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Here’s a handy travel guide plus a fabulous list of fun things to do in Palm Springs, CA.
What’s not to like about Palm Springs? This tempting desert getaway about two hours from LA has sunshine, sleek architecture and a retro Hollywood vibe.
Best of all, there is something for everyone, from energy-filled festivals and great attractions to hipster motels and luxury retreats.
What is Palm Springs?
Palm Springs is a stereotype. Only there are so many stereotypes they’re exploding in my head like fireworks over the Colorado Desert.
Is it an outdoor playground? A celebrity hangout? A gay mecca? A haven for retirees? Is it chic, outdoorsy, retro, tacky, sophisticated, earthy, agricultural, dripping in wealth or all of the above?
Everybody has a different idea of what Palm Springs is. The good thing is that it can be whatever you want it to be.
What is Palm Springs Famous For?
Palm Springs is known for its blue skies, almost endless sunshine and mid-century modern architecture that lies low and sexy in the landscape like Dean Martin in a deck chair.
Famous as the Rat Pack hangout of the 50s and 60s, Palm Springs’ celebrity lustre lingers, with ghosts of stars like Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Junior, Marilyn Monroe, Bob Hope and Liberace dancing on through the hotels and grand estates.
With a newly-revitalized downtown core, Palm Springs provides a laidback lifestyle with a quirky Vegas edge and an inviting appeal that makes a visitor (meaning me), immediately want to check out real estate prices. It also offers excellent pool time.
Perhaps most importantly, Palm Springs has no parking metres so downtown parking is free.
About Greater Palm Springs
The first thing you need to understand is that Palm Springs isn’t just Palm Springs city. Greater Palm Springs is made up of nine small cities altogether.
This is why the first time I vacationed here with my mother I thought I was in Palm Springs and kept getting confused when people told me I wasn’t. Thank goodness for GPS. It turns out we were in Desert Hot Springs. Who knew?
What Are the Cities of Palm Springs?
- Palm Springs
- Desert Hot Springs
- Cathedral City
- Rancho Mirage
- Palm Desert
- Indian Wells
- La Quinta
Things to Do in Palm Springs
To help you plan your trip, here’s a rundown on some of the top activities in Palm Springs as well as some fun and quirky ideas – because quirky is what this desert vacation spot does best.
Travel Tip: If you’re looking for things to do in Palm Springs this weekend, check out this programme of current events
1) Ride the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
This is probably the top attraction in Palm Springs. And no wonder; it’s the largest rotating tramway in the world.
This one-of-a-kind cable car takes you on a mind-blowing ride into the San Jacinto Mountains, where you’ll switch palm trees for pines and wish this wasn’t the one day of your trip you forgot to bring a jacket.
For something romantic, ride up at night. The last tram doesn’t go down until 9:45 p.m. Soaring down the steep rock face of Chino Canyon in the velvety night, the glittery lights of Palm Springs swirling below is a 10-minute trippy experience you won’t soon forget.
Budget tip: Try a Ride ‘n’ Dine combo
The cost for the Aerial Tramway is $26.95 adult ($16.95 child). If you go after 4 p.m. you can buy a Ride ‘n’ Dine ticket that includes the tram and a meal at the Pines Cafe up at the Mountain Station for $36 ($23.50 child).
Will that impress your date or what?
2) Cruise Palm Canyon Drive
If you’re looking for things to do in downtown Palm Springs, start on Palm Canyon Drive. It’s the main drag of Palm Springs city and you’ll find all the restaurants, attractions, and shops you can handle.
What to do on Palm Canyon Drive:
- Check out the pool-perfect gear at the Wil Stiles boutique at 875 North.
- Go vintage at Revivals Resale Mart at 611 South.
- Grab an organic espresso at Koffi located at 515 North.
- Step back into the 30s at Ruddy’s General Store at 221 South.
3) Take a Day Trip to Joshua Tree National Park
The image of a lonely Joshua tree amidst the scrub of the Mojave Desert is one of the most iconic scenes of the California landscape and, even though it’s about an hour away, it’s one of the top Palm Springs tourist attractions.
Tough prickly leaves, branches clawing into the sky – this beloved yucca plant is said to be named after the biblical Joshua by Mormon settlers who imagined its outstretched arms were beckoning them westward.
Today, Joshua trees beckon visitors who come to this popular national park to hike, climb, learn about the park at the Visitor’s Centre, and feast their eyes on the vast desert vista.
The northwest entrance is the closest to Palm Springs. Take Highway 10 west to Highway 62 to Joshua Tree.
4) Visit the Palm Springs Art Museum
The main art stop in the area, the sleek and fabulous Palm Springs Art Museum is right downtown and easy to walk to.
This top Palm Springs attraction hosts thought-provoking exhibitions and a sophisticated permanent collection that includes works by Warhol and Chihuly – and it’s a great place to get a grounding in mid-century modern art.
Budget tip: The downtown Palm Springs Art Museum is free every Thursday from 4 to 8 p.m. and all day every second Sunday of the month.
5) Hike at Indian Canyons
The outdoors is Palm Springs’ middle name. (No, it’s not. That’s just stupid.) The point is, Palm Springs is a hiking paradise with miles of trails.
For sheer natural impact, Indian Canyons provides an eyeful of eerie rock formations, Jurassic-sized fan palms, streams and cliffs.
This is a sacred place for the Cahuilla people, and you can practically feel the energy radiating off the ancient rock walls.
Located at 38520 S Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs, CA 92264, Indian Canyons is about 5 miles south of Palm Springs city.
6) Visit the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens
One of the most popular things to do in Palm Springs with kids is to visit the non-profit Living Desert Zoo and Gardens.
With a focus on habitat conservation and education, the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens is part botanical garden, part desert habitat and part zoo.
There are more 500 animals here and the park showcases an amazing array of desert wildlife.
It’s a large park, but the park shuttle can help you get around, and strollers are available for rent.
A top activity at the Living Desert Zoo is the giraffe feeding. Or, explore one of their three Loop Trails that range from easy to challenging in a varied environment of smoketree, palo verde, and desert willow.
The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens is just 10 minutes from Palm Springs at 47900 Portola Avenue, Palm Desert, CA 92260.
7) Go Window Shopping on El Paseo in Palm Desert
For a splash of high-end Palm Springs sightseeing, hit up El Paseo. This swanky shopping district in Palm Desert is Southern California’s answer to Rodeo Drive.
With more than 300 shops, walkable palm-lined streets and Mediterranean-style fountains, this is an upscale shopping experience that will wear holes right through your caviar-coloured Chanel wallet.
If your feet get worn out too, dine with the ladies-who-lunch crowd at Pacifica Seafood, where a Sugar-Spiced Salmon or Pan Seared Chilean Seabass will have you up and back to the boutiques in no time.
8) Tour the Street Art in Coachella
Tired of ritzy designer stores? Head to the city of Coachella.
(By the way, we’re talking about the city of Coachella here, not the festival, and the two are worlds apart. More on that below.)
Coachella city shows a different side of the region. It’s one where the roots of agriculture run deep, the art scene is booming and a street mural tour will smack you in the face with its colour, energy and message.
For a self-guided Coachella Walls Walking Tour of the murals, download a map here.
Coachella travel tip: No, the famous Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival is not in the city of Coachella. It’s in Indio, about 25 minutes away.
And yes, all of these places are in Palm Springs. And all of Palm Springs is in the Coachella Valley. And the Coachella Valley is in the Colorado Desert. And the Colorado Desert is in the Sonoran Desert.
Don’t worry, I’m confused, too. Now let’s get back to the best things to do in Palm Springs, California.
9) Check out Sunnylands Center and Gardens
The Sunnylands Estate in Rancho Mirage was built by the wealthy Annenburg family in 1966.
Known as the ‘Camp David of the West Coast,’ it’s so special you can’t tour the actual home unless you book months in advance. I mean, Obama could probably walk in unannounced and, in fact, has stayed here more than once.
Nixon, Reagan and Bush hung out here and so has nearly every other president who ever needed a fancy desert estate to hold top secret meetings and get a little pool time.
(I know what you’re thinking and no, Trump did not grace Sunnylands as far as I know. No word yet on if Biden will stop in.)
But you can visit Sunnylands Centre and Gardens
Even if you don’t score a Historic House Tour ticket you can still tour the Sunnylands Center and Gardens and get a feel for this mid-century modern dream property with its gorgeous (and free to visit) manicured grounds.
What can you do at the Sunnylands Center?
- Watch a documentary about all the fabulous New Year’s Eve parties you weren’t invited to.
- Walk a labyrinth.
- Wander garden trails with their sun-kissed cacti and smokebush.
- Take a birding tour.
- See the free art exhibits in the Centre.
- Grab a bite at the café.
Address: Sunnylands Center and Gardens, 37977 Bob Hope Dr, Rancho Mirage, CA 92270
10) Follow the Footsteps of Frank Sinatra
Palm Springs was the playground of the Rat Pack, and Frank Sinatra was the biggest ‘rat’ of them all. For more than 50 years he called Palm Springs home, and there are still many places to see in Palm Springs that have a tie to the great crooner.
Cruise up Frank Sinatra Drive to Wolfson Park, where you can hear his voice on a recorded welcome speech, then drive by The Compound, his former palatial estate at 70-588 Frank Sinatra Drive in Rancho Mirage. (Sorry, it’s now privately owned so no visitors.)
In keeping with the Frank Sinatra theme, dine at Melvyn’s where the famous singer was known to drink a Jack Daniels (or many), then end your tour with a visit to his memorial at the Desert Memorial Park in Cathedral City.
11) Walk of Stars
If you can’t bear to drop the Frank Sinatra theme, seek out his star on Palm Canyon Drive on the Walk of Stars in downtown Palm Springs.
In addition to Palm Canyon Drive, the Walk of Stars also spreads out on Tahquitz Canyon Way and Museum Drive. Other stars you can look for include Shirley Temple, Clark Gable, Bob Hope, Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe.
Happy star gazing.
12) Take a Pool Day
If all that sightseeing is wearing you out and your accommodation doesn’t come with a pool (heaven forbid!), don’t worry. You can still get some quality pool time with a day pass at a number of hotels and resorts.
- For a funky vibe try the Ace Hotel & Swim Club.
- Get your I’m-so-cool fix at the rooftop pool at the downtown Kimpton Rowan Hotel.
- For a family friendly option, the Renaissance Esmeralda Resort & Spa in Indian Wells has the biggest outdoor pool area in the Coachella Valley, faux sandy beach included.
- The Hyatt Regency in Indian Wells also offers day passes to the resort’s 5 pools.
13) See the Cactarium at Moorten Botanical Gardens
Admit it. You’ve always wanted to see a rare welwitschia or a cresting cactus up close, and you can at the cactarium at the Moorten Botanical Gardens.
Started by Chester ‘Cactus Slim’ Moorten, one of the original Keystone Cops, the Moorten Botanical Gardens opened in 1938.
Now run by his son Clark, this pleasantly prickly spot has a kitschy flair that adds a sense of fun to some serious cacti specimens. Just watch where you sit. ($5)
Address: Moorten Botanical Gardens, 1701 S Palm Canyon Dr, Palm Springs, CA 92264
14) Hike the Palm Springs Museum Trail
If you don’t want to venture far from the Palm Springs core, the Palm Springs Museum Trail starts at the north corner of the museum parking lot downtown.
Hike up for amazing views of Palm Springs and the San Gorgonio Mountains beyond. Also, because it’s right next to the museum, you can feel cultured while you climb.
15) Hit Up a Hot Springs
My mother and I relaxed with a 5-day spa vacation at the dreamy Two Bunch Palms in Desert Springs. This luxury spa resort has a colourful history, and it’s said that gangster Al Capone had it built in the Twenties.
The big draws for my mother and I were the top notch spa treatments and the outdoor hot springs pools where we soaked every day.
Since one of the minerals in the water is lithium, nature’s own happy valium, my mother and I were completely content.
(Kidding! The jury is out on whether there are any real effects in lithium springs, but I’ll tell you we didn’t leave depressed.)
Regardless, the cuisine and the massages at this slightly oddball but very deluxe resort were excellent.
Other Hot Springs Hotels in Palm Springs
Two Bunch Palms is at the luxury level, but there are some cheaper alternatives if you’re looking for hot springs resorts.
Just want a day pass to the mineral pools? Try the 2-star Desert Hot Springs Spa Hotel.
16) Go Golfing
There are more than 100 golf courses in the area, so the sport is clearly a popular activity in Palm Springs. A few to check out are:
- The highly-rated Desert Willow Golf Resort in Palm Desert. It’s two courses include the challenging Firecliff – not for the weak of heart.
- The PGA West Golf Club in La Quinta. It was voted one of the top 100 courses in the USA.
- Indian Canyons Golf Resort. Called the Canyon Country Club when it opened in 1961, it’s said to have been Frank Sinatra’s favourite.
17) Slurp a Date Shake at Oasis Date Gardens
Date shakes are a thing in Palm Springs and of course I had to try one. But I don’t cozy up to any old wizened fruit so I went to the source.
A 45-minute drive from downtown Palm Springs, Oasis Date Gardens is a 175-acre organic date farm in the Coachella Valley.
Stop in for a shake so thick you need a spoon, do a date tasting and watch a date-based video – it might be the best first date you’ll ever have.
18) Drink in the Confessional at The Parker Palm Springs
The Parker is one of the most iconic resorts in Palm Springs.
Once owned by Merv Griffin, and infamous as the hotel where Robert Downey Jr was arrested for drugs (don’t worry, he’s reformed now and we love him very much), this celebrity-studded resort still retains a sense of posh funkiness and fun.
At the hotel’s Counter Reformation Wine Bar, you can order a mouth-watering charred beef carpaccio, pick and choose glasses of wine from the eclectic menu or pop into the wood-carved confessional for a bit of alcohol-fuelled redemption.
19) Dine Communally at Sparrows Lodge
It may be the hippest communal meal in town. It may be the only communal meal in town.
Set in the intimate courtyard of Sparrows Lodge – a 50s-era retro retreat that now gleams with modern art and oozes rustic coziness – this twice-weekly dinner offers Chicken Wednesdays and Steak Saturdays for $45.
I can personally endorse my fresh greens with pomegranate, roasted chicken, potatoes with citrus, and thigh-expanding brownie.
If anything is conducive to being sociable with strangers, this family-style feast is it.
Tip: Make reservations far in advance. It’s popular with locals.
20) Try Desert Stargazing at The Ritz-Carlton Rancho Mirage
If you’re wondering what to do in Palm Springs at night, I’ve got you covered. The hillside Ritz-Carlton Rancho Mirage is one of the best – and certainly the most elegant – places for stargazing in Palm Springs. It’s also a fabulous place to stay.
On Saturday nights, guests can gaze through a telescope while snacking on interstellar treats like Milky Ways and listening to Elton John’s Rocket Man or David Bowie’s Space Oddity.
For me, the real star of the evening was the Ale-Braised Short Ribs at the resort’s State Fare Bar & Grill, a casually-posh eatery where locally-sourced ingredients and artisanal additions create a powerful gravitational pull.
21) Get Silly on a Social Cycle
If you’re here with a group, you might want to get crazy with a social cycle. To do this unique activity you have to be comfortable with being stared at, working your thighs and laughing hysterically.
A guide will regale you with local lore (and steer) as you and your besties group-pedal a non-motorized vehicle that looks like a lit-up trolley car.
My advice? Practice your regal wave before you go, because this ride will get you noticed.
22) Play Fabulous Bingo with Shirley Claire
Haven’t you always wanted a night of bingo with a former Palm Springs Follies dancer?
If you’re in Palm Springs on weekly bingo night, you’re in luck. Truly, this is one of the most unique things to do in Palm Springs.
Expect song, dance, community-minded drag queens and a risqué O-69 bingo call … anything can happen at this bonkers activity in the landmark Ace Hotel and Swim Club.
Plus, you might even win a drink.
23) Visit the Allan Pitchko Art Galleries
Is it a museum? An art gallery? An antiques shop? The Allan Pitchko Art Galleries is all of these. This vast array of collectibles is showcased at an elegant warehouse-sized space in swishy Rancho Mirage.
Clearly, Canadian-born owner Allan Pitchko takes a delight in the purchasing process, combing estate sales in LA and curating collections of vintage furniture and fine art.
Where else can you buy lamps once owned by Larry Hagman or a display case of native artifacts once owned by Carroll O’Connor?
24) Soar into the Sky in a Vintage Warbird Airplane
The Palm Springs Air Museum has an impressive collection of aircraft from World War Two, Korea, and the Vietnam Wars, and is dedicated to education about the role air power has played in American history.
To make it even more hands on (or should that be wings on), their Warbirds Ride program lets flight fans book a ride in one of their vintage planes.
25) Have Brunch at Spencer’s Restaurant
I hope that gives you some ideas for fun things to do in Palm Springs, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Though now that I think of it, the closest thing you’ll get to an iceberg in this hot desert region is an Iceberg Wedge Salad at legendary Spencer’s Restaurant, yet another thing to do in Palm Springs.
Spenser’s was voted the best Sunday brunch spot in Palm Springs, so keep that in mind.
Address: Spencer’s Restaurant, 701 West Baristo Road, Palm Springs, CA, USA +1 76 0327 3446
Best places to stay in Palm Springs: Check out my post on where to stay in Palm Springs for a rundown of some of my favourite hotels in the area
Do you need a car in Palm Springs? Yes. There are a lot of fun things to do around Palm Springs and to make the most of it, you pretty much need a car.
You could do it without a car but you’d probably want to stay in downtown Palm Springs and take taxis, Uber or tours. Uber is very popular here.
Weather in Palm Springs The average temperatures are: Jan 43-69 F; April 59-91 F; July 76 -108 F; Oct 63-93 F. For more information on planning your trip go to Greater Palm Springs Visitor Information.
Hiking Tips: Don’t underestimate the desert. Use common sense. Make sure your phone is charged, know where you’re going and bring plenty of water. Use sunscreen. Don’t approach wildlife and let someone know where you’re going. Check here for more information on hiking trails in Palm Springs.