The oldest astronomical center in Australia, the Sydney Observatory has a long and glorious history of scientific endeavors. Now converted to a museum and educational facility, it’s officially part of the Powerhouse science museum complex.
The site is located at the top of the appropriately named Observatory Hill, close to the historic shopping and dining area known as The Rocks. As is evident from the wonderful architecture, it was built in 1858, its purpose was to provide accurate time readings for the colony. It quickly evolved into a first-rate viewing facility for observing the sky of the southern hemisphere.
The first floor alone is filled with things to see and do. Among the oldest of the exhibits is the Transit circle, one of the largest clocks in the world. Here, too, is a telescope which is open to visitors and along the floor one of the largest rulers in the world during its heyday.
On the second floor is the main telescope, also open to visitors. Here you can get a good view of the southern sky day or night. Staff members are nearby who are eager to answer questions.
Regular lectures on astronomy given here are well attended both by natives and tourists alike. Staff members will also guide visitors around the facility and explain how to use the telescopes, star charts, and other tools of the trade.
Like any big city observatory, the view is limited owing to the lights from Sydney. But for an amateur view conveniently located near other tourist spots, it’s outstanding.
The complex was long one of Australia’s premier scientific establishments. A star catalog developed here from 1899 to 1971 filled 53 volumes. It is somewhat smaller than similar public facilities, though, it’s best to come during times of lower occupancy.
In addition to the several ongoing exhibits and programs, there are lovely gardens surrounding the building. These make the facility well worth a visit during the day in addition to the stellar night activities. Other daytime activities include the 3-D Space Theatre program which takes visitors on a ride through the cosmos.
Besides the gardens, the buildings themselves make for a great visit for anyone interested in Italianate architecture of the mid-19th century. There are two domed observatories on octagonal bases and a four-story tower, formerly used to drop the time ball.
Time balls were common instruments of the 19th century, used to convey accurate time readings to a wide audience. During the period, private clocks and watches were rare and expensive. Because of its advantageous location, the ball was visible from far away and served as a standard for ships and newspapers.
The three stories of stairs make the climb to the top a vigorous one, so be prepared for some exercise. For directions, times, and reservations to night programs, see the official website at http://www.sydneyobservatory.com.au