Stargazing. A celestial activity that fascinates people around the world, with this interest seeing over 150,000 global searches each month.
At Unforgettable Travel, we know that spotting planets, constellations, and even the Milky Way are on many people’s bucket lists and that many people plan a trip to a remote desert, far-flung national park or to the top of a mountain to catch a glimpse of these.
But, you technically don’t have to go so remote to enjoy stargazing. Every night the skies are lit up with millions of stars from galaxies far far away and often, it’s possible to experience this phenomenon without going into the wilderness.
Twinkling lights over the Eiffel Tower, for example, a canopy of stars above Rome’s ancient Colosseum or providing a stellar backdrop for New York’s skyline. There really is nothing more magical than being somewhere so cosmopolitan and then marveling at the contrast of the pure night sky above it.
But did you know that 99% of people in Europe and the US live under skies nearly 10% brighter than their natural starry state?
With the amount of artificial lighting steadily increasing across the world each year, it is becoming more and more difficult to find spots for stargazing, particularly in built-up areas. But it’s not just human intervention that has an impact on stargazing, natural factors such as elevation and average sunshine hours can also have an effect on our ability to see the stars.
That’s why we decided to analyze both Europe’s major capital cities and the most populous cities in the US, looking at factors that hinder our chances of seeing the stars and finding out the best cities to visit to see the night sky in all its grandeur.
So, curious? Read on below for the best European capital cities for stargazing!
Best European Capital Cities For Stargazing
#1 Sofia, Bulgaria
Coming in first place for stargazing is Sofia in Bulgaria. Being the third-highest European capital city in the study, its elevation of 1,900ft above sea level definitely helps but Sofia also boasts low humidity and high daily sunshine hours, ranking in joint-first and sixth for these data points respectively.
At an average of 5.96 hours per day, Sofia actually experiences the most sunshine hours per day of the top three, meaning that it experiences the least amount of cloudiness and has the greatest potential for a clear night sky.
If you want to enjoy an evening of stargazing whilst in Sofia, you could visit the Ozone Skybar & Lounge, at the top of the Millennium Sofia hotel, for cocktails and a 180-degree view of the city.
#2 Copenhagen, Denmark
Taking the silver medal position is Denmark’s capital, Copenhagen. Of the top three, the city has the lowest air pollution with an average of 9.7 PM2.5 concentration level (μg/m³), which is considered as healthy with little to no risk from exposure. Copenhagen also has the second-lowest light pollution level in the study, with an average of 17.87 radiance units.
For those looking for a spot to stargaze whilst in the Danish capital, we recommend heading to Rundetaarn, or Round House in English, which is Europe’s oldest functioning observatory.
#3 Berlin, Germany
Rounding up the top three is Berlin, the capital of Germany. The city actually has the lowest light pollution of all of the European capitals in the study, with an impressive score of 15.93 radiance units. One possible factor here is that Berlin has the world's largest surviving gaslight network, still using some 40,000 gas lamps for street lighting.
Visit Teufelsberg for an unparalleled view of Berlin’s night sky. The disused army base has a viewing platform that offers a breathtaking view of the starry sky over the Havel river.
And, closer to home, what about the best major cities in the US for stargazing? Find out below.
Best US Major Cities For Stargazing
#1 El Paso, Texas
In first place of the best major US cities for stargazing is El Paso in Texas. The city scored well for its elevation and low air pollution. And despite having a high average sunshine duration, El Paso boasts low humidity - both important factors in helping it secure this stargazing crown.
If you’re looking for a truly breathtaking stargazing experience, head to Hueco Tanks State Park, which regularly holds guided tours at night and is located just over 30 miles from El Paso city center. You can even camp overnight there to make the most of the sky in all its twinkling glory.
#2 San Diego, California
In silver medal position is San Diego, California. The city has the lowest light pollution levels of the US cities in the study with an average of 20.26 radiance units. Although not directly in the city, one of San Diego’s mountain towns, Julian, was recently certified as California’s second dark-sky community, meeting the standards of the International Dark-Sky Association.
But when it comes to stargazing in the city, San Diego boasts an impressive coastline and one great place along it to see a stunning night sky is Sunset Cliffs Natural Park. Here you can overlook the Pacific Ocean for a spectacular view.
#3 San Jose, California
A California city also took third place, San Jose. The Californian city has the fifth highest average sunshine hours per day, at 8.89 hours per day, meaning that clear nights are likely here. It also scored well for its low air pollution at an average 8.5 PM2.5 concentration level (μg/m³), which is considered as healthy with little to no risk from exposure.
Here we recommend spending an evening in Hogue Park where you can experience breathtaking views of the constellations, moon and planets on a clear evening.
To find out the ‘Best European Capital Cities For Urban Stargazing’, we first collated a list of all of the European capital cities in the world and then analysed each on the below factors:
- Elevation (Average, in ft)
- Air Pollution (average PM2.5 concentration level in 2021)
- Humidity Levels (months considered as ‘muggy’)
- Daily Sunshine Hours (Average from annual total, assessing average cloud cover)
- Light Pollution (average 2021 radiance units)
We used a variety of credible sources to find data for each of the above categories and then ranked the cities from first to last based on this data.
Capital cities where a full dataset was not available were omitted from the index.
We then added the scores together to get a total score, before ranking the cities based on this overall, final score.
As light pollution is the most significant factor when it comes to stargazing in a city, this data point has been double-weighted to account for this.
For the US major cities ranking, we took a list of the 30 biggest US cities by population and repeated the process above.
Data was gathered in October 2022. The full dataset and source list are available upon request.