Using a star map will be your best bet for assisting in finding where to look for constellations, depending on your location and time of year. It’s different depending on where you live and on the seasons, so use something like AstroViewer that lets you enter your location and gives you a customized star map. Another good one is Starmap, which also has an iOS app, and you can download them in PDF and print them so you can take the maps outside with you. Something like Google Sky can also help you to practice identifying the shapes of the constellations.
Other than a star map, all you need is a dark sky (as far away from cities as possible), and for extra visual aide, a pair of binoculars or a telescope. With the naked eye, you’ll see basic outlines, but with binoculars or a telescope, you’ll see fainter stars and other features like nebulae and star clusters. When you’re out observing, you’ll want to generally orient yourself towards the North Star (directions on how to find the North Star are found at the bottom of the article).
While below I note a “best viewed” month for each constellation, many are visible for at least 6 months of the year – just not quite as vividly. The constellations below are the most famous and most visible to the naked eye in the Northern Hemisphere.
Latin for “water carrier” or “cup carrier”
Best viewed in October
While one of the biggest, most famous, and oldest named constellations, Aquarius is faint and often hard to find/see. In Greek mythology, Aquarius represented Ganymede, a very handsome young man. Zeus recognized the lad’s good looks and invited Ganymede to Mt. Olympus to be the cupbearer of the gods. For his service, he was granted eternal youth, as well as a place in the night sky.
Despite its prominent position and large size, you can see that Aquarius doesn’t really have defining features, nor does it contain any bright stars. The protruding line to the right is Aquarius’s right arm, with the large downward shape being a combination of the water flowing down out of the vase and his right leg. While not the entire constellation, what’s drawn above is what you’re most likely to see in the night sky. You won’t see this one in the city; you’ll need a dark sky to find the cupbearer.
Best viewed in late summer, September
Aquila was the eagle that in Greek mythology actually bore Ganymede (Aquarius) up to Mt. Olympus. The eagle was also the thunderbolt carrier for Zeus.
This constellation lies in the Milky Way band, and its most prominent star is Altair, which is actually one of the closest naked-eye stars to the earth. The top portion of Aquila forms a shallow inverted “V,” with Altair nearly the point. This represents the head and wings of the eagle. A line then descends from Altair, which forms the body of the eagle.
Look towards the southern sky in the late summer, near the Milky Way band, for Aquila.
Latin for “ram”
Best viewed in December
While many constellations have gone through various iterations of mythological stories, Aries has always been the ram. This constellation is one of 12 constellations that form the zodiac — the constellations that straddle the sun’s path across the sky (known in scientific terms as the ecliptic). In ancient times, that gave the constellations of the zodiac special significance.
In Greek mythology, Aries is the ram whose fleece became the Golden Fleece. The Golden Fleece is a symbol of kingship and authority and plays a significant role in the tale of Jason and the Argonauts. Jason is sent to find the fleece in order to rightfully claim his throne as king, and with some help from Medea (his future wife), finds his prize. It’s one of the oldest stories in antiquity and was current in Homer’s time.
Aries is formed by just 4 (sometimes 5) visible stars, which create a line from the ram’s head (the lowest point in the image above) and down its back. Hamal is the largest and most visible star and is classified as an orange giant.
4. Canis Major
Latin for “greater dog”
Best viewed in February
Canis Major represents the famed Greek dog Laelaps. There are a few origin stories, but the common theme is that he was so fast he was elevated to the skies by Zeus. Laelaps is also considered to be one of Orion’s hunting dogs, trailing behind him in the night sky in pursuit of Taurus the bull.
Canis Major is notable because it contains the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius. Tradition notes that the first appearance of Canis Major in the dawn sky comes in late summer, ushering in the dog days of the season. In the night sky, it almost looks a stick figure, with Sirius at the head, and another bright star, Adhara, at its rear end.
No Latin meaning, it’s the name of a queen in Greek mythology
Best viewed in November
Cassiopeia, in Greek mythology, was a vain queen who often boasted about her beauty. She was the mother of Princess Andromeda, and in contrast to other figures being placed in the sky in honor, Cassiopeia was forced to the heavenly realms as punishment. As the story goes, she boasted that her beauty (or her daughter’s, depending on the story) was greater than that of the sea nymphs. This was quite an offense, and she was banned to the sky for all to gawk at.
With its distinctive “W” shape formed by five bright stars, Cassiopeia is one of the most easily recognizable constellations in the night sky come fall and early winter. And because of that, the vain queen is one of the most oft-mentioned in pop culture and one of the earliest constellations that young children come to recognize in the sky.