The Best Telescope for City Viewing

What's the Best Telescope for Urban Viewing?

A lot of us live in the city. It's a great lifestyle, and comes with a whole host of benefits. The problem is that it can present some challenges to those of us who like using telescopes. For many of us, the old saw about bigger being better just doesn't get it done. We need an apartment telescope, that gives us the most viewing capacity in the smallest package possible. We've got the low-down on what you need to know about the best telescope for city viewing.

Things to Consider in an Apartment Telescope

To find the right scope for you, first it's important to think about how you'll be using it. That is to say, what do you have in mind when you talk about using a telescope for city viewing: viewing other things in the city, or doing astronomical observation from the city?

Terrestrial Viewing in the City

If what you're looking for is a telescope that will allow you to look at other Earth-bound objects in the city, there are a couple of things to think about. 

First of all, light isn't as likely to be an issue if this is your intent. There's generally plenty of light in the city, and furthermore you don't usually have to worry about there being too much light. Whereas astronomy can be difficult where it's not dark enough, terrestrial viewing where there is a ton of bright light is a snap.

Another issue is image orientation. A lot of telescopes send an inverted image to your eye. This isn't a problem when you're looking at a nebula or a planet, but it could be an issue if you want to look at what's going on down on the street. The solution for this is to use a right-angle inverting eyepiece. These are also sometimes know as erect-image eyepieces, and are sometimes included with the telescope when you buy it.

One issue that is particularly problematic when it comes to terrestrial viewing in general, but that seems to be exacerbated by the warmth of cities is poor atmospheric seeing. Air density can wreak havoc on astronomic observation because turbulence and air movement can bend and change the light as it travels to your eye, resulting in less clear, less focused images. The one benefit of looking up at the stars, however, is that you're only looking through a very small portion of the atmosphere. When you turn your telescope to look at other terrestrial objects, you're taking on even larger swaths of air, which can result in even greater distortion.

The thing you'll really have to worry about is focus at closer distances. Telescopes as invented were designed to peer into the infinite—literally. The usual application of a telescope is to use it to focus in on something that is a near-infinite distance from your eye. For that reason, telescopes do a really good job at focusing on tiny objects in the sky that are light years away, but tend to be less successful when it comes to looking at a building that's less than a mile from you.

Suffice it to say that you don't need the most powerful telescope in the world, and in fact it could be an impediment to have too powerful a telescope. We recommend a smaller refractor telescope with a steady mount. The good news is that these tend to be less expensive than the big Dobsonians that are so great for astronomy.

Other Options to Think About

The other thing to consider is that the right telescope for urban viewing might not even be a telescope. It might be a better idea to forgo the telescope, and instead try a spotting scope or a good pair of binoculars on a tripod.

[For some great binoculars options that won't break the bank, check out our article here.]

Spotter scopes (also referred to as "spotting scopes") have less capacity to see over long distances than do telescopes, but as we mentioned above, you don't need something that can focus on the infinite. With a spotter scope, you thus avoid some of the problems with air steadiness and focus on closer objects.

One of the really great features of a spotting scope is that many of them have variable-magnification eyepieces that allow adjustment to optimum configuration for the specific conditions. Telescopes can't do that as well.

If you're thinking about a spotting scope, try one with ED or HD glass, or an apochromat spotter scope that will reduce chromatic aberration (also known as "false color") and enhance your viewing experience.

A good pair of binoculars will also work for those less-than-infinite distances. Because of the weight of hand-held binoculars, we recommend a tripod with a binocular adapter to help steady the image and save your muscles the work.

One added benefit of binoculars is that binocular view comports better with our anatomy and makes for an overall more comfortable viewing experience.

Astronomy in the City

If what you're looking to do is astronomy in a city (and this applies to a lot of us), the right equipment can make all the difference in the world.

First, it's a myth that you have to observe from completely dark surroundings. You can do some fantastic observation, even in the midst of the brightest city. Usually, an effort to wrangle the most starlight will militate in favor of a larger telescope.

The problem with this approach is that a second consideration that we all must deal with, space, is particularly compounded in the city.

Take heart, you can do some really great viewing on relatively inexpensive telescopes that will also fit with your urban lifestyle.

Regardless of the particular telescope, there are some equipment add-ons that can help you see what you want to see. Choose your eyepieces carefully. Exit pupil is really important when dealing with sub-optimal conditions, even more so than magnification.

It's also important to get an eyepiece with eyecups, which keep extraneous light from interfering with images.

Finally, a word about filters. Light-pollution reduction filters ("LPR filters") can help, but they won't solve all your problems. They might make objects easier to spot, but they can't make the object brighter. Again, you're better off having the right telescope and eyepiece.

For more on astronomy in the city, check out this really interesting video:

The Best Telescopes for City Viewing

Here are some of our suggestions for telescopes that do a good job in the city.

Levenhuk Strike 80 NG

The Levenhuk Strike 80 NG is an achromatic refractor with an 80mm aperture and an alt-azimuth mount. With a tube length of around 800mm, it's not tiny, but it also won't take up a ton of space. This is, of course, ideal if you don't have a lot of space to accommodate equipment.

Levenhuk telescopes have some really nice features. Their design is simple, so they could be a good choice for beginners who don't have a lot of expertise when it comes to setting up and operating telescopes. That simplicity also translates into ease of use, which is good for anybody.

Additionally, the Levenhuk Strike 80 NG comes with a variety of accessories, including a diagonal mirror for inverting images for easier viewing, a 3x Barlow lens, and two eyepieces measuring 20mm and 6mm.

Because of its internal diaphragm, internally blackened tube, and coated glass objective lens, the Levenhuk does a good job of eliminating glare from the bright lights of the city. Its hooded objective lens adds another layer of glare protection.

Orion Observer 80 ST 80mm Equatorial Refractor

The ST in the Observer's title stands for "short tube", so you know it's an especially good choice for people looking for a telescope that won't take up a lot of space. It also makes the Observer extremely portable, which means you won't hurt your back taking it up to the roof or to another observation site.

Don't let the short tube fool you: despite its diminutive size, the Observer 80ST provides good performance in a small package. Because of the short tube, the Observer provides wide-field views, which means you can see more of whatever you're looking at without having to shift your field of view.

The Observer also comes with a handy suite of accessories, including a number of additional eyepieces that will allow you to adapt to whatever you want to view. One of those is a 2x Barlow lens (they call it "Shorty") that doubles the magnification of any eyepiece.

You also get a 90-degree diagonal eyepiece, along with two other Kellner eyepieces of 10mm and 25mm.

On top of all that, one of the most important features is an equatorial mount that allows for smooth movement. The included tripod provides good stability without a lot of bulk or weight.

Celestron 70mm Travel Scope

The Celestron Travel Scope is a really popular telescope, and it's easy to see why.

The Travel Scope was designed to be light and easy to use. It takes up very little space because of its shorter tube. But its designers over at Celestron also made sure it would be highly stable.

They succeeded. The Travel Scope comes with a full-size photographic tripod, which means you can count on a stable platform for observation or photography.

The whole thing folds up small enough to fit into a backpack, so the space commitment in your house is minimal. This could be a really effective option for apartment dwellers. It's also easy to set up and take down, so you can actually enjoy that portability.

The optics in the Travel Scope are coated to increase image clarity. Users report they have taken photographs with this telescope that have turned out better than some more expensive scopes.

Its accessories include an erect-image diagonal, so the image you get is oriented the same way as the object you're observing.

Orion StarMax 90mm

[For more on the StarMax 90mm, check out our review]

The StarMax is the only tabletop entry on this list, but it's here because of its portability, stability, and optical quality.

Orion's Mak-Cass StarMax weighs just 6.5 pounds when fully assembled, and the tabletop mount means it takes up very little space at all. Tabletop mounts are nice because they provide good stability in a portable package. If you've got a stable surface to set it on, the StarMax will be stable.

Accessories include a 90-degree mirror diagonal for upright images, as well as two 1.25" eyepieces of 10mm and 25mm that will allow you to equip the StarMax to adapt to whatever you want to observe.

The powerful optics provide detailed images, and coupled with the size and portability, the overall impression is one of getting a lot of bang for your buck. It's not the least-expensive option on our list, but it might actually be the best value.

The only downside of the StarMax is some image loss due to the center spot, but it could be worth it for the payoff of really good image quality.

It's easy enough to mount the StarMax 90mm on a full tripod if you like. It comes with an adapter that makes it easy, and you can pick up a full-size tripod for just a few bucks more.

Final Thoughts

Whatever you're looking to do, there's a telescope for your city viewing that matches your needs. Not only that, these great telescopes can be had a just a portion of the cost you might thing.

[Looking for more good affordable telescopes? Check out our list of the best telescopes under $200.]