Note: This post was written in March 2020 right before the start of the pandemic. Palm Springs will always hold a special place in my heart as the last place I visited before the the world went into lockdown. Read now and save for future travels!
Palm Springs has long been on my list of places to visit, primarily because I’ve been wanting to go to Joshua Tree National Park and have a certain penchant for midcentury architecture all things old Hollywood. In fact, Palm Springs has been where celebrities have gone to retreat for decades thanks to the so-called “2-hour rule” that once required actors under contract to stay within a certain radius of Hollywood. You truly get a sense of why the moment you step down the stairs of the airplane and are greeted by warm desert air and cheerful palm trees. You can’t help but feel relaxed and happy.
And while certain aspects of the city seem to be frozen in time, I found that there’s a wealth of vibrant offerings that present day travelers can take advantage of, so much that I’m already planning my next trip back. So whether you’re a sun worshiper, outdoor explorer or design guru, here’s a few recommendations on what to see and do in and around Palm Springs.
1. Downtown Palm Springs
For a fun introduction to Palm Springs head to Palm Canyon Drive in the heart of downtown where you’ll find tons of al fresco dining, boutique shopping and hints of the city’s Hollywood history. Look down and follow the Walk of Stars along the sidewalk (fittingly adorned with a golden palm tree) honoring actors, musicians, architects, presidents and other notable figures with ties to Palm Springs. You’ll also find statues like that of entertainer and former mayor Sony Bono and actress Lucille Ball who once resided in the city, a colorful mural paying homage to Marilyn Monroe and other places that famous faces frequented decades ago that continue to operate today. And if you can’t get enough, many companies offer themed tours to celebrity neighborhoods and hang out spots around the Palm Springs area.
2. Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
Another great way to get acquainted with Palm Springs and the surrounding area is to take a ride on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. The tram first opened in 1963 and its rotating car (the largest in the world) continues to sweep visitors up more than 8,500 feet during the 10 minute, 2.5 mile journey, offering spectacular views of the Chino Canyon and San Jacinto Mountains. At the top visitors are treated to much cooler temperatures and will find observation decks, two restaurants, a natural history museum, hiking trails and even skiing in the winter. pstramway.com
3. Palm Springs Art Museum
This world-class art museum is tucked back on Museum Drive against the backdrop of the San Jacinto Mountains and is home to an ever-changing collection of modern and contemporary art by Western and Native American artists. You’ll find objects ranging from sculpture and paintings to photographs and prints in a building that’s as interesting as the art it houses. Design lovers should check out the museum’s Architecture and Design Center located on Palm Canyon Drive, which features an array of architectural drawings, models, textiles, furniture and photographs from the archives of notable architects who contributed to the area’s desert modernism aesthetic. psmuseum.org
4. Moorten Botanical Gardens
Another hidden gem in Palm Springs is the Moorten Botanical Gardens, which is home to more than 3,000 varieties of desert plants and cacti, some of which cannot be seen anywhere else in the world. The one-acre, family-owned estate dates back to 1938 when gold miner-turned-cactus purveyor Chester Moorten and his wife Patricia built their Mediterranean-style home here. Moorten’s calls itself a “living museum of desert lure” that weaves in the history of the early days of Palm Springs with other items including rocks, crystals, fossils and gold mining relics, along with a nursery in case you want to take a souvenir of the desert home with you. moortenbotanicalgarden.com
5. Midcentury Modern Architecture
Palm Springs is home to the largest concentration of midcentury modern architecture, which continues to be a draw for visitors well into the 21st century. Often referred to as desert modernism, this unique aesthetic blends the local landscape with design elements like clean lines, flat planes, the use of glass and other post-war materials in open layouts that that often marries indoor and outdoor spaces. There are many ways to midcentury modern architecture in Palm Springs, from iconic buildings like the Palm Springs Visitors Center (formerly the Tramway Gas Station) to neighborhoods like Indian Canyons. Various companies offer driving tours and the Palm Springs Historical Society also leads a variety of themed walking and bike tours to see such highlights, or you can venture out on a self-guided tour by car or foot (made easy thanks to this app).
6. Various Hiking Trails
When you’re not taking in all of the gorgeous midcentury modern architecture in Palm Springs you can hit one of many nearby trails for some equally as gorgeous scenery. Trails range from easy to challenging so there’s options for every kind of traveler. Some favorites include the Museum Trail (a steep 0.6 miles up and back), North Lykken Trail (3.5 miles) and the strenuous Skyline Trail (17.5 miles), which are all easily accessible from downtown. Just outside of downtown you’ll also find many trails located on the land of the Agua Caliente Indians in Tahquitz Canyon (home to a spectacular 60-foot waterfall) and Indian Canyon (various trails throughout Andreas, Murry and Palm Canyon). The latter is home to the largest naturally occurring fan palm oasis in the world and is not to be missed. You can read more about some of my favorite hiking spots near Palm Springs or find a full guide here.
Every Thursday night this lively street festival takes over Palm Canyon Drive featuring more than 180 arts and craft vendors, food, live entertainment and more from 6-10pm. It’s a great gathering place for people of all ages, and many of the neighboring businesses are also open late. In addition to VillageFest, Palm Springs is home to an array of other unique events throughout the year like Modernism Week, the Palm Springs International Film Festival, Coachella Music and Arts Festival and more, so regardless of when you visit there will always be something exciting happening. villagefest.org
8. Palm Springs Air Museum
For aviation geeks, history lovers or anyone who just likes cool stuff, the Palm Springs Air Museum is home to one of the largest collection of WWII planes anywhere (along with others from the Korea and Vietnam eras). You’ll find more than 50 vintage combat aircraft on display, including a B-17 bomber, as well as flight simulators, special exhibits and events and can even book a real warbird flight of your own. The museum is practically next door to the airport so it makes for a fun first or last stop during your trip to Palm Springs. palmspringsairmuseum.org
9. Joshua Tree National Park
There are so many incredible outdoor spaces near Palm Springs and Joshua Tree National Park tops the list for many travelers. It’s about an hour drive from downtown and spans nearly 800,000 acres across 2 unique desert ecosystems – the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert – offering visitors a plethora of activities from hiking and rock climbing to stargazing and scenic drives. What makes Joshua Tree especially enchanting is its diverse flora and fauna, including the unique trees the park is named after (which are actually a species of yucca). Like much of the area, temperatures can soar past 100 degrees Fahrenheit so Joshua Tree is best enjoyed outside of the summer season. You can read more in my post Visiting Joshua Tree National Park (coming soon!). nps.gov/jotr
Some people just want to get away from it all and for those travelers Palm Springs has you covered too. Just like the celebrities of yesterday who came here to escape the hustle and bustle of Hollywood, there’s a ton of opportunities to do the same in this resort town today. Lounge by the pool? Check. A round of golf? Check. Spa treatments, world-class dining and a wealth of outdoor activities? All check. Relax, recharge, repeat.