A Palm Springs Itinerary: Your Adventure in the Desert
It was the stars’ retreat from LA and it’s still a literal oasis of culture, casinos, architecture and entertainment. There are few places on earth like Palm Springs…
In the golden days of Hollywood, studio bosses decreed that the stars couldn’t live more than two hours from the studios. Palm Springs is about as far as they could get from Los Angeles in that time. As a result, this curious desert oasis became a bustling and glamorous destination that’s well worth a few days of exploration. Take a look at this Plum Guide-perfected itinerary to ensure you get the most out of your visit.
Let’s clear one thing up straightaway. There is a town called Palm Springs… but the name is sometimes used as a catch-all for the whole region. Which is also known as Greater Palm Springs. Confused? Yes, it happens. But to best understand it all, there’s a good solution. Go up. And by go up, we mean go 8,516 feet up, to be precise. The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is the perfect start to any Palm Springs itinerary, a ten minute, picturesque climb above the valley and up to Mount San Jacinto State Park. Here you’ll find some 50 miles of hiking trails, a charming natural history museum and observation decks. From these, you get stunning views across the valley floor and to many of the nine cities that make up (Greater) Palm Springs. It’s a great way to get your bearings.
As you descend – and every time you leave an air-conditioned building – you’ll notice a distinct rise in temperature, particularly in summer where temperatures will stay mostly in the low 40°Cs (and remain that high long into the evenings). You are literally in the middle of a desert remember. (Although it just happens to be a desert dotted with some fascinating and stunning architecture some of which, of course, you can stay in thanks to Plum Guide.) Palm Springs has attracted visionary architects since the 1920s, to the extent that it coined one architectural movement, “Desert Modernism”. Palm Springs is frequently cited as the world’s greatest collection of mid-century architecture and the region is dotted with great examples, including the Aerial Tramway building itself and the nearby Tramway Gas Station.
Should hiking have inspired an appetite, Lulu’s California Bistro is a very good introduction to the sort of health-conscious fare synonymous with California. If you’re in the market for a Low Carb Veggie Burger, or Ahi Tuna with alfalfa sprouts, this is the place. Happily, they also offer more conventional (and considerably more calorific) treats.
For a desert, Palm Springs contains a LOT of greenery – much of it golf course. Ironically – possibly stupidly AND amorally – at the time of writing, Palm Springs is home to some 124 golf courses so, if that’s your thing, it’s easy to squeeze a round into your Palm Springs itinerary. For more conventional desert foliage though, Shield’s Date Garden is a must visit. Dates are one of the region’s biggest exports and Shield’s is the best place to find out more. There’s a very good café – breakfast and lunch only – and a justly celebrated date milk shake (their tagline declares that 'all other shakes are fake' but 'single greatest hangover cure in the world' would also fit). Founder Mr Shield may have long passed on but his Barnum-esque marketing ability is still very much in evidence thanks to his original, deliberately “controversial” documentary, The Romance & Sex Life of the Date, which is still showing on continuous loop.
The rise of the aforementioned mid-century architecture coincided with the area’s 'discovery' by Hollywood. As mentioned above, the story is that studio contracts dictated its stars could live no further than two hours from Los Angeles, and many set up home in Palm Springs. Many of these residents are celebrated via street names – Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Dinah Shore and Frank Sinatra all have roads named after them, and one neighbourhood has been officially declared 'The Movie Colony'. While many of the houses remain off limits as private residences, fine dining restaurant Copley’s was once part of the Cary Grant estate and you can always peek over fences at other celeb homes. You might be lucky enough to visit Sinatra’s old home, Twin Palms, as it plays host to private events, but you can at least see the (enormous) titular trees from over the wall, if not the famous piano-shaped swimming pool.
Palm Springs has also developed an impressive reputation for art. For a conventional approach, the Heath Gallery’s collection of modern art is well worth a detour. For a less conventional approach, head around the corner for Sinatra’s house and you’ll be confronted with Kenny Irwin’s Robolights: a rainbow-coloured, sci-fi- and Christmas-influenced installation on an otherwise unassuming residential street. If you only take up one of our art suggestions on this Palm Springs itinerary, make it this one. It’s gloriously bonkers.
For a similarly eccentric drink diversion, PS Air Bar is a speakeasy designed to look like the interior of a plane. If you want to demonstrate some serious insider knowledge, however, try dinner at modern steakhouse Mr Lyons, and then divert to their 'hidden' bar Seymour’s.
Continuing that artistic theme, The Palm Springs Art Museum houses a fine collection of international and local modern contemporary painting and sculpture, and also celebrates local architecture and the region’s natural environments.
The natural world is also celebrated across the region in various ways. An impressive series of art works called Desert X used nature as its canvas and lit up Instagram in 2017 and 2019. It’s scheduled to return in 2021. For a more conventional look at nature, the Living Desert Zoo and Garden shows off its exhibits against an impressive backdrop, with a primary focus on conservation. Alternatively, those seeking a more authentic look at the environment have assorted jeep tour options, including getting up close and personal to the area’s most infamous resident – the San Andreas Fault. While pretty much all traces of the crack you might imagine have been erased, the impressive power of shifting tectonic plates is clearly evidenced by the rocks and hillsides. Arachnophobes may wish to avoid September and October though - this part of the region is home to thousands of tarantulas and these months are mating season. Should you get the timings wrong, local bar Cork and Fork is a relaxing place to get over such trauma, ditto its Mexican / Baja inspired sister restaurant Tu Madres.
To go along with that itinerary, you're no doubt in need of a place to stay too so here's our guide to where to stay in Palm Springs. And if you're planning to visit Los Angeles too (which we strongly recommend) then here's a four-day City of Angels itinerary for you too. We really are good to you, aren't we?