Our city may be known for its star maps, but LA's light pollution makes it hard to sit outside and identify actual shooting stars, planets, and constellations. Whether your kids love staring at the stars when they're out of the city or have never taken a good look at the Milky Way, planetarium shows and observatories can be a great way to examine the wonders of the night sky.
Planetariums offer a virtual sky experience, generally following a specific theme; shows may give an overview of the current sky, take a trip through the solar system, or focus on a phenomenon like the Northern Lights. Observatories offer a chance to look straight at the universe via someone else's (often superpowered) telescope. We are lucky to have a few observatories in town, as well as a good selection of planetariums (or planetaria, if you prefer) for spotting the biggest Los Angeles stars. Some locations, like Griffith Observatory, even do it all in one place: high-tech shows, enormous telescopes, and public star parties (no red carpet involved).
When visiting a planetarium, be sure to get to your seat a few minutes before the show starts. If you have young children, check if your planetarium of choice has an age limit; shows can sometimes be long and seats uncomfortable for very young kids. Also, not all observatories let the public use the telescopes—be sure to read up on what features are available to the public before heading off on a day trip. And don't forget that not all stargazing takes place at an observatory; groups like Burbank's Sidewalk Astronomers set up their telescopes periodically in public areas, to let curious amateurs take a free peek.
Griffith Observatory and Samuel Oschin Planetarium
2800 East Observatory Rd.
Los Angeles 90027
Parking and observatory are free; fee for planetarium shows.
The Griffith Observatory is more than an observatory and a planetarium; it features an entire interactive astronomy museum as well. Only the planetarium shows charge a fee—and children under 5 are admitted only to the first show each day. The 12-inch Zeiss telescope is open to the public every night that the observatory is open and the sky is clear. The solar telescopes are open when the daytime sky is clear, and their images are projected to three fixed displays. On any clear night, the staff may set up one or more freestanding telescopes outside one the lawn, but the monthly Star Parties on that same lawn with the Los Angeles Astronomical Society feature many more telescopes.
Donald E. Bianchi Planetarium, CSU-Northridge
Matador Walk and Lindley Ave.
The Bianchi Planetarium’s sky shows begin at 7:30pm, and features at 8:30pm. Shows are followed by telescope viewing using the campus observatory—weather permitting of course! These shows are recommended for ages 8 and up, and there is a discount for seeing both shows in one night. Note that there is also a charge for on-campus parking. Check the online schedule for upcoming shows and topics.
Drescher Planetarium, Santa Monica College
Room 223, Drescher Hall
Pico and 17th Street
Santa Monica 90405
Drescher Planetarium is open to the public every Friday night. The Night Sky Show begins at 7pm, and the feature show at 8pm. Children under 6 are welcome at the Special Observing events, which include telescopes outside—but young children rarely make it through an entire in-planetarium show without getting antsy. There is a discount for taking in both shows. See the online schedule for upcoming topics.
El Camino College Planetarium
Manhattan Beach Blvd and Crenshaw Blvd
310.660.3593 ext 3548
El Camino College hosts free shows approximately once per month during school sessions. Families are welcome. The observatory is undergoing renovations, due to re-open later this year. Check the website calendar or call for up to date schedule information. Street parking and campus parking (for a fee) are available.
Garvey Ranch Observatory
781 Orange Ave.
Monterey Park 91755
Every Wednesday evening from 7:30pm–10pm the Garvey Ranch Observatory is open to the public, free of charge, for Garvey Nights. Los Angeles Astronomical Society members have telescopes out, and families can also take a peek through the observatory's 8-inch refractor. A variety of astronomy-related workshops are available as well.
Glendale College Planetarium
Cimmarusti Science Building, 2nd floor
Glendale College only opens the planetarium during school sessions—so there are no shows during summer or winter breaks. These free shows are perfect for homeschoolers, as they are held on most Thursdays from 12:30pm–1pm. Check the website for the current schedule and topics. Independent student presentations may also be scheduled and are also free to the public. Metered parking is available in lot 32 (the footbridge lot).
Inside Mt. Wilson Observatory. Photo by Gregg Tavares/CC BY 2.0
Mt. Wilson Observatory
Red Box/Mt Wilson Rd
Mount Wilson 92023
Did you know that there is a professional-level observatory in the San Gabriel Mountains? On a clear day you can see Mt. Wilson from much of the LA basin—it's the mountain with all of the antennas and the observatory on top. The observatory is open 10am–5pm every day from April 1 to November 30. Docent-led one and two-hour tours are available on April–November weekends only (tickets can be purchased in the cafe). See the website for tour times and details, or to print your own brochure for a self-guided tour. Children under age 6 are not permitted on the guided tours.
Mathematical Sciences Building, 8th floor
Free planetarium shows are offered here Wednesdays at 8pm (DST, 7pm PST) during fall, winter, and spring quarters. Free shows are also held most summer Wednesdays; check the website for upcoming dates. Shows are put on by astronomy and astrophysics graduate students, so topics vary. Following the planetarium show, head up to the 9th floor roof for telescope viewing (subject to weather). Be sure to plan time to park (which is not free)—lots 2, 6, and 9 are closest to the Mathematical Sciences Building. No late arrivals admitted into the planetarium shows.
Tessman Planetarium, Santa Ana College
17th St West of Bristol St
Santa Ana 92706
Recently reopened after a remodel, the Tessman Planetarium has more show options than our other local planetariums. Tickets can and should be ordered online, as shows do sell out, but tickets are sold at the door if available. Most shows are for ages 5 and up, but there is a special show designed for K–1st grade. Check the online calendar to find the best date/time and show combo for you.
George F. Beattie Planetarium, San Bernardino Valley College
701 S. Mt. Vernon Ave.
San Bernardino 92410
Inexpensive public shows are held twice a month, September–April, on Friday evenings. Shows are 7pm–8:30pm; doors open at 6:30pm, no late seating. See the online schedule for dates and topics. Parking is free after 5pm on Fridays. Be sure to check out the oldest building on campus—the observatory—next door.
Top photo by Josta Photo/CC BY 2.0