To some, Palm Springs is California’s number one holiday resort, often bookmarked for the restful poolside part of a West Coast break. Fans of mid-century architecture can opt for intimate one-storey hideaways, laying low in the desert heat next to quiet pools and row upon row of the region’s signature palms. You can soak in the Desert Hot Springs, just 15 minutes outside the centre, or check out a packed local calendar of events, with everything from lip syncing competitions to chilled out happy hours across the city.
La Quinta is popular for its pristine golf courses and people flock to Palm Desert to take nature hikes or visit the Living Desert zoo. The Indio neighbourhood hosts the famous Coachella festival, as well as some low-key Mexican diners and late-night karaoke battles. A couple of hours’ drive can take you to the hustle and bustle of San Diego or Los Angeles. Or for total quiet, head east to the stunning Joshua Tree National Park.
Plan your trip
Dotted throughout Palm Springs are a wide choice of accommodation options, ranging from charming New England-style guesthouses through to high-rise hotels and all-encompassing resorts. Many renowned hotel brands can be found here, but there’s also a liberal smattering of quaint, independent options too. For those looking to stay in a resort during their visit, be sure to check out our list of three of the very best here.
Now to get under the skin of this desert city. Here’s our rundown of the top unique things to do in Palm Springs.
1. Ruddy’s General Store Museum
General stores are a blessing for people who reside in sparsely populated areas with limited amenities, and the desert region surrounding Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley certainly comes into that category. Ruddy’s General Store Museum is a nostalgic celebration of this staple of American life, a small but perfectly formed recreation of a 1930s general store complete with authentic fixtures, signs and products, all housed within a single room. Among the 6,000-plus items to be found here include groceries, tobacco, hardware, clothing, medicines, biscuits, beauty aids and soaps.
LOCATION 221 S Palm Canyon Drive HOURS Thur-Sun 10am-4pm
2. The Monkey Tree Hotel
This private 16-room boutique hotel in North Palm Springs was designed by Desert Modernist, Albert Frey in 1960. It has a history of attracting an illustrious clientele, having hosted distinguished names from the world of Hollywood entertainment and music including Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Katherine Hepburn, Gene Wilder and Eric Clapton, not to mention members of the Beatles. But undoubtedly the standout figures to have graced the private desert oasis with their presence were President John F Kennedy and actress Marilyn Monroe, with the pair rumoured to have stayed here in 1962. The Secret Service Lincoln Continentals were spotted in the parking lot guarding the private entrance while the two “met”. Nowadays the recently restored Monkey Tree Hotel remains one of the city’s finest boutique hotels. Guest rooms are furnished with locally sourced mid-century treasures and elsewhere in the hotel there’s a meticulously manicured courtyard with pops of bright yellow furniture and umbrellas, a large central salt-water pool, a lap pool and a Scandinavian Spa with dry sauna, therapeutic spa and a refreshing cold plunge – chilled to 55 degrees in the summer.
LOCATION 2388 E Racquet Club Road
3. San Gorgonio Wind Farm Park
Nestled in Coachella Valley, one of the nation’s deepest mountain passes, on the edge of Palm Springs, this is one of the nation’s largest wind farms, containing more than 4,000 separate windmills in a 70-square-mile area. Together they produce enough energy to power almost the whole of Palm Springs and the surrounding region. The turbines themselves create a dramatic visual spectacle, each turning to their own tune in almost theatrical fashion. A number of local companies offer tours to the park, giving visitors the chance to get up close and personal with the giant structures, including several restored exhibits of historical windmills, as well as learn about the history of the renewable energy industry.
LOCATION San Gorgonio Pass, Riverside County
4. Antique Galleries of Palm Springs
Tucked away in an inconspicuous back street in Palm Spring’s bustling arts district, Antique Galleries of Palm Springs is a treasure trove of curios and oddities that enchant everyone who visits. Housed in a two-storey warehouse, the venue is divided into several distinct spaces, each curated by artists and antique experts from Palm Springs and beyond. Vintage appliances, film projectors, retro furnishings, pinball machines, poker machines, rocking horses, fine china, vintage clothing and plenty more are all for sale at what is unquestionably one the city’s most unique retail venues.
LOCATION 505 Industrial Place HOURS Daily 10am-5pm
This intriguing outdoor sculpture park in Palm Spring’s Movie Colony East neighbourhood is without question one of the city’s most unique attractions. Featuring towering robots and millions of lights, all constructed from discarded electronics, the park was originally intended as a winter-only event, but can now be visited all year round. Many of the installations have a Christmas-ey theme – albeit with an often sinister twist – including a post-apocalyptic scene with “nuclear elves” and a Santa’s sleigh pulled by a team of 12 robotic reindeer.
LOCATION 1077 E Granvia Valmonte HOURS Daily 8am-5pm
6. Lee R. Baxandall Bridge
Those of a prudish disposition may wish to avoid this 140-foot overpass in the centre of Palm Springs, just in case they see more than they bargained for. Stretching across North Indian Canyon Drive, the structure has been wittily dubbed the “Bridge of Thighs” owing to its primary function of enabling naturists (that’s people who like to be naked, both personally and socially, to the uninitiated) to cross the street while maintaining their modesty, which is achieved thanks to canvas panels that ensure only the heads of those crossing can be seen from road level. In case you’re wondering, the reason for its location is that on either side of the bridge is a clothing-optional holiday resort.
7. Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
There can be no more unique way to experience the beautiful and dramatic natural scenery of Palm Springs and its surroundings than from the sky. This aerial tramway transports visitors up the Chino Canyon, a 5.5-mile-long desert canyon, in the world’s largest rotating tram car, where you can take in the spectacular views from the intimate vantage point of your cabin. There are also ‘ride and dine’ packages allowing you to enjoy a delicious meal at the canyon’s summit. If you were contemplating popping the question to that special someone during your stay in Palm Springs, then this would certainly be a memorable way to do it.
LOCATION 1 Tram Way HOURS Mon-Thur 10am-8pm Fri-Sun 8am-9pm
8. Living Desert
If you don’t have time to visit the expansive desert surrounding Palm Springs, then a trip to this remarkable zoo and botanical garden is the next best thing. Situated around 14 miles southeast of the city, the site represents the deserts of North America and Africa and is home to over 1,200 protected acres and an impressive 450 wild animals. Visitors can also enjoy live animal shows, kids’ play park, tranquil gardens, model train exhibit, hiking trails, tram rides and plenty more besides.
LOCATION 47900 Portola Ave, Palm Desert HOURS Daily 8am-1.30pm
9. Shields Date Garden
Don’t be fooled by the name – this popular venue has nothing to do with dating, or ‘courting’ as our parents probably call it. In fact, it is dedicated to the humble date, a sweet fruit that is grown in sunny climes around the world. As well as a wide variety of dates being grown on site, including types grown nowhere else in the world, Shields Date Garden is a veritable goldmine of information about dates. Visitors can enjoy lectures and slideshow presentations, as well as a curiously named 15-minute film called ‘Romance and Sex Life of the Date’. And if that doesn’t pique your interest, nothing will.
LOCATION 80225 CA-111, Indio HOURS Daily 7.30am-5pm
10. Desert Memorial Park
Located in Cathedral City, seven miles southeast of Palm Springs, can be found one of the region’s more macabre places of interest – but interesting it certainly is. Desert Memorial Park is the final resting place for a star-studded roll-call of deceased celebrities and public figures, most notable among them being the iconic Hollywood actor and singer Frank Sinatra. Inevitably, the cemetery attracts regular visitors who come to see the – often rather uplifting – tombstones of the great and the good who peacefully reside here.
LOCATION 31705 Da Vall Dr, Cathedral City HOURS Mon-Fri 9am-4.30pm
11. Viceroy Hotel
There are plenty of opportunities for celebrity spotting in Palm Springs, but only one chance to swim in the slipstreams of such latter-day luminaries as Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Joan Crawford and Bing Crosby. Located in downtown Palm Springs, the luxurious Viceroy Hotel was once frequented by these iconic stars of the early 20th century who came here and swam in the pool before hopping back into one of the property’s single-storey, lemon-tree-shaded villas to relax. Today the hotel’s legacy of Hollywood glamour still burns brightly – much to the delight of its modern day guests.
LOCATION 415 S Belardo Road HOURS
12. Off Road Rentals
If it’s action that you’re looking for during your stay in Palm Springs, Off-Road Rentals is the place to get your adrenaline fix. Along a remote stretch of Highway 111, owner Steven Harris maintains the ultimate grown-up’s playground in the form of a desert all-terrain vehicle (ATV) park. Harris opened the park in 1984 with just four ATVs, though the fleet has grown to 50 vehicles today. Following a safety and handling briefing, guests are invited to take the wheel for an all-action adventure. Located on site is also a fascinating graveyard of eclectic and recycled art along with a collection of discarded road signs. Licensed drivers can hit the (dirt) road for 30 and 45-minute sessions for $53.
LOCATION 300 West Markham Street HOURS Mon-Sat 9am-5pm Sun 1pm-5pm