The Welsh island of Ynys Enlli (also known as Bardsey Island) has become the first place in Europe to be awarded International Dark Sky Sanctuary Certification – one of just 16 around the world.

Wales has been celebrating Welsh Dark Skies Week (17–26 February) with events across the nation. It already had three International Dark Sky Places within its borders, including two of only 18 International Dark Sky Reserves. Around 18 per cent of the land has dark sky protected skies.

Ynys Enlli has now been officially recognised as having one of the world’s best night sky areas. The island is two miles from the tip of the Llŷn Peninsula in Snowdonia. Its location and geographical features make it one of the darkest places in the UK. The mountain on the island effectively acts as a barrier that limits light from the mainland; the closest source of major light pollution is Dublin, which is some 70 miles across the sea. As part of the certification process, the quality of the night sky on the island was monitored for four years.

If you’re keen to try out some stargazing, or are looking for somewhere new to watch the night sky, then there are plenty more designated sites across the UK. The country has several organisations that help to track and map where’s best to view it.

Among them is not-profit organisation Go Stargazing. It has produced a map (see below) showing stargazing locations that are publicly accessible at night, Most are classified as official dark-sky discovery sites, others come recommended by the local authority or organisation responsible for them. Some are places that the Go Stargazing team has found based recent light pollution maps.

Here’s what to know about dark sky reserves, where’s best for stargazing in the UK and how to visit Yns Enlli Island.

What is a dark sky reserve?

International Dark Sky Reserves are designated by the International Dark Sky Association (IDA). They guarantee some of the best stargazing opportunities for local visitors and holidaymakers. Spotting constellations, catching sight of meteor showers and looking up to see the planets(the ones that are visible vary by month) are all possible – and more likely – in one of these destinations. The Northern Lights can also be seen in certain parts of the UK over winter, and will be better experienced with as little light pollution as possible.

A clear sky in Pen y Fan in the Brecon Beacons (Photo: Michael Roberts/Getty)

The IDA is an authority on light pollution and combats it worldwide. Each reserve is a part of land that has “an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and nocturnal environment that is specifically reserved for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural, heritage and/or public enjoyment”, it says.

The reserves include a core area that meets minimum criteria for sky quality and natural darkness, and a peripheral area that supports dark-sky preservation in the core.

There is an application process for securing Dark Sky Reserve status, which includes:

  • Light meter readings to show the area is of sufficient quality and to identify the darkest “core area” of the reserve;
  • At least 67 per cent of properties must have “dark-sky friendly” lighting;
  • Support shown from at least 80 per cent of the area and population;
  • Dedicated education and public outreach programmes that highlight the value of natural nighttime darkness.

How can you visit Bardsey Island?

Bardsey Island is open to visitors between March and October. You can take a boat to the island on a day trip, with the journey taking three to four hours each way.

To appreciate its star spotting opportunities, you will need to stay overnight. There are nine holiday lets available on the island through Bardsey Island Trust.

Where are the UK’s dark sky reserves?

There are six dark sky reserves in the UK and 21 worldwide. In the UK (see below for a map of stargazing destinations in the UK, including these reserves) they are:

  • Brecon Beacons, Wales
  • Exmoor National Park
  • North York Moors National Park
  • South Downs National Park
  • Snowdonia National Park
  • Yorkshire Dales National Park

Are there other dark sky categories?

Yes, as well as dark sky sanctuaries and dark sky reserves, there are the following classifications. Here is where you can find them in the UK:

Dark sky sanctuaries

  • Yns Enlli (Bardsey Island)

International Dark Sky Communities

  • Coll (Scotland)
  • Moffat (Scotland)
  • North Ronaldsay Dark Sky Island (Scotland)

International Dark Sky Parks

  • Northumberland National Park
  • Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park
  • Elan Valley Dark Sky Park
  • Cairngorms Dark Sky Park

Dark Sky Discovery Sites

Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, including:

  • Bosherston South car park 
  • Garn Fawr National Trust car park (SA64 OJJ) 
  • Kete National Trust car park (SA62 3RR) 
  • Martin’s Haven National Trust car park (SA62 3BJ) 
  • Newgale Beach car park (SA62 6BD) 
  • Poppit Sands (SA43 3LN) 
  • Skrinkle Haven Pembrokeshire Coast National Park car park (SA70 7SD) 
  • Sychpant Pembrokeshire Coast National Park picnic site (SA65 9UA) 

Lake District, including

  • Dark Sky Discovery Site at Low Gillerthwaite Field Centre

Urban Night Sky Places and Dark Sky Friendly Developments of Distinction are among the other categories, although none exist in the UK.

Star trails behind a single hawthorn tree in Yorkshire Dales national park.
Star trails in Yorkshire Dales National Park (Photo: Getty)

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