Planetariums and observatories host millions of people each year, showcasing everything from asteroids and stars to planets and far-flung universes. Yet these impressive buildings don’t always take top billing in architecture roundups, whether it’s because they fly under the radar or because they aren’t always designed by big-name architects like other museums.
Planetariums and observatories are worth a second glance, however, if only because they do important research and often serve as educational centers for budding astronomers. Their architecture might surprise you; while there are plenty of sparkling domes on this list, we’ve also featured historic structures and new takes on the traditional observatory.
Here are eleven architecturally interesting planetariums and observatories in the United States that are sure to get you looking skyward.
Gemma Observatory in New Hampshire
Designed by Anmahian Winton Architects, this private observatory in New Hampshire rejects the traditional dome in favor of an unconventional geometric shape that is meant to mimic the rocky outcroppings that surround the structure.
Inside, the building is lined with fir plywood to create a warm and inviting refuge in which to appreciate the stars. A faceted turret holds the observatory’s primary viewing platform, and the building also boasts an exterior observatory deck in the rear.
Adler Planetarium in Chicago
Opened in 1930 as the first planetarium in the western hemisphere, the Adler Planetarium was built as “a classroom under the heavens” for popular astronomy education. The Art Deco structure has a stony, pink and grey exterior, few windows, and is designed as a 12-sided shape topped with a dome.
Today, the structure--which some liken to a space ship—houses three different theaters, special exhibits, and an observatory. It’s also located on the banks of Lake Michigan, boasts a top-notch view of the Chicago skyline, and was one of the best places in the city to see the 2017 eclipse.
Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin
Affiliated with the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago, the Yerkes Observatory was established in 1897 on Geneva Lake in Williams Bay, Wisconsin.
The observatory houses a 40” single lens refracting telescope and sits on a 77-acre park that was designed in part by John Olmsted, brother of the famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. The historic building is notable for its many arches and how the design incorporated both a domed observatory and a space for education and events.
Hayden Planetarium in New York City
Operating out of the Department of Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History, the new Hayden Planetarium sits in the stunning Rose Center for Earth and Space building. The previous planetarium was closed and demolished in 1997, and in its place sits a 2,000 ton sphere that contains the planetarium.
The 87-foot-diameter sphere is housed within a 95-foot-high cube of suspended glass, creating what some have called a “cosmic cathedral.” Two different theaters take visitors on virtual journeys, and the planetarium is also available to rent as an event space.
Burke Baker Planetarium at The Houston Museum of Natural Science
Located inside the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the Burke Baker Planetarium boasts Digistar 6—one of the most advanced simulators in the world. The domed exterior isn’t just pretty, it also allows visitors to get lost in high-resolution solar videos.
Opened in 1964, millions of guests have flown through the universe, navigated asteroid fields, and explored planetary surfaces. The dome theater is also used to train NASA Space Shuttle astronauts in identifying starfields.
Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii
Sitting at 13,796 feet in Hawaii, the white and silver Mauna Kea Observatory looks like what you’d expect from the world’s largest observatory for optical, infrared, and submillimeter astronomy.
The complex contains 13 high-tech working telescopes near the summit of the dormant volcano, and more major telescopes are now located on Mauna Kea than any other single mountain peak.
Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles
A well-known tourist destination in Southern California and the most-visited public observatory in the world, the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles offers visitors free admission to its building and grounds.
The building includes the Samuel Oschin Planetarium, an observatory, and an exhibition space. It’s a mishmash of grand and monument styles constructed using concrete, steel, and copper domes. Head over here for more on LA’s “most recognizable and beloved building.”
Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona
Located 56 miles southwest of Tucson, Arizona, Kitt Peak National Observatory was selected in 1958 as a site for a national observatory after a 3-year survey that included 150 mountain ranges across the U.S.
The observatory offers daily tours that show the buildings and telescopes, while nighttime tours let people view the night sky through a 16” telescope.
McDonald Observatory in Texas
Set in the mountains of West Texas, 450 miles west of its research and administrative home at the University of Texas at Austin, McDonald Observatory boasts some of the darkest skies in the continental U.S.
Those skies let the observatory’s gleaming dome shine, and the observatory welcomes approximately 60,000 visitors each year to star parties and exhibits.
Mount Graham International Observatory in Arizona
Originally erected in Milan, Italy, before being shipped to Arizona in 2002, the large binocular telescope at the Mt. Graham International Observatory can deliver images ten times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope.
It’s the world’s most powerful telescope, and public visits are available by advance reservation from May through October.
Morrison Planetarium in San Francisco
Located inside the California Academy of Sciences—one of our favorite destinations for kids in San Francisco—the 75-foot domed Morrison Planetarium is the largest all-digital planetarium in the world.
While the architecture of the California Academy of Sciences building doesn’t look like other planetariums and observatories, it’s still an important structure. Architect Renzo Piano built a 2.5-acre “living roof” for this green building that uses sustainable materials and boasts two domes that cover the planetarium and the rain forest exhibition.