6 Awesome Astronomy Destinations in the U.S.

By Robert Firpo-Cappiello
August 21, 2017
More Americans than ever are geeking out over astronomy thanks to the headline-grabbing total eclipse. Here, six cool destinations you’ll love.

If the total eclipse got you hooked on the cosmos (or even if you’re already a devoted stargazer), there’s lots more where that came from. Across the U.S., major science institutions offer hands-on educational activities and plenty of fun.

1. Griffith Observatory

Los Angeles

Located more than 1,000 feet above sea level on Mount Hollywood in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, one of America’s most beautiful urban parks, Griffith Observatory is always free and hosts a wide range of activities for all ages, including nighttime telescope viewing (the Griffith Observatory’s 12-inch Zeiss telescope has been used by more than 7 million stargazers, making it the most popular telescope on earth), educational exhibits, live shows at the observatory’s planetarium, and pinch-me views of the city.

2. Hayden Planetarium

New York City

Part of the American Museum of Natural History’s Rose Center for Earth and Space and led by world-famous astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the Hayden Planetarium is a must-see for anyone visiting the Big Apple. Generations of NYC kids got their introduction to the stars here (including yours truly), and the Hayden has even been commemorated in a pop song, Fountains of Wayne’s “Laser Show.” Frontiers Lectures update audiences on the latest discoveries about our universe, Astronomy Live programs take visitors on a tour of the universe with a special focus on the night sky.

3. National Air and Space Museum

Washington, D.C.

One of the jewels in the Smithsonian Institution system of free national museums, the National Air and Space Museum immerses visitors in the history of flight, space exploration, and the science behind those endeavors. Best known for displaying iconic early airplanes and replicas that allow visitors to return to the days of the Wright Brothers and other pioneers and the spacecraft from the 1960s and ‘70s that first orbited earth and took people to the moon, the Air and Space Museum is also home to an IMAX theater and planetarium.

4. Kitt Peak National Observatory

Sonoran Desert near Tucson, AZ

At the top of a nearly 7,000-foot peak in the Sonoran Desert, the Kitt Peak National Observatory boasts the world’s largest collection of telescopes and one of the clearest skies and most beautiful locations anywhere in the U.S. for viewing the stars. Docent-led tours take daytime visitors to three large research telescopes, live views of the sun, and a variety of indoor and outdoor exhibits. Nighttime visitors are treated to incredible glimpses of our solar system and beyond.

5. Very Large Array

Socorro, NM

Sure, stunning visuals like galaxies and nebulas grab a lot of the attention. But if humans ever detect signs of intelligent life attempting to contact us from the depths of space, the Very Large Array may the place where it happens. After all, that’s where Carl Sagan set the dramatic opening of his novel Contact, in which an alien species sends radio signals to our planet that are first picked up by the immense radio telescope facility at “Project Argus,” which, in the 1997 film adaptation was set here outside Socorro, NM. Visitors can take self-guided tours and once-per-month guided tours to learn more about what scientists have learned about the nature of the universe through the study of radio waves.

6. Mauna Kea

Big Island, HI

Sorry, other awesome astronomy destinations, but at more than 13,000 feet on a mountaintop overlooking the Pacific Ocean on Hawaii’s Big Island, Mauna Kea Observatory’s stargazing tours, telescopes, and visitor center are unparalleled and absolutely free each night of the year starting at 6pm.

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Disney World: 5 Delicious Ways to Save Money

"Affordable" probably isn't the first word you'd use to describe dining at Disney World, but there are deals on dining to be had that don't fall into the "mega-splurge" category. Use our insider tips below for navigating the park's food scene without emptying your wallet, including how to choose the right restaurants, dine at the right times, and scoop up special offers that few park-goers know about. Make Your Character Meal a Morning Experience Every visitor, no matter the age, loves dining with their favorite Disney characters. Book your character experience for breakfast for an easy way to save. In fact, breakfast is the cheapest time of day to eat at Disney World Orlando.  At destinations like Winnie the Pooh and Friends at Crystal Palace (Magic Kingdom) and Donald Duck's Safari Breakfast (Animal Kingdom), you can have the same memory-making experience while saving 35 percent per person. Plus, the food at both of these buffets is considered top notch, so fill up! Bonus savings: You can eat light at lunchtime. Bring Your Own Snacks and Water The tasty Disney treats are going to tempt you (those Mickey-shaped ice cream bars in particular), but park munchies can add up quickly. Pack a few snacks like granola bars, fruit gummies, and crackers to keep you and the kids satisfied. Go ahead and splurge on a few Disney-themed snacks, such as the unique pineapple-flavored soft serve Dole Whip dessert (served only at Disney and the Dole processing plant in Hawaii), but buying multiple bites throughout your day gets pricey. Same goes for paying $3 per bottle of water. Bring a refillable water bottle instead. Collapsible bottles are easy to pack, saving you money and space. Reserve a Full-Service Restaurant for Lunch Full-service, sit-down restaurants are some of the best Disney World dining experiences, but they're not cheap. Instead of doing a Disney dinner, reserve your meal for lunch.  Not only will you be able to save about 20 percent compared with the evening, the restaurant will be less crowded, too. Plus, it's easier to get a reservation for lunch, which allows for greater flexibility for your day at the park. Full-service favorites like Be Our Guest Restaurant, Storybook Character Dining at Askerhaus Royal Banquet Hall, and Cinderella's Royal Table are excellent lunch options. World Showcase restaurants at Epcot such as San Angel Inn Restaurante and Tutto Italia Ristorante also offer better deals at lunch. Eat at Downtown Disney Deal alert! Downtown Disney will grant you the biggest savings on food. Hop in your car or take one of the Disney World buses, and you'll arrive in less than 15 minutes. Earl of Sandwich and Wolfgang Puck Express are two top picks for delicious food at a reasonable prices. Relatively new to the scene are Downtown Disney food trucks, so keep them in mind too. Order Smart It's a little-known secret: Adults can order from the kids' menu at quick-service restaurants. Many times, the meals are virtually the same as regular options, so don't think you'll be stuck with chicken fingers and grilled cheese. Another favorite money-saving option is ordering a large platter to share. Tangierine Café (Epcot) and Flame Tree Barbecue (Animal Kingdom) are two cafés with shareable-sized meals. Most counter-service meals have side items included in the price. But if you don't want (or don't need) the extra cost and calories of those French fries, simply ask for the entrée-only price. At most places, they'll be able to accommodate your request.


Fun Getaways for Mother's Day

FAMILY FUN IN UPSTATE NEW YORK An easy day trip or overnight from the New York City metro area, New Paltz, NY, and nearby Lake Minnewaska State Park Preserve are one of my family’s favorite ways to celebrate Mother’s Day. The Shawangunk Mountains will remind travelers of the granite peaks out west, and the hiking trails beautiful but manageable for all ages. The village of New Paltz has a charming Main Street, a welcoming flower-power vibe, and great eateries like Main Street Bistro, which has been honored by the Best of the Hudson Valley awards for its massive breakfasts. BEST B&B BREAKFAST IN AMERICA If you associate Mother’s Day with breakfast in bed, consider the Best B&B Breakfast in America, according to - the Chestnut Street Inn in Sheffield, Illinois, a two-hour drive from Chicago. Order their incredible Elvis Toast with Candied Bacon: It’s French Toast with peanut butter and bananas, plus bacon dredged in cinnamon and sugar (they’ll happily whip up a version sans bacon for vegetarians, of course). Enjoy a hike in nearby Starved Rock State Park and the scenic Hennepin Canal. JAZZ IN NEW ORLEANS Taking Mom out for brunch is a cliche. But a jazz brunch? In New Orleans? You’ve just won Mother’s Day. The city is legendary for heaping portions of jambalaya, beignets, and other treats, and the music is peerless. Take Mom on a carriage tour, a tasting tour, and catch as much live music as you can in the city that taught America how to swing. Learn more at


8 Best Family Vacation Websites (Plus: Indispensable Apps You Need Now)

Trekaroo: Called the TripAdvisor for family travel, Trekaroo offers helpful reviews of family-oriented places in the U.S. and Canada, plus gear recommendations and tips for traveling with kids. Click on a state on the interactive map to instantly see a list of star-rated, family-approved activities and hotels. Use the price slider up top to find activities that are free or low-cost.    Undercover Tourist: Yes, you CAN save money at Disney, and Undercover Tourist is legit. This authorized seller can net you savings of 30 percent on Disney World Resort hotels and nice discounts on tickets to Disney World, Universal Studios Orlando, and SeaWorld Orlando. Download the Orlando planning app for current wait times, best times to visit, show schedules, and line-length estimates for rides. (Los Angeles and San Diego options are coming later this year.) Western Spirit Cycling Adventures: If you’d love nothing more than to see the country on two wheels with the whole fam, Western Spirit organizes guided family bike trips in national parks and monuments, like temperate rides through the twists and turns of Black Hills National Forest. Western Spirit is offering a 30 percent discount for Budget Travel readers on the following family trips: Trail of the Ancients, in Utah (June 20–24); Black Hills of South Dakota (June 27–July 1); and Yellowstone and the Gravelly Range (August 1–5). Google Flights: One of our favorite ways to search for plane tickets, Google Flights uses its massive repository of data to show you alternate cities, times, and dates you can choose to save wads of cash, all neatly organized and easy to use. You’ll want to play with its cool money-saving maps all day.  Tracks & Trails: Dreaming of a family RV adventure in a national park out west? Tracks & Trails will hook you up with a fully planned, highly personalized trip, from renting the RV to organizing activities like rock climbing. Better yet, they’ll steer you away from tourist traps. The site is offering Budget Travel readers a 20 percent discount on trip-planning fees for 2016 travel dates. Just mention BT when you book! To save even more cash, go off-season—in April, May, September, or October—for fewer crowds and sweet deals: You’ll save up to 25 percent on RV rentals compared with high season in July and August. The company’s nine-day, all-inclusive Rocky Mountains and Central Colorado trip is one of its most affordable excursions. Gogobot: Travel-planning site Gogobot, fueled by tips from travelers, is organized into 19 different “tribes.” Join the Family tribe to see reviews, ask questions in forums, and trade tips with fellow members. Handy guides include On the Go With Kids in NYC and Family Travel in Cancun and the Riviera Maya. Find Your Park: We love national parks for both their splendor and their low entrance fees. Find Your Park, a campaign from the National Park Service, which turns 100 years young this August, provides ideas for family-bonding trips and ample inspiration for your next park excursion. Check out for a list of free entrance days for all 400-plus parks. Family Vacation Critic: Looking for family vacation ideas? This website has plenty of 'em. Click through Family Vacation Critic’s ultra-specific articles, like 10 Best African Safari Lodges for Families. Or immerse yourself—in a good way!—in never-ending general links, such as Aruba Family Vacations, which yields a cascade of information about resorts, hotels, activities, and restaurants, and a mini guide that shares info about low season and the best ways to get around town. App Time! Everyone would love for the kids to (voluntarily) put away their mobile devices while traveling. But before you dole out out Draconian rules, read this: “There are some very useful apps that will actually help them get more out of a vacation and more engaged in where they are,” says Rainer Jenss, president and founder of the Family Travel Association. Picks for the best of the best are below:  Best boredom-buster for long car rides: FindPlate Car Game Best tool for preparing for a trip: PackPoint Packing List Travel Companion  Best navigation guide for families traveling with young children, especially in cities: Mom Maps  Best national parks mobile app—it works without Wi-Fi or a data signal: Chimani  If you'd still prefer to ban devices on your vacation, there's a fun fix: “While the cameras and photo apps on mobile phones are getting more and more sophisticated, I would still strongly suggest investing in an actual digital camera for the kids to play with while on vacation," Jenss says. "It gets them even more excited about snapping pictures while not getting distracted by all the phone's other functions, like texting and social media."


Why I Took My Kids to Havana

"You brought your kids to Cuba?” The question was repeatedly posed to us upon our return, a bit of incredulity mixed with a slight tinge of envy.   Yes, between Christmas and New Years of last year, we took our well-traveled 5- and 7-year-old children to Havana for a five-day trip. Affordable, safe, filled with friendly people, live music spilling out onto nearly every street corner in old Havana, and stunning beaches a stone’s throw away, this city was surprisingly perfect for a family vacation. Since November 2016, it has been extremely easy to simply hop on a plane to Havana from the U.S. You can get your visas at your check-in counter. There are three direct flights a day from New York City, priced as low as $250 a ticket. As long as you go for one of the 12 approved types of travel, there are no other restrictions. We went under the auspices of a “people-to-people”  trip, in which our goal was to meet Cuban people and have the kids learn some Spanish. That was not a challenge. Cubans are incredibly warm and friendly, and it’s easy to make new friends with a couple of smiling moppets in tow. A bit of pre-travel advice: Before leaving for Cuba, it’s extremely useful to exchange your U.S. dollars into either Canadian dollars or Euros. U.S. dollars are hit with an additional 10 percent exchange penalty that other currencies are not. There are actually two currencies in Cuba: Tourists use the CUC, or convertible peso;  Cubans use the CUP, or Cuban peso, pegged roughly at 25 CUP to 1 CUC. In general, tourists do not have access to Cuban pesos, unless they get a local to swap some notes on the sly. And cash is king: U.S. credit cards and ATM cards are still not accepted in Cuba. Unless you have a foreign credit card or bank account, you need to bring a large amount of cash with you. Havana's splendors have been described by great writers over the years, but that doesn’t prepare you for the sensation of actually walking its streets. It's a full-frontal assault on all five senses. You’ll love feeling the tropical breeze caress your face while viewing grand 18th-century architecture and vintage 1950s American autos trapped in time, hearing the sounds of Son and Charanga emanate from the musicians and radios on seemingly every street corner, the smells of Havana's finest cigars wafting through the air, while sipping on the best mojito you've ever tasted. Back in the 1950s, Havana was Paris in the tropics, one of wealthiest cities in Latin America. Now it's the world’s greatest urban paradox, simultaneously modern and a trip back in time. The iconic old American cars cruise the street in equal numbers with new Toyotas and 1970s Soviet Ladas. While the Edsel may be found only in car shows and museums in America, it's a common sight on Havana's streets, as are Studebakers, '57 Chevys, and almost every other classic automobile. Our kids preferred to get around Havana in bright yellow, three-wheeled coconut shaped rickshaws, called “coco taxis.” Be prepared for a bumpy ride. Ernest Hemingway's ghost haunts every corner. He's so revered in Cuba, you'd think he was part of the Revolution. At least three bars claim to be his "favorite drinking place,” and considering Hemingway’s reputation, I suppose he could have spent enough time at each of the three bars to justify the claim. There are lines out the door at the Bodeguita del Medio on Empedrado, where Hemingway drank his mojitos. For a proper daiquiri, he would head up Calle Obispo to El Floridita. Both spots are must-visits for Hemingway fans and cocktail lovers. Finca Vigia, his residence on the outskirts of town, has been preserved as a museum exactly as he left it in 1960. STAY Most hotels in Havana are actually rather expensive, and usually booked months in advance by package tour groups. Thankfully, Havana has a well-established and government-sanctioned program of private homes and rooms to rent, called casa particulares. Since 2015, the vast majority of these can be booked on Airbnb.  A room in old Havana can be had for about $40 a night. We splurged and rented a two-bedroom apartment in a high rise on the water for $90 a night in the heart of Vedado, in the newer part of town. Our apartment overlooked the Jose Marti Anti-Imperialist Platform, which prominently features a statue of Cuban hero Marti holding a young Elian Gonzales, with a reproving finger pointing at the U.S. Embassy across the plaza. EAT Well-stocked supermarkets don’t really exist in Havana. You’re at the mercy of what’s in stock, which is generally very little. While we was there, there were shelves full of Panettone and Gerber baby food, but very little in the way of eggs, fresh fruits, and vegetables. For an extremely satisfying breakfast, however, the Hotel Capri in Vedado has a vast and sumptuous buffet, open to the public. For just $12 per person ($6 for kids), a feast awaits that can fill a belly for half the day. Kids can have their fill of fruits, eggs, pancakes, cereal, and even donuts. Just as some Cubans have been allowed to rent their apartments for lodging as casa particulares, others have been allowed to operate restaurants out of their homes. These in-home restaurants, limited to 12 seats, are known as paladares and can be found throughout the city. In fact, paladares now outnumber official state restaurants. A tasty dinner including drinks can be had for $10 to $15 per person, and every cab driver will show you their favorite special “secret” paladar if you ask. SMOKE (IF THAT’S YOUR THING) Every souvenir hawker and tout in old Havana will offer to sell you “real” Cuban cigars, cheaply. While they may be indeed Cuban, and cigars, they are poorly made knockoffs of the stogies that made Havana famous. For the real deal, stop by one of the Casa de Habano stores found throughout Havana. They have every brand of Cuban cigar imaginable, and you can be assured that you’re not buying counterfeits. After teaching my kids since birth that smoking is disgusting and bad for them, I really had no explanation for why I was bringing home a box of Montecristos. I’m not sure if they bought my “a cigar is a sometimes thing” excuse.   PLAY Hugging the waterfront in old Havana is a wonderful children's park and playground, replete with aging carousels, see-saws, and newer bouncy castles. It’s enough to keep the kids entertained for a few hours.  Convertible pesos are not accepted for the admission fee, so if you want to visit, you need to find a local parent and trade them some CUCs for CUPs. It’s about $0.15 to enter the park, and admission to the enormous bouncy castles and slides are another $0.15. In the center of a leafy park in Vedado, an enormous mid-century modern UFO rises above the trees. Lines of locals stretch down the block on all four sides of the park. The UFO does not take trips to Miami, but houses the famed Copellia ice cream parlor. Established by Castro in the early 1960s, Copellia made ice cream accessible to the common folk. For about 20 cents and an hour’s wait, you can get an enormous bowl of Havana’s best Ice cream. For tourists who don’t want to wait and don’t mind paying a little more, there’s an opportunity to skip the line and go to a separate gringo section, where the same ice cream can be had for 10 times the price. A 20-minute cab right out of town brings you to the gorgeous beaches of Playas del Este, a great day trip. A few hotels dot a 15-mile stretch of white-sand beaches, but it’s largely free of development. For $25 (half-price for kids), you can buy a day pass at the Hotel Atlantico in Santa Maria del Mar, which includes a buffet lunch, and use of the hotel’s pool and facilities. It’s a rather aging, communist-style hotel, mainly filled with foreign package tourists and complete with the requisite overeager activities staff giving poolside salsa and rhumba lessons.  The kids loved it. I should note that Cuban travel is not for everyone. Those accustomed to five-star accommodations and meals and streets lined with fancy boutiques may find themselves disappointed. Folks willing to forsake a few creature comforts for a unique experience a mere 45 minutes from Florida will find Cuba’s charms irresistible. My kids’ days of “people-to-people” experiences left them with beloved memories. As for their newfound knowledge of Spanish? The only word that seems to have lodged in their brains is helado.  Ice cream, of course.