Editor's Note: Before you buy a telescope, check out our Celestron telescope deals here! And If you're looking other space gifts, check out our picks for the best space gifts and best kids' space gifts and toys for more ideas.
A photon leaps off the sun and, about 500 seconds later, bounces off our Earth. Light has been dancing and rebounding from faraway and nearby celestial objects for more than 13 billion years. It's time you caught some of it for your very own.
That's what telescopes do; they gather light. But to collect that radiance, you'll need to pick the telescope that fits your needs and budget. Our editors have selected a few of the best options in five categories. Click on each to read reviews of the telescopes in these groups:
- Best Telescopes for Kids (Preschool and Up)
- Best Telescope for Beginners (Easy to Use)
- Best Binoculars for Astronomy, Nature, Sports and Travel
Toy store telescopes are mostly junk. We’ve selected several better-quality ones, which will be easy to use and fun for all family members. Here are some highlights:
Best children's telescope for viewing and value
Big aperture, good-quality optics and easy operation bring the solar system — and the deep sky beyond — directly to your young astronomer. A well-coated, 4.5-inch (114 mm) primary mirror feeds a pair of Kellner eyepieces for bright views. The celestial-image-adorned steel tube and its moving parts are very durable. This telescope comes with a free download of Starry Night astronomy software. You can use Starry Night to plan observing sessions and for fun learning day or night.
Best children's telescope for learning
You get kid-size versions of instruments to extend vision to the very big, the very faraway and the very small. A 2-inch aperture refractor telescope works at night for moon, planets and stars, and during the day for animals and sports. [Never point a telescope at the sun!] Note that 6x binoculars are made for little hands and faces. A three-objective microscope (150x, 450x and 900x) brings the sub-visible to giant size.
Best children's telescope for a limited budget
The Celestron FirstScope’s tabletop spin-and-tilt design makes the device easy for kids to use. The optical tube is decorated with the names of noteworthy astronomers throughout history, inspiring kids even when it's sitting on their desk or on a shelf indoors. It comes with two eyepieces (20 millimeters and 4 mm) for wide and close-up views. FirstScope’s 3-inch (76 mm) aperture is small, but its fast focal ratio (3.95) lets kids see objects in the deep sky on dark (moonless) nights. An optional accessory kit adds a finder scope, anti-glare moon filter, two more eyepieces and downloadable astronomy software for PC and Mac. Remarkably fine optical quality at a very low price makes this surprising telescope a great choice for kids with an interest in the night sky. With patience and a dark location, planets, nebulas and even a few galaxies are in range of this telescope.
Beginner telescope with best optical quality
Meade justifiably prides itself on the laboratory-grade heritage of its optical components and meticulous machining. Indeed, the clean light-transmission properties of this StarNavigator 102 are excellent, due to somewhat better glass casting and lens coating than competitors. So is the overall build quality of its mechanics. And the onboard computer's well-thought-out software and interface make it easy to grab starlight from all over the sky on every night out. You can get to more targets per session with a computer-guided telescope than with a manual rig, and this one is especially friendly and easy to operate.
Best Telescope for Hobbyists
Celestron's Advanced VX 8-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain Telescope (SCT) delivers the "big scope experience" at the low end of the size and price ranges for large, sophisticated telescopes. With superb tracking and superior optics, this configuration is ready for serious visual observation and astrophotography. Compared to most "starter" telescopes and basic amateur telescopes, this instrument represents a step into a tier of instruments that require a significant investment of time and money. It will take you time to set up the sophisticated mount. It will require some delicious — but time-consuming — learning to understand what the scope can do and how it does it. And this telescope costs as much as a good-quality big-screen TV! But the universe will pay you back, many times over, in celestial trophies you really can't bag any other way.
Alternate editors' choice for hobbyists:
The Celestron SkyProdigy 130 is the first consumer telescope to offer fully automatic alignment. Once you set it up under the night sky, it takes about 3 minutes for the scope to find itself. Then you can use the wired remote keypad to drive this high-quality Newtonian reflector. The SkyProdigy comes with two 1.25-inch Kellner eyepieces (25 mm and 9 mm). The nicely machined focuser can also accept 2-inch eyepieces.
Orion's SkyQuest is an 8-inch (203 mm) Dobsonian telescope. It's a big light bucket with an excellent-quality primary mirror that's great for hauling in the old, tired photons of distant galaxies and nebulas. As long as you don't intend to take long-exposure astrophotos, the SkyQuest is a fabulous tool. Also, be aware that it's a bit of a kit: You must screw together the altitude-azimuth mount, fit up the tilting optical tube and do a few more bits of assembly. But it's fun to do, and the result is a wonderful scope that you can use for decades.
For hungry learners on a tight budget:
On your way to remarkable views of celestial objects, this manually guided telescope will teach you how Earth moves with respect to the rest of the universe, because you'll have to adjust its position by hand in order to find or locate celestial objects in the night sky. Most manual (non-"GoTo") telescopes compel such learning, but this one makes it especially rewarding, thanks to its fine machining and elegant design. Meade's heritage of laboratory-grade optics infuses this instrument. You'll fall in love with the beauty of the sky at night. During the day, you'll be proud of your Meade's sleek and technical looks.
Another hobbyist telescope option:
Best portable telescope:
Loved for their rugged portability, spotting scopes are favored by daytime sports and outdoors enthusiasts. Now, Celestron brings you a spotting scope that is excellent for grab-and-go astronomy as well. The Regal M2 100ED can pull a lifetime of visual memories into its 19.25-inch (48.9 centimeters), 4.6-lb. (2 kilograms) frame. The M2’s body is cast of lightweight magnesium alloy. You'll need to buy a tripod separately, and possibly a 1.25-inch astronomy eyepiece or two for skywatching.
Best inexpensive portable telescope:
At 6.5 lbs. (3 kg), the Orion StarMax telescope system is light enough to grab and go. By folding the light path, the Mak-Cass optical design packs a lot of magnification into a small footprint. Three included eyepieces let you select the optimal view. The innovative miniature-tabletop mount requires only simple assembly but offers great flexibility and easy operation.
Best computer-driven telescope for beginners:
Also comes as a refractor at about the same price:
The Celestron Astro Fi telescopes take their observing orders from your Apple or Android smartphone or tablet via the free SkyPortal app (App Store or Google Play). You won't need access to a network, because your new Astro Fi scope has its own. It even works where your cellular networks don't.
The 3.5-inch (90 mm) refractor version of this telescope is our choice for planet watching. The 4-inch (102 mm) Maksutov-Cassegrain hybrid version wonderfully resolves tiny point-source stars. And there's a slightly more expensive Astro Fi 5-inch (130 mm) Newtonian reflector, which gives you the widest aperture, hence the most detailed look into the universe, from this family of scopes. Just be careful not to bend the lightweight aluminum tripod.
Best manual telescope for beginners:
If you want to escape your phone and concentrate on the sky, Orion's StarBlast 6i Dobsonian reflector might be your ticket out. The 6-inch (15 cm) mirror is broad enough to gobble light waves from millions of years ago, or from just a few seconds past. Unlike many Dobsonians, the StarBlast pops out of its shipping box ready to work, which makes it a nice gift buy.
Best inexpensive telescope:
- Reflector / AltAz "Rock and Roll" Turntable
- Helps developing nations
- Price: $200
Give this OneSky telescope as a gift (even to yourself!) and you automatically make a donation to the nonprofit Astronomers Without Borders (AWB). Young science students a world away will benefit from enhanced education programs as you enjoy your astronomy hobby. We are all under one sky.
And you'll be getting an extraordinarily good telescope: 5.1 inches (130 mm) of aperture, good-quality glass, two Plossl eyepieces and an innovative compact-expanding design. It's a truss tube Newtonian reflector on a simple-to-work altitude-azimuth mount, with a built-in handle. We truly love this telescope.
Best inexpensive gift for a young astronomer:
With two eyepieces and a Barlow lens, this compact (less than 15 inches, or 38 cm, long), lightweight (3 lbs. 11 ounces, or 1.6 kg) Newtonian telescope is ready to reveal the universe to your fledgling skywatcher. Just make sure they have a flat surface to place it on (no tripod included). An optional Kids Kit adds a lunar light filter (important!), a moon map, a star finder and a 48-page "Explore the Cosmos" book.
The long view of astronomy
Here's the deep truth of telescopes: It does not matter what price you pay to get into amateur astronomy. Telescopes gather light. And, yes, more light — or purer light — is better.
But once you tune in to the reality that the universe is coming directly to you — to meet you wherever you are, as long as you look up — you will never be the same. Once you start observing with a telescope, you will likely never stop.
May the photons be with you.
Once you've picked a great telescope, you might also like to check into what else you might need, using our Astronomy Guide: Tools, Tips and Equipment page.