want to see even more, book a visit to the the Kielder Observatory, England’s largest observatory, which is nestled in the woods just a few miles south of the Scottish border.
When to go: If it’s the the moon you’re after, go during its first quarter and be rewarded with views of its craters and mountains. The mid-summer months are a great time for planet watching, and the spring and autumn are the best times to see the starriest views.
Where to stay: There are plenty of lovely, local bed and breakfasts in the area and The Battlesteads Hotel even has its own observatory. Or if you want to truly be at one with nature, there are camp sites scattered around the park.
2. Teide National Park, Tenerife
The volcanic geography of the Spanish island of Tenerife make it a firm favourite with both seasoned stargazers and astro-newcomers. Mount Teide National Park is recognised worldwide as a ‘starlight destination’, and you can see 83 of the 88 constellations in the night sky from its peaks.
Meteor showers are just one of the regular stellar shows you can experience, with December’s Geminid display the most well-known and of the highest intensity. The Geminids appear quickly, around one a minute, reaching 100 meteors an hour, and Teide’s natural amphitheatre is the perfect place to enjoy it.
The Teide observatory is the largest in the world, so book onto a stargazing tour, take a sunset ride 3,555m high in a cable car, or hike it alone.
When to go: If you visit Tenerife in summer, you’ll be able to see the Milky Way and the Summer Triangle. The Quadrantids in January and the Perseids in August are also impressive.
Where to stay: If you’re planning on hiking it alone, you can’t get more authentic accommodation than the Altavista Mountain Refuge. A cable car ride will take you to a warm bunk bed, where you can join fellow hiking enthusiasts to swap tips on your astro-experiences.
3. Tuscany, Italy
You may have heard the phrase ‘under the Tuscan sun’, but how about under the Tuscan stars? Regarded as one of the best places on Earth to view the night sky, the valleys and hills of Tuscany combined with the lack of light pollution from any city lights make it perfect for a spot of amateur astronomy.
Don’t take our word for it though, as the grandfather of modern astronomy Galileo Galilei developed his telescope there in the 17th century. Follow in his footsteps as you observe the moon’s craters and sunspots. And while you’re waiting for day to turn to night, take a trip to Florence to visit the Galileo Museum to see some of his astral equipment and sketches.
For history lovers, the Torre del Gallo is an ancient castle in the hills of Arcetri, overlooking Florence, which also happens to be a few steps away from Galileo’s home and observatory. With panoramic views of the surrounding landscape, it’s the perfect location to settle down with a night-time picnic and watch the night sky overhead.
When to go: Temperatures soar in Tuscany over the summer months, even at night, so if heat isn’t your thing, try to plan your visit around the autumn or winter months.
Where to stay: For the authentic Tuscan experience, find yourself an ‘Agriturismo‘ or farm-stay somewhere off the beaten track. Bonus points if you can get one near one of Tuscany’s many vineyards, because nothing goes better with stargazing than a nice glass of Chianti.
4. La Palma
The Canary Islands are known for the excellent conditions in which to observe the stars, but La Palma offers a quieter observation than neighbouring Tenerife.
At 1,200 metres above sea level, the Llano del Jable viewpoint on the island offers amazing views over the volcanic valley during the day, and incredible panoramas of the night sky once the sun has gone down. The quality of its sky is such that it is protected by the Law for the Astronomical Quality of the IAC Observatories.
La Palma is also home to the Gran Telescopio Canarias at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory. You’ll need to book a tour, but the views available at any time of day or night make it well worth a trip.
Recognised as a Starlight Reserve because of the quality of its skies, La Palma’s astronomic viewpoints offer the perfect position to see some of the more famous constellations. From Llano del Jable you can clearly see Pegasus in front of Cassiopeia with Andromeda in between them. Meanwhile in the south of the island, standing on top of the San Antonio volcano, you might believe the whole universe is performing just for you as you watch Great Bear and Cassiopeia dance across the sky.
When to go: Throughout April and May, La Palma is celebrating Astrofest, with a variety of events across the island all inspired by its starry skies and the people who live and breath them. There are photography competitions, science conferences, time-lapse photography workshops and child-friendly activities. It all culminates in a closing ceremony and music concert on May 26.
Where to stay: El Paso is a good base for Llano del Jable or stay in Los Canarios for the San Antonio volcano . Some of the viewpoints are quite remote though, and while they have information panels, there aren’t always services nearby, so go prepared.