“The thing that appealed to me about Palm Springs was its contradictions.”
No matter how many times I’ve visited Palm Springs, it’s been an absolute joy, with surprises around every corner. Located just two-plus hours northeast of San Diego, Palm Springs is truly an enigma. It’s long been a playground for Hollywood celebrities. But it also has a substantial artist community and gay population that are huge contributors to its creativity. And to top it off, it’s a prime location for retirees. No wonder – all the fun things to do in Palm Springs make it the perfect Desert Getaway.
This magnificent desert playground boasts year-round sunshine, luxurious spas, mineral hot springs, stunning mountains and canyons, creative chef-driven restaurants, an impressive art scene, and palm trees. Lots and lots of palm trees. And if you’re a golfer, this is truly heaven. You can tee off at one of over 110 spectacular courses in the area.
The one thing you won’t find in Palm Springs is a billboard. Not even one. But you will find a myriad of places to stay, play, and dine in this incredibly eclectic desert oasis, which makes it the perfect weekend getaway from San Diego.
Stay in a Boutique Hotel in Palm Springs
If you’re really into immersing yourself in an authentic local experience, a stay in one of Palm Springs Preferred Small Hotels is a must. It’s the perfect way to “feel the true vibe” of the Palm Springs community.
These jewels of the desert range from quiet secluded hotels to wild and fun party places and more glamourous and luxurious inns. But the one thing they all have in common is their authenticity. Many of these small boutique hotels are family-owned and operated, known for their attention to style and design, and for providing exceptional experiences. We know because we’ve stayed in several, and they are by far the best way to enjoy the unique personalities of Palm Springs.
Take a look at some of the fun Palm Springs Boutique Hotels here:
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
It’s the largest rotating aerial tramway in the world…and it’s quite impressive.
The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway opened in September 1963 as a way of getting from the desert floor of the Coachella Valley to the alpine splendor of San Jacinto Peak. Rotating cars were added in 2000, giving riders 360-degree panoramic views from any spot while ascending 8,000 feet up the mountain. If you are looking for a scenic desert view, add this to your list of things to do in Palm Springs.
Word of advice however is that temperatures from the desert valley to the mountain peak can vary as much as 40-degrees Fahrenheit. Layer your clothing for the trip and bring a bottle of water. On our last visit in October, it’s was in the 80s when we boarded the tram, but we were greeted by patches of snow at the top.
Visitors should take advantage of the theater show that presents the history and construction of the tramway. For those into hiking, San Jacinto’s pristine wilderness paths offer incredible overlooks. If you’re into dining with a view, Peak’s Restaurant offers incredible cuisine with breathtaking vistas of the Coachella Valley.
Palm Springs Art Museum
Featuring a stunning collection of international modern and contemporary painting, photography, sculpture, and glass art, this museum in the heart of the downtown district is a must-visit for its impressive transformative experiences. The love of art can truly be felt within its walls. Founded in 1938, the non-profit museum is so popular, a satellite facility was opened in the nearby desert town of Palm Desert.
Exhibitions and permanent collections are amazing, as are their additional “current exhibitions” that celebrate such topics as American Roads, Law and Disorder, Glass Collections, and more. The museum is not just committed to the physical arts. Its Annenberg Theater presents live vocal, dance, and music performances as well.
And if you happen to be visiting Palm Springs during the week, admission to the museum on Thursday evenings is free to the public.
Take a Mid-Century Modern Tour
Palm Springs has the largest concentration of preserved mid-century architecture in the world. This significant American design popular in the U.S. from the mid-1940s to the late 1960s featured clean lines, streamlined forms, open floor plans, and simple embellishments.
Some of the top architects of the Mid-Century modern movement designed and built homes for the rich and famous in Palm Springs. And there’s no better way to get a detailed history of the architectural movement and explore examples of their architectural designs than on a tour with designer and mid-century modern expert Kurt Cyr from Palm Springs Mod Squad.
In our Essential Palm Springs Tour, Kurt showcased six local architects who helped shape the area movement. We were also introduced to the houses of some of the biggest stars of the 1960s like Frank Sinatra, Peter Lawford, Liberace, and even Marilyn Monroe. The Robert Alexander Estate a.k.a. The Elvis Presley Honeymoon Hideaway was briefly occupied by Elvis and Priscilla Presley. Another fun tour is this bike tour that takes you around Palm Springs’ most famous mid-century modern homes.
Step Back in Time at Melvyn’s
One of the most endearing parts of Palm Springs history for us is its Hollywood, celebrity, and political connections. And there’s no better way to connect with the ghosts of the past than at historic restaurants where the rich and famous drank and dined.
Though there are several vintage-type venues in town, our favorite hands-down is Melvyn’s. Located on-site of the historic Ingleside Inn, the restaurant built in the 1920s is a testament to throwback times. Here, the likes of Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Bob Hope, Elvis Presley, and even Salvador Dali dined in splendor then retired to the smoky Casablanca Lounge with a martini for an evening of live piano and song.
On our visit, the piano player crooned a host of famous Frank Sinatra tunes. Portraits of the stars hang near the piano, and it seems as though they never left. If only these walls could talk.
Catch the Tiki Vibe
Fans of tiki will feel right at home in Palm Springs. The Polynesian tiki art culture started in California in the 1930s was inspired by the sentimental appeals of the tropical and idyllic South Pacific being captured on the Hollywood screen. The craze caught on like wildfire and spread around the globe.
Though the tiki trend eventually faded, it never did in Palm Springs, and the city still celebrates that culture in a big way with its fun and fascinating tiki bars.
One of our favorites is The Reef, an intimate bar with beautiful views of the colorful Caliente Tropics Hotel pool surrounded by, you guessed it…tikis. The tropically-themed libation sanctuary serves creative island cocktails along with yummy Polynesian cuisine. The Reef also features a super fun Monday through Thursday happy hour that’s quite popular with the locals.
Hang Out in Downtown Palm Springs
Downtown Palm Springs is an eclectic mix of trendy boutiques, souvenir shops, irresistible restaurants (you’ll smell the wafting scents as you walk by), unique locally-owned coffee houses, museums, art galleries, and one of my favorites, The Palm Springs Walk of Stars.
Over 400 stars who spent time in this desert oasis are honored with yes, brass stars with their names immortalized in pink and tan granite. You’ll also find a bigger-than-life statue of Marilyn Monroe, Ruddy’s 1930s General Store, and the McCallum Adobe Museum reflecting the founding of this region.
If you’re visiting mid-week, don’t miss Palm Springs Thursday Night Street Fair featuring crafts, food, and entertainment in the heart of downtown.
Bottom line, this is a great place for people-watching, especially on its main strip, Palm Canyon Drive. I guarantee you’ll find some unique and interesting characters here.
Palm Springs Air Museum
This living history museum was created to honor, preserve and educate the public on the role air power played in WWII, Korea, and the Vietnam Wars. Rated by CNN as one of the top 14 Air Museums in the world, this repository of legendary fighters and bombers includes aircraft actually flown during these conflicts.
Most of the aircraft are still flyable, and many docents here are military veterans, making the visit even more personal and fascinating hearing it straight from those who served.
If you’re looking for a bit more adventure, you can take to the sky in one of the museum’s six operational warbirds!
Visit Tahquitz Canyon and the Indian Canyons
Centuries ago, ancestors of the Agua Caliente Cahuilla Indians settled in the Palm Springs region and developed communities within its picturesque canyons.
The best way to experience the indigenous flora and fauna and magnificent beauty of these canyons is by hiking. We’re particular to the more than 60 miles of wonderful trails, the 150-plus species of plants including unique fan palms, and of course, the local indigenous wildlife including Big Horn Sheep (an endangered species), mule deer, and other free-range animals here.
Decide on the type of hike, pick up a map here, and plan your next outdoor adventure to the awe-inspiring canyons of Palm Springs. It’s no wonder our Native Americans chose to live in this beautiful locale. If you want to go on a guided tour of the Indian Canyons, take a look here: Indian Canyons Walking Tour by Jeep from Palm Springs.
Coachella Valley Preserve
Located just 10 miles east of Palm Springs, this 880-acre desert oasis is fed by waters seeping from California’s San Andreas Fault. The preserve is home to an abundance of wildlife, including the Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard, not seen anywhere else in the world.
The preserve includes impressive sand dunes, wetlands, washes, desert scrubs, and riparians, along with multiple hiking trails. Sweeping vistas of the Little San Bernardino Mountains and its location on the southern edge of renowned Joshua Tree National Park make this a wonderful outdoor region to explore.
Moorten Botanical Garden and Cactarium
I have to admit, I’d never heard of a “cactarium” before, but after a visit to Moorten Botanical Garden, I understood why the owners coined the name.
This living desert museum is comprised of more than 3,000 varieties of plants, trees, and cacti from around the globe. In addition, the nursery building contains hundreds of different cacti and rare desert treasures. Guests can stroll nature trails throughout the outdoor museum surrounded by gold mine relics, colorful rocks, sparkling crystals, and even ancient fossils. It’s an absolute hidden gem!
There’s nothing else like it…anywhere… and it fits Palm Springs to a T. The Underground is a unique dining and show experience that’s termed “A Feast for the Senses.” And it certainly is.
Shows run the gamut of Cabaret, SITCOM, pop culture, and more. We had a chance to get in on the fun and dig the Beatnik vibe during our visit. Donning berets, John Lennon glasses, and beat generation garb, we dined on a four-course gourmet meal with wine and cocktails while being entertained by a delightful group of Beatnik period actors and singers on stage. No matter what the featured genre, this is a must-do Palm Springs attraction!
Rancho Mirage Observatory
The dark skies of the nearby desert community of Rancho Mirage provide the perfect setting for stargazing and planet watching.
Opened in 2018, the Rancho Mirage Observatory gives visitors the unique opportunity to observe the planets and stars through multiple telescopes with up to 100 times magnification. A magnificent tour of the facility is led by resident astronomer, Eric McLaughlin, a San Diego native.
We were treated to awe-inspiring views of Jupiter and its moons, Saturn and its rings, Earth’s moon, and a Ring Nebulae located an incredible mind-blowing 2,300 light-years away. It was an unforgettable other-worldly experience and one every guest should savor when visiting Palm Springs.
Actor Kirk Douglas once said “If you want to see a star. Don’t go to Hollywood. Come to Palm Springs.” In more ways than one, he’s absolutely right.
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Last Updated on January 11, 2022 by sandiegoexplorer