In Palm Springs, it can feel like leisure breezes in the warm desert air. For travelers ready to embrace that easygoing Coachella Valley spirit, there are many ways to experience this Southern California destination where the sun shines 300 days per year.
Much of the early local history started with its natural hot springs, whose mineral water attracted the Cahuilla people that made this valley home for two millennia. The same desert springs and scenery live on today in modern spas for soaking up the mineral waters—including the occasional, actual oasis.
In more modern history, however, Palm Springs earned its wider reputation as a hotspot for celebrities and snowbirds building prized mid-century modern homes.
You can join much of that timeless scene at cool restaurants and lounges, soaking up the pools-and-cocktails culture, and events like Modernism Week, which offers seasonal tours of the best local architecture.
The city also draws travelers for several prominent international film festivals, LGBTQ+ weekends, and, of course, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival every April.
Whether you’re interested in meditating and hiking in Joshua Tree, or viewing groovy art and sipping martinis poolside, there are lots of ways to catch some of that Greater Palm Springs swing. Here are the best things to do in Palm Springs.
Palm Springs Art Museum
What began in 1938 as the modest Palm Springs Desert Museum is today one of California’s best institutions for contemporary fine art, American Western art, Native American art, and natural science. The museum has of three locations, starting with the large main campus in downtown Palm Springs.
That central, three-story building and courtyard itself is a national landmark for its Modernist architectural style, housing 28 galleries, a lecture hall, sculpture garden, museum store, and the Annenberg Theater, all within its 124,000 square feet. And you can find it easily, next to Downtown Park’s giant Forever Marilyn sculpture.
About a 10-minute walk south, the Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center–Edwards Harris Pavilion shifts focus from fine art to structural and spatial work. Like the main campus, it was designed by E. Stewart Williams and carries forward more of that quintessential midcentury style.
It’s also home to the Bradford W. Bates Vault, the cool museum design store. The third location is the Faye Sarkowsky Sculpture Garden, about a half-hour drive south in Palm Desert. Across its four acres you can explore a landscaped oasis with winding walkways, native plants, and sculptural works by several modern masters.
Joshua Tree National Park
One of the desert gems of America’s parks, Joshua Tree National Park spans nearly 800,000 acres within Southern California’s portion of the Mojave Desert. There’s no wrong way to behold the beauty, whether you’re drawn to rock formations, particular plants, seasonal fauna, or outdoor activities.
One sure bet is to head toward the park’s center for a picnic and/or walkabout at mighty Cap Rock, or around Jumbo Rocks where you can check out the giant skeletal Skull Rock.
Get acquainted with flora along the Cholla Cactus Garden Nature Trail, a flat loop through 10 acres of cacti and bushes where something colorful is usually blooming any time of the year. Nature lovers, and especially desert fans, may end up loving Joshua Tree more than any other preserve.
If time is tight, the park is fine for a driving tour, though traffic may slow you down during peak summer and holiday weeks. But if you’ve wisely reserved ample time (at least one full day is best), take your pick of activities to engage with the landscape, be it camping (reserve ahead of time), climbing, horseback riding, birding, biking, wildflower viewing, or geology touring.
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
A Palm Springs visit seems incomplete without a tram ride up the slope of Mount San Jacinto. Opened in 1963 and modernized in the year 2000, Palm Springs Aerial Tramway ascends about 2.5 miles in 10 minutes, from the valley to the cliffside Mountain Station. Up at 8,516 feet, you can soak in the views from observation decks, Peaks Restaurant, Pines Café, the Lookout Lounge (with full bar), picnic areas, or along more than 50 miles of hiking trails accessed from the lofty station. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, you can join weekend guided nature walks along two easy trails (led by volunteers twice daily); and there are a limited number of campgrounds within the Mt. San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness Area. In winter, come for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, with equipment rentals at the Winter Adventure Center; or you can bring your own sled.
Beyond the entrance to the Ingleside Inn, itself a Palm Springs local landmark, you’ll spot the iconic arched awning of Melvyn’s. Enter to find a classic dining room, the kind Frank Sinatra liked, with white tablecloths, bow-tied servers, and furnishings comfy enough to keep you around all evening. It’s a romantic place for a date, and it’s romantic in that old-timey way, with atmospheric coolness and debonair charm. Solo time here is fine too for an evening at the Casablanca Lounge, where nightly live jazz and piano music complements the velvety-smooth ambience. That mid-century sensation infuses the Palm Springs air, and even though Melvyn’s opening in 1975, its vibes suit the contextual mod tempo. Come here to time-travel in spirit and to taste what made fine-dining restaurants famous once upon a time—and what’s made Melvyn’s a nouveau-classic institution for our own era.
Azure Palm Hot Springs Resort & Day Spa Oasis
Fifteen minutes northeast of downtown Palm Springs is the hamlet of Desert Hot Springs, whose name makes the top attraction clear. Among the handful of natural mineral spring spa-hotels here is the Azure Palm Hot Springs Resort & Day Spa Oasis, new to the scene in 2021 after a full overhaul of an older property. Compared with larger resort-spas in the vicinity, Azure’s more relaxed, personal vibes stand out. There are 40 hotel rooms, but the day-spa experience (available 8am to 8pm) delivers the right dose of tranquility without an overnight stay, with good rates that are discounted with a spa treatment or day package. Plan ample time before or after a treatment to make good use of the luxurious hot springs here, since this town’s world-famous mineral water is really the essence of your visit. Azure’s modest desert site is surrounded by mountains, and its magic conjures a sense of connection to the landscape, the unending sky, and the free-flowing natural hot mineral water. Soak it all up.
Sunnylands Center & Gardens
It’s an expansive desert art garden, art-exhibition center, and historic home where Queen Elizabeth II once stayed (among countless other luminaries). Such a marvelous property inspires a feeling of time travel into a place where privilege was the lifestyle. Gardens are landscaped with care to each detail, walking paths invite quiet strolls, and exhibits reveal splendid treasures. The house itself is a masterpiece of mid-century-modern architecture and interior design, earning it historic-site designation in 1990. There’s much to learn about art and late 20th-century diplomacy here. Or you can just wander and ponder the beauty brought about by the Annenbergs, whose private estate featured 13 man-made lakes, three guest cottages, and a nine-hole golf course. The couple’s art collection included original works by Van Gogh, Picasso, Wyeth, and Monet; and though they’re mostly loaned to museums these days, at Sunnyland you’ll still find perfect replicas.