The Updated Astronomer’s Guide to Vacationing in Europe

Living in Europe has its benefits.  One of them is having access to some of the world’s most famous astronomical sites including observatories, museums, historical monuments, and naturally occurring events (you’re not going to see the northern lights in Florida).  History is rich here, so don’t miss out on the once-in-a-lifetime experience.  If you take a vacation in Europe, take some time out and scratch your astronomy itch.  If you are lucky, your spouse and kids will even enjoy the experience with you.

Northern Lights Tour  Not strictly Astronomy but certainly worth seeing if you’re an astronomer.  If you were here during the right time of year this is a must.

The key to a Northern Lights trip is to always remember the spectacle is NOT guaranteed.   You need a combination of good weather, dark skies (think Lunar cycle), and of course, enhanced solar activity.  So when you plan your trip do so with the thought that you will have a good time and do other things with a Northern Lights viewing reserved as icing on the cake.

So first, the right time of year is October to March.   The two primary places to see the Northern Lights are Tromso, Northern Norway and Iceland.

Iceland has more to see and do with regards to scenery: waterfalls, glaciers, hot springs etc.   You need a dark site to view the lights but if you are staying in the capital Reykjavik then you have additional options for entertainment.  There are tours our from Reykjavik hotels to dark site locations.  Iceland is definitely cheaper that Norway.

Tromso has a dramatic views but there is not much to do there.  You can certainly go  dog sledding and snowmobiling but these activities are very expensive.   In fact, Tromso is very expensive.  It also takes some time to get there having to take flights to and from the capital Oslo.  Although, you probably have a better chance of seeing the lights in Tromso (I can’t really confirm that but it seems to be the predominant belief).

Other very popular areas for viewing northern lights include the southern half of Greenland, Iceland, and the northernmost areas of Sweden and Finland.  If you are really, really lucky you can see them from Northern Scotland.  Coastal Cruises from Norway are also popular but I’ve heard the seas can be rough during certain times in winter.  And BTW, you have to go late September to February but avoid late November.  That is the time with the most cloud cover in northern Norway. 

The Herschel Museum of Astronomy, Bath United Kingdom  The Herschel Museum of Astronomy is dedicated to the many achievements of the Herschels, who were distinguished astronomers as well as talented musicians. It was from this house, using a telescope of his own design that William discovered the planet Uranus in 1781.

Jodrell Bank Observatory, Manchester,United Kingdom.  The giant Lovell Telescope is a pretty impressive sight. Visitors can walk along a pathway close to the base to gain a deeper understanding into how it works and the history of Jodrell Bank.  The main exhibition building is the Space Pavilion. Visitors can find answers to the wonders the Universe, listen to the sounds of the Big Bang and explore the invisible Universe using a range of hands on activities.  Next to the exhibition room is our events space which provides a range of events for all the family.  The Planetarium is was destroyed a few years ago.

The Royal Greenwich Observatory, Greenwich, London, United Kingdom. This is one of my favorite places and a ‘must see for any astronomer when in Great Britain. The Royal Observatory Greenwich is the home of Greenwich Mean Time and the Prime Meridian of the World. It is also home to London’s only planetarium, the Harrison timekeepers and the UK’s largest refracting telescope.  It’s small museum features historic time keeping devices, sextants, and the like.   The National Maritime Museum is a free and only a short walk away.

Herstmonceux Castle,  East Sussex, United Kingdom.  This is the home to  the Observatory Science Centre.  The Royal Greenwich Observatory was founded at Greenwich in London in 1675 by King Charles II but was moved just after the second world war in order to escape the lights and pollution of the  city. The site at Herstmonceux was chosen as the most suitable in   the UK.  By the mid-fifties the observatory was fully operational.  The existing telescopes were augmented in 1967 by the giant 98-inch  Isaac Newton Telescope once housed in the silver dome to the  south of the main complex.

Herstmonceux has themed nights, open nights, and short courses.  There are daily telescope tours and science shows alongside hands-on exhibits.   Three Telescope Tours per day usually at 12pm, 2pm & 4pm; Three Science Shows per day usually at 11am, 1pm & 3pm.

Isaac Newton’s home, Lincolnshire, United Kingdom.    In 1661 Isaac Newton left his Lincolnshire home to continue his studies at Cambridge.  However, in 1665 and 1666 he was forced to return to escape the plague.  He later observed, “In the two plague years I was in the prime of my age for invention and minded mathematics and philosophy more than at any time since”.  It was here at Woolsthorpe Manor that Isaac Newton formulated three great discoveries – the principle of differential calculus, the composition of white light and the law of gravity.

Stonehenge, Salisbury United Kingdom.  England’s iconic prehistoric observatory.  Make sure you call a few days in advance so you can go inside the stone structure (sometimes you can’t unless you make reservations).

Pic du midi, France.  Visitors can make use of the telescope, photo lab, the planetarium, the library, or just sit on the terrace and gaze out to the Pyrenees with no light pollution to obstruct the view.  Spend a night or two at the observatory and enjoy an extraordinary view of the heavens.  You can also do short courses here for 3 – 5 days.

Farm of Stars is a large house in the heart of Gascony Gers, in the small village of Mauroux in France’s country pleated green valleys which earned the nickname “French Tuscany”.  Ideal site for observing the sky, with nights still dark, Farm of the Stars (Ferme des Etoiles) has been selected to make the program “Night of Stars”.   So translated, this is a converted farm that runs astronomy courses.  They have a library, photo lab (digital?), and telescopes.   I don’t know what equipment it has but the photos look like a place for dark skies.  They also boast of the culinary delights of the farm and region.  I have not doubt.

The Hamlet of Stars.  In May 2002 a community of municipalities of Gers Lomagne, France developed the HAMLET OF STARS as a holiday village dedicated to astronomy.  It is located few kilometers from Fleurance, France and is unique in Europe for its originality and the quality of its equipment including a multimedia room and its broadband network, an observation dome of the Universe (planetarium).  I don’t know what type of telescopes they have. It has accommodates for individuals through large groups.

 Meudon observatory, France  Meudon is one of a number of new observatories built in Europe in the 1870s that integrated telescope and laboratory facilities in order to carry out astronomical spectroscopy and address the big questions of the new discipline of astrophysics—the nature of the physical structure and the chemical composition of the stars.

Strasbourg Cathedral, France.  The most widely known of the Cathedral’s astronomical displays of are the elaborate astronomical clocks. The 14th-century clock included a calendar, a mechanically driven stereographic projection showing the movement of the stars, and pointers showing the positions of the Sun and Moon.   The 16th-century clock added to these elements a rotating celestial sphere which depicted all 1020 stars of Ptolemy’’’s star catalog, figures of 48 constellations, a disc showing the ecclesiastical calendar for 100 years, and depictions of all eclipses over an interval of 32 years.  A stereographic projection of the stars, Sun and Moon was enhanced with additional pointers showing the positions of all the visible planets and the ‘Dragon’, or lunar node, which served to explain eclipses.  Although the clock reflected the geocentric model of astronomy, its decoration included a portrait of Nicolas Copernicus.

Cern, Switzerland.  The Large Hadron Collider is a gigantic scientific instrument near Geneva, where it spans the border between Switzerland and France about 100m underground.  It is a particle accelerator used by physicists to study the smallest known particles.  There is a Visitor’s Center with exhibits, lectures, and everything else you could want to know about the Collider and particle physics.

Ries Crater Museum, Germany The Ries Crater Museum is located in the city of Nördlingen and features exhibits on an asteroid impact  which took place about 15 million years ago.  The ‘Meteorite Crater Nördlinger Ries’, was formed by the impact of an asteroid.  The city of Nördlingen is located in the crater about 6 kilometers (3.7 mi) southwest of the center of the depression.  The town church there is built from shatter cone (impact rock).  Another impact crater, the much smaller (3.8 km diameter) Steinheim crater, is located about 42 km (26 mi) west-southwest from the center of Ries. The two craters are believed to have formed nearly simultaneously by the impact of a binary asteroid.

The Astronomical Clock, Prague, Czech Republic.  The Astronomical Clock is located Old Town City Hall in the Old Town Square in Prague. Prague is quite inexpensive and the Clock, as well as the Old Town Square are stunningly beautiful. Installed in 1410, the clock is the oldest working astronomical clock in the world. The clock mechanism is composed of three main components: the astronomical dial, representing the position of the Sun and Moon; “The Walk of the Apostles”, a clockwork hourly show of figures of the Apostles and other moving sculptures(notably a skeleton representing Death striking the time); and a calendar dial with medallions representing the months. I personally believe the skeleton represents time hunting down us mortals.

The Einstein Tower, designed by the Berlin architect Erich Mendelsohn (1857–1953) and built in the early 1920s, is an astrophysical observatory and a masterpiece of the history of modern architecture in Germany.

Galileo Museum (Museo Galileo) Florence, Italy This museum contains Galileo’s telescopes, and numerous astronomical and mathematical instruments.  The museum even has one of Galileo’s fingers on display.  Although for the life of me I can not figure out why they would do this.

Santa Croce Church, Florence Italy.  This church houses the tomb of Galileo.

Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain. The two observatories of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias—the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory on the island of La Palma and the Teide Observatory on the island of Tenerife —constitute an ‘astronomy reserve’ that has been made available to the international community. The Canary Islands’ sky quality for astronomical observation has long been recognized worldwide. They are near to the equator yet out of the reach of tropical storms. The whole of the Northern Celestial Hemisphere and part of the Southern can be observed from them. The observatories are located 2400 m above sea level.

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