A celebrity hideaway since silent films were in vogue, Palm Springs — and the eight surrounding towns that make up Greater Palms Springs — is better than ever. Just two hours from Los Angeles, the area has established itself as an international holiday destination with a plethora of restaurants by award-winning chefs, a refreshed historic downtown, and a thriving arts and culture scene.
And that’s not taking into account the stellar roster of festivals drawing crowds annually. Music lovers don flower crowns for Coachella and their biggest Stetsons for Stagecoach. If other art forms are more up your alley, there’s the Palm Springs International Film Festival, the American Documentary and Animation Film Festival, Modernism Week and more. And sports fans, you’ll score with the BNP Paribas Open and The American Express PGA golf tournament.
When you are basking in those glorious desert sunbeams poolside with a margarita in hand, ponder which activities to pack into the itinerary. But don’t let the abundant choices overwhelm you; keep sipping that refreshing drink and use our greatest-hits list:
There’s a reason you might have to wait up to three hours on a weekend to ride the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. Not only is it the world’s largest rotating tram car that ascends for 10 minutes to give you a front-row seat to an incredible naturescape show, but also there are many things to do once you arrive at the summit.
At the top, called Mountain Station (elevation 8,516 feet), there are two educational theaters, a gift shop, a natural history museum, two restaurants and, the best part of all, access to tons of hiking trails for all levels.
To avoid the crowds, go on a weekday or reserve weekend tickets online in advance. Insider tip: Bring layers. It may be scorching temps when you board and freezing at the top.
Palm Springs is heaven on earth for golfers. Year-round sunny skies ensure that bad weather won’t disrupt tee time. Plus, there’s more than 100 golf courses, many as close as the hotel you’re visiting. For example, the Forbes Travel Guide Recommended La Quinta Resort & Club affords access to five courses with vastly different terrains from notable names like Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman.
One of America’s coolest zoos, The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens lets you observe animals that originated everywhere from Africa to North America in spacious, picturesque living quarters. Swing by to feed the camels and giraffes, especially if you have kids. It’s an Instagram-worthy moment. Another highlight for the whole family is the Australian Adventures area with bouncing Bennett’s wallabies, swooping budgies and cockatiels, singing kookaburras and fun-loving emus.
Admission also gives you entry to three trail loops within The Living Desert’s nature preserve. You may want to time your visit to the holidays, when the zoo puts on a riveting light show.
Cuisine and Cocktails
Not too long ago, exciting drink and dining options — beyond chains — were pretty slim in these parts. Today, Greater Palm Springs is a burgeoning foodie town. There are even a few food tours.
For inventive sushi and craft cocktails, go to Sandfish Sushi & Whiskey by master chef Engin Onural. The Venue roll (with spicy tuna, salmon and tobiko) and grilled octopus are divine. If you’re in Palm Desert, head to the all-day restaurant Kitchen 86 for a chic vibe with elevated international and American favorites, from ramen to pizza. And over in Rancho Mirage, Four-Star The Steakhouse caters to carnivores with succulent cuts, Colorado lamb and Australian lobster.
When you get thirsty, Palm Springs’ first onsite brewery, Las Palmas, also carries a lovely natural wine selection. Speaking of which, Counter Reformation — the Euro-style, hidden wine bar at Parker Palm Springs — serves all three-ounce pours for $7. And if you imbibe a bit too much, there’s a real Catholic Church confessional, imported from Italy, to make things right again.
Want to hang out where Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor did when they wanted to have a good time? Bootlegger Tiki, in downtown Palm Springs, is the hallowed spot for Polynesian drinks and golden-era Hollywood history (it originally opened in 1954 as one of the legendary Don the Beachcomber bars).
Home to the annual Desert Art Festival, Palm Springs and its surrounding towns celebrate all things creative. Take a drive to see one of the area’s quirkiest collections at the International Banana Museum or stick with a stunning stalwart like the Palm Springs Art Museum.
Exhibits at the latter feature modern works from renowned global artists and local Native American artists alike. A ticket to the Palm Springs Art Museum gives you access to its sister museum, the Architecture and Design Center, which is a short walk away.
Flanked by mountains and surrounded by three state or federal parks, Palm Springs is an outdoor lover’s dream with nearby trails for hiking and biking. One of the most popular hiking trails is the Tahquitz (pronounced “tah-keetz”) Canyon in Indian Canyons on the Agua Caliente Cahuilla reservation. It’s an easy-to-moderate mile-and-a-half loop.
If you go during the right season (usually the winter), the payoff midway is huge: a breathtaking 60-foot waterfall. Just be prepared for the $12 per person entry fee.
Midcentury Modern Architecture
Since the 1920s, Palm Springs has been a playground for now architectural greats to construct beautiful, midcentury-style homes and commercial buildings. In fact, it has the highest concentration of midcentury modern architecture in the country.
Although you can see many of these historical buildings in downtown Palm Springs (if you know what to look for), we recommend booking a tour for a fascinating look at famous architects’ work (like Albert Frey’s gas station and Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann Desert House) and iconic star homes (like Leonardo DiCaprio’s lavish retreat and Frank Sinatra’s vacation abode). Palm Springs Mod Squad provides one of the city’s most thorough architectural-themed tours, hosted by a designer and midcentury modern expert.
For a total midcentury immersion, visit Palm Springs during Modernism Week, a February festival dedicated to the unique retro style.
Visitors have flocked to Palm Springs for its healing hot mineral springs for more than a century, and its spa culture remains one of the best in the country. Hotels have extravagant facilities and cutting-edge wellness amenities, like the Forbes Travel Guide Recommended Parker Palm Springs with its immense nautical-themed relaxation lounge (including a grand indoor pool) and La Quinta’s progressive CBD-themed massages, in-room pet massages and daily meditation classes.
If detox is what you seek, The Ritz-Carlton, Rancho Mirage’s Four-Star spa offers the Spirit of the Mountains, a 100-minute massage that employs indigenous plants designed to clarify and calm within a restorative setting carved out of rock. Another of our favorite places for well-deserved pampering is the Five-Star Sunstone Spa at Agua Caliente Resort Casino Spa Rancho Mirage — try the Rain Soak and Body treatment for total bliss. To experience one of the only natural mud soaks and hot springs open to the public in the area, check out Two Bunch Palms’ spa.
Known as the desert’s Rodeo Drive, El Paseo spans nine blocks of designer stores, art galleries, restaurants and a few local boutiques — like Zense, a wonderful shop of eccentric, artful accessories curated from all over the globe.
If you’d rather whiz by the swanky strip than walk, simply wave down one of those bright yellow golf carts for a complimentary ride.
Those behemoth white windmills look great in fashion shoots and selfies, but they also are fascinating. Take a two-hour tour of the San Gorgonio Pass wind farm to learn how these engineering marvels work to power the entire Coachella Valley.
This company promises to deliver you closer than any other with self-guided tours of America’s first commercial wind farm, which sits 20 minutes west of Palm Springs. Via an app provided when you book a reservation, the tour includes an audio program and marked destinations throughout the farm.