13 Unique Things to Do in Palm Springs

by Paul Joseph  |  Updated January 2, 2019

Palm Springs is nothing if not unique. The desert oasis city has had a long association with the rich and famous of Hollywood and continues to hold great relevance as a place to bask in that glamour while taking the tempo down a couple of notches from the intensity of L.A.

Palm trees set against a mountainous backdrop in Palm Springs (Photo: Chris Goldberg via Flickr)

To many, Palm Springs is still California’s number one holiday resort. Fans of mid-century architecture can opt for intimate one-storey hideaways, laying low in the desert heat next to quiet pools along boulevards lined by those signature tall palms. Soak in the Desert Hot Springs, just 15 minutes outside the centre, or check out a packed local calendar of events.

La Quinta is popular for its pristine golf courses and people flock to Palm Desert on day trips 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.

Take a celebrity tour of Hollywood’s playground

For many decades, Palm Springs has been known as one of California’s most exclusive destinations. Some of American culture’s brightest stars live or have lived in the area, including Nat King Cole, Marilyn Monroe, Liz Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Leonardo DiCaprio and Elvis Presley. By far the best way to take all of this illustrious history in is on a grand tour of Palm Springs, which includes passing by the neighbourhoods and estates of those greats and many more, as well as getting a great overview of Palm Springs and the surrounding valley. Click here to book a place on this tour with Viator.

Marilyn Monroe’s statue (Photo: Fred Miller via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Step back in time at 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.

221 S Palm Canyon Drive

Thur-Sun 10am-4pm

Ruddy's General Store Museum

Products on the shelves at Ruddy’s General Store Museum (Photo: Thom Karmik via Flickr)

Join the Rich and Famous at 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 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 Monkey Tree remains one of the city’s finest boutique hotels.

2388 E Racquet Club Road

The Monkey Tree Hotel

The pool area at the historic Monkey Tree Hotel (Photo: The Monkey Tree Hotel)

Drive through 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 to the giant structures, including several restored exhibits of historical windmills, as well as learning about the history of the renewable energy industry.

San Gorgonio Pass, Riverside County

Take a tour of Joshua Tree National Park

The Mojave and Colorado deserts may both be arid,  but they have very different ecosystems and the stunning Joshua tree National Park is a vast tract of land covering the region where these two deserts meet and blend into one another. The result is a striking and unique landscape filled with wildlife, including Californian mountain lions, coyotes and 16 species of bat. A classic time to visit the park is at sunset, when the rugged mountains and unusual flora are silhouetted against a fiery sky. For a look at the various tours and activities available to Joshua Tree, take a look at Viator here.

Road through Joshua Tree at sunset (Photo: Richard Schneider via Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0)

Shop for curios at the Antique Galleries of Palm Springs

Tucked away in an inconspicuous back street in Palm Springs’ bustling arts district, Antique Galleries of Palm Springs is a treasure trove of curios and oddities. Housed in a two-storey warehouse, the venue is divided into several distinct spaces, each curated by artists and antiques 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.

505 Industrial Place

Daily 10am-5pm

Explore unusual creativity at Robolights

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 theme – albeit with a sinister twist – including a post-apocalyptic scene with “nuclear elves” and a Santa’s sleigh pulled by a team of 12 robotic reindeer.

1077 E Granvia Valmonte

Daily 4-9.30pm (times may vary depending on the month)


Post-apocalyptic robots at the Robolights sculpture park (Photo: audra via Flickr)

Cross the 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 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.

N Indian Canyon Drive & E Vista Chino

Ride the 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.

1 Tram Way

Mon-Thur 10am-8pm Fri-Sun 8am-8pm (last train down at 9.45pm daily)

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

The Palm Springs Aerial tramway (Photo: Palm Springs Aerial Tramway )

Discover thriving wildlife at 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, a kids’ play park, tranquil gardens, model train exhibit, hiking trails, tram rides and plenty more.

47900 Portola Avenue, Palm Desert

Daily 9am-5pm

Discover the unexpected at Shields Date Garden

Don’t be fooled by the name; this popular venue has nothing to do with dating. In fact, it is dedicated to the humble date, a sweet fruit that is grown in sunny, arid 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.

80225 CA-111, Indio

Daily 8am-4pm

Shields Date Garden

Promoting one of Shields Date Garden’s more quirky exhibits (Photo: debaird via Flickr)

Pay your respects at 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.

31705 Da Vall Drive, Cathedral City

Desert Memorial Park

The gravestone of iconic crooner Frank Sinatra (Photo: rocor via Flickr)

Tackle dirt roads on an ATV from 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. There are vehicles suited to those aged six years and up.

59511 CA-111

Daily 10am until sunset

Plan your trip

Dotted throughout Palm Springs is a wide array of accommodation options, 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.