The Royal Observatory Greenwich is one of the world’s top historic astronomy destinations. And after an extended closure, they are re-welcoming guests from April 1st, 2022.
I am personally a huge fan of space science and astronomy and have made the trip to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich several times. The Royal Observatory Greenwich is a popular tourist attraction in London, but most people who visit don’t necessarily care about (or know about) the astronomical importance of the site; they typically make a short visit as part of a Greenwich day trip and call it good.
However, if you’re keen to learn more about how to visit the Royal Observatory Greenwich and have a special interest in its particular astronomical history, you’ve come to the right place. Below you’ll find all of the top sights at the Royal Observatory, plus some details about special events and tips for planning your visit.
Featured photo credit: Marc Czerlinsky via Flickr
What to See at the Royal Observatory
King Charles II commissioned the Royal Observatory in Greenwich in 1675. Sir Christopher Wren originally chose the site, and the Royal Observatory in Greenwich began operations in 1676. In the nearly 350 years since, the Royal Observatory Greenwich has been one of the foundational observatories in the world. In fact, on a list of nearly 2100 observatories registered by the International Astronomical Union, the Royal Observatory Greenwich is the first: #000.
Unsurprisingly, most of the main attractions at the Royal Observatory Greenwich are astronomy-related. Even those that seem decidedly earth-focused are important for understanding our planet’s place in the solar system. Several buildings and terraces comprise the Royal Observatory Greenwich:
- The Flamsteed House (named after the first Astronomer Royal) and the tomb marker of Edmond Halley (second Astronomer Royal)
- The modern visitor center
- Several telescope domes and buildings
- London’s only planetarium
- The Astronomy Centre (including exhibits and a cafe)
Some parts require ticketed admission whereas others are free. It’s easy to spend a whole day exploring the area if you love space science and London as I do.
The Prime Meridian is the most popular attraction at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. The Greenwich Prime Meridian is generally accepted as the official meridian of the world. Without agreement about the Prime Meridian, we could not provide a coordinate system for the planet – which comes in handy when mapping or imaging earth, or for recording astronomical observations.
So what is the Prime Meridian? This line marks the vertical equator of the planet, dividing the east and west hemispheres. Its coordinates are 0°0’00” longitude, so all longitude around the rest of the planet is based on this line. The Prime Meridian in Greenwich was actually established in 1851, long after the establishment of the Royal Observatory Greenwich.
At the Royal Observatory Greenwich, you can stand directly on the Prime Meridian. Look for the brass strip that runs through the buildings and courtyard which marks the line. You can also see this brass line on an exterior wall, and denoted by several hash marks on a sidewalk further down the hill from the Royal Observatory Greenwich.
Great Equatorial Telescope
Photo credits: bryan… (L) and Mario Sánchez-Prada (R) via Flickr
The Great Equatorial Telescope is another popular attraction at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. This attraction is actually free and accessible from the gift shop! At the top of several increasingly narrow staircases, you’ll discover a massive 28-inch Refractor telescope housed in the Great Equatorial Building dome (also called the 38-inch Telescope Dome). This telescope is the 7th largest refractor telescope in the world.
The Great Equatorial Telescope was used at the Royal Observatory Greenwich between 1893 when it was installed and 1939 and the outbreak of World War II. Today, the Great Equatorial Telescope is used for night sky observations with the assistance of a computer-aided guidance system and a CCD camera to improve the accuracy of observations.
The Annie Maunder Astrographic Telescope (AMAT)
The Annie Maunder Astrographic Telescope (AMAT) is the newest astronomy attraction at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. This telescope was unveiled in the summer of 2018 to observe the lunar eclipse that passed over Europe in late July 2018. It’s called an “astrographic” telescope because it uses cameras to record astronomical observations, rather than the human eye.
The AMAT is named after Annie Maunder, a pioneering Irish female astronomer and astrophotographer. This modern telescope is housed in a 19th-century building on the Royal Observatory Greenwich grounds, called the Altazimuth Pavilion. While the Altazimuth Pavilion has limited hours and is occasionally closed to the public, there are occasional tours and ‘telescope treks‘ to learn more about this brand new telescope and the work it does.
The Peter Harrison Planetarium
The Peter Harrison Planetarium is located as part of the Royal Observatory Greenwich planetarium and astronomy center building. It’s affectionately called “London’s Planetarium,” because it is the only planetarium in London! The facility was opened in 2007 (a former planetarium in the Marylebone Road closed in 2006) and can hold 120 people for laser planetarium shows.
Shows cover a variety of topics including The Sky Tonight, dark matter, a tour of the solar system, and children’s shows to educate young astronomers about the universe. Additionally, some recurring and special events including astronomy classes take place in the planetarium. Details about some of these can be found below.
The Astronomy Center is located within the Royal Observatory Greenwich building. It is home to galleries that focus on astronomy and the work conducted at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. There are three main galleries: the Astronomy Inspires gallery, the Astronomy Explores gallery, and the Astronomy Questions gallery.
Each gallery has interactive exhibits and displays for astronomers of all ages. The Astronomy Center also houses a meteorite you can touch, as well as information about how the meteorite came to be on display.
Yuri Gagarin Statue & Terrace
Located outside the Astronomy Center is the Yuri Gagarin statue and terrace of the same name. Here, you can see a statue of the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin. This statue was unveiled in 2011 to mark the 50th anniversary of Gagarin’s historic flight on April 12, 1961, aboard the Vostok 1 space capsule. Today, you can enjoy a bite from the Astronomy Cafe or Wen restaurant on the terrace as Yuri’s arm points skyward.
In addition to these sights, keep your eyes peeled all over the Royal Observatory Greenwich. You’ll see tons of astronomy instruments and telescopes around the property and in the exhibits.
Events at the Royal Observatory Greenwich
Photo credit: David MK (L) via Flickr
In addition to the above sights that you can see every day, plus any daily programming or tours at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, there are some recurring events that either happen outside of normal business hours or offer something extra beyond the self-guided options. You might want to check the events calendar at the Royal Observatory before your visit to see if any will be offered during your visit.
- Introductory Astronomy Courses – For adults interested in astronomy and space science, the Royal Observatory Greenwich offers cool formal coursework. These courses occur outside business hours for an enrollment fee. You, your classmates, and your tutor may be the only ones on the property at class times! If you’re looking to advance your personal knowledge of astronomy, these courses are a great option.
- Amateur Astronomy for Beginners – The Amateur Astronomy for Beginners course is great for those who want to learn astronomy as a hobby. This course is offered 1-2 times per year and teaches the basics of astronomy beyond the Introduction to Astronomy course.
- An Evening with the Stars – Outside normal hours, the Royal Observatory Greenwich offers An Evening With the Stars. This programming is great for those who may have already visited the Observatory o want a new experience. In addition to a planetarium show, “The Sky Tonight,” you’ll have the chance to view through the Great Equatorial Telescope and meet with astronomers.
Photo credits: todd.vision (L) and Wei Te Wong (R) via Flickr
In addition to regular events, there are a variety of special events at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. These occur on a weekly, monthly, or yearly basis depending on the topic. While you might not be able to plan your trip to the Observatory around these, it’s fun to add them on to an already-planned one.
- Great Equatorial Encounter – If you’re curious about the Great Equatorial Telescope, the Great Equatorial Encounter is a must-attend. In it, you’ll learn about the history of the telescope plus have a VR experience of using the telescope to view the night sky. While the Great Equatorial Telescope is typically free to visit, this special event occurs at set times. Admission is £6 for adults and £4.80 for children.
- Astronomy Photographer of the Year Exhibition – The Astronomy Photographer of the Year winners make headlines every year. These stunning astrophotographs are on display in the National Maritime Museum (not the Royal Observatory Greenwich). The museum is free to enter but the exhibit costs £9 for adults or £5.85 for children. It’s a worthwhile stop if you’re already planning to visit the Royal Observatory Greenwich!
- Silver Screen Science Fiction – Movie fans will want to attend this monthly event! Come to watch a famous or popular science fiction movie during Silver Screen Science Fiction on the giant Planetarium screen. Afterward, learn the science behind the films with an astronomer talk. Tickets are £10.30 for adults or £8.20 for children and probably the cheapest movie tickets in London!
- Astronomy & Islam Morning – The Astronomy & Islam Morning event occurs monthly and focuses on the new crescent moon. Astronomers teach how to spot this sliver of moon, how ancient Arabic astronomers helped our understanding of the moon, and the significance of the new crescent moon. Admission is £8 for adults or £6.40 for children and includes access to the rest of the Observatory.
- Concerts – Occasionally, the Royal Observatory Greenwich offers programming that combines science and art. In past years, this included a concert called The Planets. Composers created original works about the planets, designed for the Planetarium acoustics!
Tips for Visiting the Royal Observatory Greenwich
Photo credits: Ann Lee (L) and neiljs (R) via Flickr
If you’re planning to spend a day at the Royal Observatory Greenwich enjoying all of these astronomical events, here are some tips:
- Book in advance. You can purchase admission in advance, online. This helps if you’re planning to attend a specific planetarium show too, so you know what time the showing begins.
- Check the events calendar. There are special and recurring events happening all the time at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. If you see any special programming you want to attend, be sure to book these in advance too. Most events sell out in advance, so it’s tough to get day-of tickets.
- Arrive early. It can be quite busy at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, so arrive early to try and beat the crowds. The Observatory opens at 10 am and it’s a 20-30-minute walk from the DLR stop in Greenwich up to the Observatory. You can also enjoy the view from the hill if you arrive early.
- Budget-friendly options exist. If you don’t want to blow your whole budget visiting the Royal Observatory Greenwich, choose free options. You can visit the Great Equatorial Telescope and the exhibits at the Astronomy Centre for free without having to pay admission.
- Stop by the cafes to refuel. Most people may not be aware that there are two cafes and two gift shops at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. If you’re feeling peckish or need a rest, these are a great spot to stop. You can also admire the Yuri Gagarin statue at that time.
There’s so much to see at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. It’s a perfect destination for those who love London, love space, or – like me – both! Have questions about planning your own visit to the Royal Observatory Greenwich? Visit their website, or let me know in the comments!