35 Things to do in Palm Springs for Some Fun in the Sun
Standing nearly astride the San Andreas Fault in Southern California, hot springs that bubble up from the desert floor here once beckoned the Cahuilla, a Native American people, to Palm Springs. In the 1920s and 1930s, Palm Springs emerged as a resort destination that drew in the Hollywood elite – becoming a playground for the rich and carefree well throughout the 1960s.
Architects rose to the challenge of creating bold, innovative structures that expressed the spirit of this unique time and place – in turn, creating Desert Modernism. Today, the distinctive character of these mid-century structures enjoys new respect. Visiting them is what makes a visit to Palm Springs the closest thing to time travel.
Aside from its architecture, Palm Springs offers plenty of things to do for everyone, from upscale dining and retail to tons of outdoor pursuits. Having a car will come in handy, as the city is sprawling and day trips from Los Angeles to its neighboring towns and attractions are highly worthwhile.
Palm Springs Tourist Bureau and Visitors Center on Avenida Caballeros is a storehouse of useful information and worth a stop whether you’re here for a day, a week, or a month. So gather your friends and family and make your way to this culturally rich and timeless destination for an unforgettable experience.
ADRENALINE PUMPING THINGS TO DO
- On the north edge of Palm Springs, catch a thrilling ride on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway in a glassed-in vessel that rises 2.5 miles straight up Chino Canyon in 10 minutes flat. The visionary for engineering this Tramway, Francis Crocker, dreamt of the coolness in a higher elevation as he gazed at the snow-capped peak of Mount San Jacinto. That was in 1935, but World War II and the Korean War postponed plans in the building of the Tramway. It wasn’t until 1961 that construction began for what was labeled the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” By 1963, this historical civil engineering landmark was ready for its inaugural run. By the year 2000, passengers were able to ride the world’s largest rotating tramcars. Since 1963, Crocker and over 20 million people have traveled up to the Mountain Station (elevation 8,516 feet) to cool off, enjoy the view, and participate in the Snow Guessing Contest each October. Views from the top are astounding, and there are hiking trails, dining options, and a museum to visit.
- Take a chance. Gaming tables, live entertainment, and slot machines tempt adults at the Agua Caliente Casinos in both Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage. Profits support the Agua Caliente Band of the Cahuilla Indians, keeping their community and culture vibrant into the 21st century.
- Attend the country’s largest rave party: Coachella. Held annually in Indio, a town about 30 minutes from Palm Springs, one pricey ticket gets you several days of top-rated musical entertainment for the young and young at heart – and the hungry. For festival pass holders, Outstanding In The Field sets a long table in the tranquil hideaway of the VIP Rose Garden. This intimate area allows you to take refuge (and a seat) at the festival while you mingle with other guests over a full-service, four-course, family-style meal, a cocktail, and some regional wine. Dinner is served around sunset. Tickets for this dinner are priced separately and seating reserved.
- Hike at any of the group of trails at Indian Canyons. Just nine miles south of town, these easy and well-marked hiking paths run along a stream bed and boast shade from the heat, thanks to giant palm trees. Tahquitz Canyon, in particular, is one of the most beautiful and culturally sensitive areas of the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation and home to a spectacular, seasonal 60-foot waterfall, rock art, ancient irrigation systems, native wildlife, and plants. This Canyon is sacred to the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.
- Tennis, anyone? There are close to 20 public tennis courts in and around Palm Springs, and the weather is perfect for it six months out of the year.
- Put the pedal to the metal, or better yet, rent an electric bicycle at Bike Palm Springs. With flat terrain and multiple bike paths, Palm Springs is ideal for this mode of transport. City maps, bike locks, and helmets come with the hourly rental cost.
- Crazy for country music? You’ll want to attend Stagecoach Festival, the country’s largest country music festival, held over three days in April in Coachella Valley. Other festivals hosted here range from pedigree dog shows and polo matches to BBQ competitions and Cabazon Indian Pow-Wows.
- Take the wheel at the BMW Performance Center for a fun thing – and an unforgettable experience. This is a great way to sample several BMW vehicles. Take the wheel of a BMW X vehicle as you follow an instructor through a challenging off-road course. Then, head to the track and rotate between various BMW vehicles, driving each through tight corners and fast straightaways. Finally, buckle up in the passenger seat for a hot lap with an instructor as they drift and accelerate around the track.
- Take a Red Jeep Tours open-air jeep ride for an engaging, entertaining, and educational journey with a highly-trained naturalist tour guide at the wheel.
WHERE TO FIND YOUR ZEN
- Catch the sunrise from the Cholla Cactus Garden in Joshua Tree National Park, a major attraction located about 40 miles from Palm Springs. Take the quarter-mile trail to a 10-acre patch containing more than 20 varieties of cacti with evocative names like Groundcherry and Cheesebush and watch the desert sky come to light.
- Savor sunset at the lounge in The Ritz-Carlton’s State Fare Bar and Kitchen in nearby Rancho Mirage (just turn up Frank Sinatra Drive). Located on a bluff 700 feet above the valley, there is no better place to sip a cocktail and build your own pizza while the sky turns pink and purple in the distance.
- Stargaze at the Rancho Mirage Library and Observatory. This is a complimentary night-time activity that will thrill adults and kids alike. Located adjacent to the town’s public library, there’s a full-time astronomer onsite nightly.
- Take the plunge in Desert Hot Springs. Thermal mineral waters have sprung up from the earth surrounding the San Andreas Fault for hundreds of years. Dozens of local resorts offer day passes to soak in odorless pools that may contain calcium, magnesium, aluminum, copper, iron oxide, silica, sodium, bicarbonate, and more. The waters are known to cure joint aches and arthritis, migraines, depression, and low energy. At temperatures from 115 to 165 degrees, it just feels g-o-o-d. Try hidden gem Sagewater Spa and finish your visit with one of their signature aloe body wraps.
WHERE TO GAWK
- Peek at movie stars’ former homes. Book a Celebrity Homes guided tour with Palm Springs Celebrity Tours and gawk at the residences of Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe, Katherine Hepburn, Elvis, Sinatra, and Dean Martin from the comfort of a Land Rover. Guides will spill juicy details of the owners’ lives (and loves) here along the way.
- The Palm Springs Historical Society provides a handful of well-priced, in-depth tours by foot or by bike, including the storied Las Palmas neighborhood to see where Judy Garland, Gene Autry, Lena Horne, Kirk Douglas, and Dinah Shores lived and played.
- Take a walking tour of Palm Springs. Download the GPSmyCity app on your phone and follow the map for sightseeing at its best. You’ll log about 4.5 miles and will see a lot in those three hours. Tours include Strange and Fabulous sites; Art, Architecture and More; The Salton Sea; and Famous Houses in Palm Springs.
- Get cultured at the Palm Springs Art Museum, whose collection includes 12,000 modern and contemporary works. Free on Thursdays, second Sundays, and for those under 18.
- Attend Modernism Week – a must for enthusiasts of homes and buildings built in the mid-century era. Annual festival in early spring. Exhibits, lectures, films, and more celebrate the unique designs that took the country by storm in the 1950s and 1960s.
- Be awed by an architecture tour. There are numerous local operators to choose from, including Palm Springs Mod Squad, and you can customize tours by your interest level, budget, and available time.
- Scope out Sunnylands, a 200-acre property built by Walter and Lenore Annenberg. Tour their historic estate, ride a shuttle around the extensive grounds, learn about native birds, and stroll through a garden whose colorful blooms were inspired by the couple’s Post-Impressionist art collection. Advance tickets required.
- Treat yourself to a visit at the Palm Springs Air Museum, home to one of the world’s largest collections of flyable aircraft from WWII, Korea, and Vietnam, displayed in a hangar that lets you get up close and personal with the planes. Here, you’ll have access to exhibits, activities, air shows, and the opportunity to take a one-hour ride in one of four vintage airplanes, priced from $200 to $5,000.
- Get childish at The Children’s Discovery Museum with more than 80 interactive exhibits in three galleries.
- Moorten Botanical Garden is a privately-owned arboretum created to share the beauty and extraordinary varieties of desert plants with visitors. The Moortens are desert plant specialists happy to invite you to their residence estate and its living museum of desert lore. There’s something of interest for everyone here, with glistening crystals, colorful rocks, ancient fossils, and pioneer and gold mining relics. Classic collections on display include more than 3,000 varieties of plants designed in concentrated habitats along a nature trail.
- The Shag Store is an art gallery and retail space located in the Palm Springs Uptown Design District, dedicated exclusively to the artist Josh Agle Shag. Shag is a painter, designer, and illustrator working in Southern California, and his distinctive artistic style draws on his sly sense of humor. The store offers prints, original art, merchandise, and unique products that capture the spirit of desert modernism.
- The best place to catch a breeze may be on a Windmill Tour. These majestic giant wind turbines are an iconic symbol as you arrive in the Coachella Valley. Take a self-driving windmill tour or off-road bike tour to explore the evolution of wind turbines on a private wind farm. The tour allows you to exit at each stop and guides you with a curated video.
WHERE TO SATIATE YOUR THIRST AND HUNGER
Restaurants in Palm Springs and nearby Rancho Mirage (one of the nine cities of the Coachella range, located between Cathedral City and Palm Desert) range from brewhouse to Belgian, Californian to Catalan, sushi to steakhouse. As you’d expect, most boast spacious outdoor terraces.
- Reserve your seat for dinner at Johannes. Named for its chef-owner, who hails from the Tyrolean Alps, this stylish downtown outpost is ideal for indulging in Austrian classics like wiener schnitzel or Jager beef steak. Be sure to start with an order of cheese spaetzle. These noodle-like dumplings are guaranteed to appeal to even the pickiest kid (or grown-up).
- Splurge at Le Vallauris on Tahquitz Canyon Way. Its terrace was constructed around a stand of mature shade trees to keep diners cool. Try its three-course prix fixe menu for $97 and peruse the options on its 22-page wine list. On the menu – a roast rack of lamb with thyme and garlic, the tender veal chop with sweet pea ravioli, or the most popular dish, a seared whitefish with mustard sauce. Desserts are topped with the Grand Marnier soufflé. If you prefer to dine al fresco, the garden patio is perfectly romantic, situated among Lupe Ficus trees and the scent of the sweet desert air.
- Quaff a cold one at La Quinta Brewing Company Taproom. This local microbrewery offers a dozen or so beers that rotate seasonally. Look for Poolside Blonde, Even Par, or Sundaze Session IPA. Go at Happy Hour most weekdays from 3-5 pm to enjoy $2 off per glass.
- Eight4Nine Restaurant and Lounge is located in the fashionable Uptown Design District of Palm Springs. Open for lunch, dinner, or weekend brunch. The Five Spice Duck Confit with Jerusalem artichoke puree, port, and damson sauce. Dessert of Brandini Toffee S’Mores Fondue with house-made marshmallow, locally-made Brandini toffee, Callebaut chocolate, graham crackers, and mixed berries. Say no more.
BEST SPOTS TO SPEND YOUR DOLLARS –
- Go shopping. From quirky independent boutiques to designer outlets, Palm Springs and its environs have an amazing variety of things to buy (or drool over). Relax and stroll northbound on Indian Palms Street, then southbound on Palm Canyon Drive. Don’t miss the chance to scoop up a new warm-weather frock at Elizabeth & Prince, Revenge Boutique, Oooh La La consignments, and Blonde.
- For him, try on the Wil Stiles men’s department, referred to as a “steroid boost in the sport of competitive dressing.” Mod-patterned, cotton short-sleeved shirts reminiscent of Piccadilly Circus sell for about $140.
- Save your skin. The Palm Springs dry air and sunshine calls for a stop into one of the dozens of day spas scattered throughout Palm Springs. Be sure to treat yourself to a skin tune-up. Peruse the selection of serious facials at Organic Glow Skin Studio, with treatments offered that range in pricing from $50-$100.
- The Palm Springs VillageFest in Coachella Valley is the place to be on Thursday nights. This street fair features arts, crafts, food, and entertainment within the beautiful downtown Palm Springs.
PLACES TO GOLF
- Inside the Omni Rancho Las Palmas Resort, to play on the golf course at Rancho Las Palmas Country Club requires membership, but if you like your bogey with a side of palm trees, lakes, rolling terrain and views of the San Jacinto Mountains, you’ll want to sign up before you visit Palm Springs. These three 9-hole courses were designed by the best in the business. Call for tee times and get there early to enjoy a breakfast of Brioche French Toast or Tofu Scramble at the club’s onsite restaurant, BluEmber.
- If you’re booked to stay at AvantStay’s Fowler rental in Coachella Valley, golf is just beyond this vibrant home. In fact, it overlooks the famous Nicklaus Tournament Golf Course and Santa Rosa mountains. You don’t have to be a member to play golf on this 2,000-acre golf and lifestyle community in La Quinta, and you might even spot a few high profile celebrities, PGA TOUR Pros, and quite possibly a president, since many have enjoyed this golf course with 109 holes of championship golf on six legendary courses.
If you’re in need of an exciting getaway in a beautiful, spirited city, Palm Springs might be the perfect vacation spot for you. From highly anticipated events like Coachella and the Stagecoach Festival, to breathtaking gardens and elaborate estates, to local, authentic eateries and shopping centers, this place is sure to introduce you to things you never thought possible. See for yourself by booking with one of AvantStay’s Palm Spring properties.