Zurich: visiting the old Urania Observatory with children

On a recent trip to Zurich I discovered a real “gem” for kids, The historic Urania Observatory. I’m very proud of it (now) but when I arrived there I definitely felt “dumb”. I had studied and lived in Zurich for 5 years and I had never heard of it.Back then I had no kids  and every night was a party night: I thought I had successfully mapped all bars in town. I hear you saying: what have bars to do with the observatory? A lot, indeed – since right below it, on the 11th floor, you can find the tiny but beautiful Jules Vernes Cocktail and Panorama Bar, with a 360-degree view over the city. I had missed this bar and, consequently, the observatory.

The Urania Obervatory (Urania Sternwarte)

Let’s go back to the observatory, which is called Urania Sternwarte. It was built in 1901 and is just a sight to behold. The dome is all covered with thin strips of wood, with a wooden rotating mezzanine (all hand-operated) to climb up to look into the refracting telescope. Trust me, it’s really worth the trip.

What you need to keep in mind is that kids(free) guided tours take place only on the first Saturday of the month. They are run in German only (or better Swiss-German) but the guide uses a simple language, well suited to kids. I even managed to translate most of the information provided, punch lines included! Anyway, thanks to audiovisual supports and body language, everything appears to be highly insightful. Dad can confirm it, as he normally starts feeling sick when he hears Goethe’s language being spoken (or, even worse, its Swiss version). At the Urania Observatory he felt very well.

The old mechanisms of the observatory

The hour-long visit covers the basic of astronomy, all presented in a clear and simple way – yet engaging, too. First of all they will tell you how the observatory works, because only one small part of the dome opens. Secondly they explain you how the hand-operated mechanism that allows the dome to rotate, works. Finally it’s the turn of the mezzanine where you stand to look inside the telescope. This too can rotate, as well as going up and down. The mechanism is the same old hand-operated one.

After this technical introduction, the talk becomes more scientific, starting with the stars… thanks to a computer connected with two screens, everyone can see (or guess) the explanations.

The time of the day is not suitable for an astronomic observation (it’s sunny outside) but there would be no point in taking the kids to see a telescope and then tell them there is nothing to look at . How to solve this problem? Simply, by being creative!  Each kid has his or her turn at the telescope, and can see a star – a special star, in fact. It is the star that is placed above the Fraumünster church! A bright idea which was very much appreciated.

Stars and planets

The next topic is planets, and thanks to cardboard shapes, they tell you how big or small the planets are, compared to the sun. The Earth, compared to our shining star, is as large as a tiny “piece of shit”. These words are not mine… and I am pretty sure that I did translate them correctly, as everyone burst out laughing. Then the guide talked about the distance of the planets from the sun, and so we discovered that if we were to travel through space on board of a Ferrari doing 240 kms per hour, it would take approximately 71 years to get there.

Thanks to a simulation on a special scale, we understand what our weight would be like if we lived on the sun (forget about it, 20 years of chocolate mousse 3 times a day would do less damage) or on other planets. So take heart, and consider the option of colonizing Mars – you’ll be as light as a feather!

At the end of the visit: a booklet and a contest

I could tell you a lot more, but I would spoil your visit. I just want to add that at the end of the visit every kid gets a booklet with everything that was said, as well as slips with some questions. If you send it back with at least 24 questions (out of 26 in total), you will get a present. I won’t tell you, as it has not arrived yet.

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