Last Updated on March 6, 2023

Palm Springs, the desert resort mecca for relaxation and fun, is also where culture comes alive through fine arts and architecture. Many consider this the golf capital of the world.

The city is known as a retirement community for some, and during the winter, a snowbird destination. For others, it’s the ideal getaway from the hustle of city life, especially Los Angeles.

Between the Native American culture and Hollywood’s influence beginning in the 1930s, Palm Springs has gone through several incarnations to become the city it is today. Besides being a resort city, it is the largest city, land-wise, in Riverside County and part of the Sonoran Desert, stretching 94 miles.

Palm Springs lies between the San Bernardino Mountains on the north, the Santa Rosa Mountains on the south, the San Jacinto Mountains to the west, and the Little San Bernardino Mountains to the east.

The Cahuilla Indians initially settled the area about 2000 years ago. In 1876, the United States established the Aqua Caliente Reservation consisting of 31,128 acres in a checkerboard pattern across the valley. This patchwork acreage presents an interesting dilemma because you will find one-mile squares of Indian land patched across the city. This was done by the government across the West to disrupt Native control over their homelands and make the land easier for whites to take.

Many familiar properties in Palm Springs lie on leased land from the Agua Caliente tribe.

In the 1930s, celebrities found it the perfect escape from L.A. gossip. It was more fashionable to visit Palm Springs than Las Vegas in those days. By the 50s and 60s, Hollywood stars hired well-known architects to build their homes. The area developed a reputation for mid-century architecture. Modernism became a way of life in Palm Springs.

Although Palm Springs has many activities and sights to see, many come just to lounge around the pool. With approximately 300-days of sunshine, who would not want to spend the day poolside soaking in the sun.

Enjoy a Breath of Fresh Air

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
©Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

Enjoy breathtaking views as you climb two and a half miles from the valley floor up to Mt. San Jacinto State Park in the world’s largest rotating tramcar. The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, initially built in 1963, was only a dream to Francis Crocker in 1935 when he first visited the area. Through much legislation, it was finally approved and passed by California Governor Earl Warren.

It was a challenge building a tram into the cliffs of Chino Canyon. Getting people up and down the cliff required over 23,000 helicopter missions.

The original tramcars were very different than today. They were reminiscent of a small San Francisco trolley without paint or wheels. You can see an old-style car as you enter the park.

In 1998, an extensive modernization took place. Today, the circular rotating car gives everyone on board a glimpse at the spectacular view as you travel from the hot arid desert up to the pine aroma of the forest. Depending on the time of the year, you might throw a snowball or two.

The mountain station welcomes you with three restaurants, Pine’s Café, Peak’s Restaurant, and the Lookout Lounge.

Remember to bring a jacket. It can be cold up at the mountain station.

Inspire Your Visual Senses

Founded in 1938 as the Palm Springs Desert Museum, the museum initially focused on the Colorado Desert, its natural environment, and the culture of Native Americans. In 1953, a donation of desert paintings by Carl Eytel began the transition to the Palm Springs Art Museum.

Today the museum, now listed in the National Register of Historic Places, houses an inspiring collection of primarily modern art in the modernistic architectural style building. The architectural appearance of the building’s façade blends into the base of Mt. San Jacinto as intended by architect E. Stewart Williams.

Enjoy the artwork of Agnes Pelton, a contemporary of Georgia O’Keeffe, and the American Modernism movement of mid-century artists like Sam Francis, Morris Louis, Ed Ruscha, Diego Rivera, Franz Kline, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Frank Gehry, to Alexander Calder and Henry Moore’s sculpture.

Get into Mid-Century Architecture

Mod Squad Architecture Tour
©Cori Solomon

Palm Springs is known for its mid-century architecture. Taking a tour gives you an insider’s view of what made the city what it is today. Many of the new homes are designed with mid-century modernism concepts.

Palm Springs Mod Squad Tours gives you a clear picture of the important influence this architectural style plays in the landscape of Palm Springs.

Architects like Albert Frey, William Krisel, and E. Stewart Williams shaped Palm Springs. In contrast, others like Richard Neutra, A. Quincy-Jones, Paul R. Williams, and John Lautner also had a presence on homes to celebrities like Bob Hope, Dinah Shore, the Annenberg’s, and many others.

The tour gives a glimpse of life in the 60s and 70s. It showcases the indoor/outdoor lifestyle, captures the desert landscape, and considers the climate through the use of the cantilever, clerestory window, brise soleil, a decorative type of screen at the front of homes, creating privacy, and pattern brick/shadow block. These are just a few of the architectural concepts and devices used then and again now to imbue Palm Springs with its own identity.

Take to the Skies

Palm Springs Air Museum
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Most people do not realize the significance Palm Springs played during World War II. What is now Palms Springs International Airport was initially an Army Air Corps landing field. The Army selected this location because Mt. San Jacinto is protected from fog and rain. Planes could land safely in Palm Springs when Los Angeles or San Diego airports had climatic weather.

Considered one of the top air museums in the United States, the Palm Springs Air Museum focuses on aircraft from World War II, the Korean, and Viet Nam Wars. Bob Pond and Pete Madison founded the Palm Springs Air Museum in 1996. Currently, it houses three hangars full of excellently maintained aircraft. Many World War II aircraft in the museum still fly today.

Some of the museum’s highlights are the Tuskegee Airmen mural, the interactive Living History Kiosk, and Women Pilots of WWII and beyond, showing women’s role in flying. Allow at least two to three hours for a visit.

Visit a Desert Garden

Moorten Botanical Gardens
©Cori Solomon

Moorten Botanical Gardens has been open since 1938. If desert flora is your thing, this garden houses over 3000 varieties of desert plants. Discover cacti grown in the greenhouse or others that tower above in the garden. The gardener in you will find, as the Moorten’s coined it, something Cactarium.

Along the way, you will discover the Moorten Mediterranean-style home, the resident doves, and tortoises, or some of the other relics that make their home along the nature paths of this botanical garden. In the greenhouse, you might spy a hummingbird nest that had everyone cooing on a recent visit.

Wine Tasting

Instead of going to a bar, how about wine tasting? Jalama Wines, located on the Plaza, features handcrafted wines from the St. Rita Hills and other vineyards along the Central Coast. Owner Mark Cargasacchi’s family were cattle ranchers in Lompoc, California but converted approximately 26-acres into two vineyards, Jalama and Cargasacchi.

The Cargasacchi family has been a fixture in California winemaking for decades. Mark carries on the wine torch, producing fabulous Pinot Noir, Grenache, Syrahs, Merlot, Mourvedre, and Petite Sirah. Jalama brings Santa Barbara County to you in Palm Springs. The tasting room is open Friday through Sunday.

Feed Your Inner Child

Lulu California Bistro Cotton Candy
©Cori Solomon

Lulu California Bistro’s welcoming, colorful restaurant serves American California cuisine. Open for breakfast, brunch, lunch, and dinner; the restaurant is a happening place with good vibes.

Remember the days of eating cotton candy at a fair. You can bring back those memories at Lulu Bistro. The restaurant’s dessert menu includes cotton candy and not just any ordinary cotton candy but one using the best ingredients. Served in a grand style that calls for a picture, the sugary confection is soft, billowy, and nothing like you ever tasted before.

RELATED: Sampling Palm Springs restaurants

Brandini Toffee

Visiting Palm Springs, one must pay a visit to Brandini Toffee. The story behind this confectionary store brings the toffee to life. Brandon Weimer and a friend met the challenge when they were in high school.

The two wanted to go on a class trip to Italy during their sophomore year. Their parents suggested they earn money to pay for half the trip. They paid for the trip, making and selling toffee to family, friends, and the community. Surpassing their monetary goals for the journey, the demand for their toffee grew; thus, the family-owned business was formed and has grown by leaps and bounds.

The store is a mecca for chocolate and toffee lovers, with a store in Palm Springs and the factory store in Rancho Mirage. The latter gives tours of the factory, showing the process of creating these marvelous sweet treats.

You will find Toffee, Toffee brownies, Toffee popcorn, Toffee milkshakes, and Toffee dipped ice cream. It is a toffee lovers haven, or to quote the family, “handcrafting simple ingredients into sweet indulgences that make people say Mmm…”

Windmill Tours

Driving into Palm Springs, you may wonder about the windmills that line both sides of Interstate 10. Take a tour with Palm Springs Windmill Tours.

You will discover how these eco-friendly turbines reduce our carbon footprint and bring electricity efficiently to the Coachella Valley. The evolution of these windmills one sees in the changes made along the way. After visiting, you will also know why some windmills stand idle and others spin away.

Date Shakes

Named one of the best places to get a date shake, this hole-in-the-wall market serves a great date shake that you won’t want to miss while you are in date country. Windmill Market is located near the Palm Springs Windmill Tours, allowing time to stop by for an afternoon milkshake snack.

Agua Caliente

Since the Agua Caliente have a significant presence in Palm Springs, they have several casinos and a resort in the Coachella Valley. In Palm Springs, there is a casino downtown.

For those seeking the ultimate experience in a Forbes Four-Star award hotel, spa, and restaurant, the Rancho Mirage location is the idle place to stay.

Under Chef Kenneth Williams, the award-winning restaurant, The Steakhouse, serves amazing cuisine. Don’t miss the Filet Oscar, a signature dish, Wild Mushroom Ravioli, or the Seared Hand Dived Scallops.

RELATED: Palm Springs hotels

Day Trip to the Zoo

The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens must be a part of your itinerary. This local attraction was conceived to preserve the local desert ecosystems when resort development was at its height in 1970. The preserve’s environments are welcoming, especially the Australian Adventures, where you are in direct contact with the Wallabies.

Also, check out the Giraffes as they parade at the top of the enclosures’ ridge, their necks a silhouette against the blue sky.

Day Trip to Sunnylands

Sunnylands Welcome Center
©Cori Solomon

Visit history in the making as many U.S. Presidents met with diplomats at Sunnylands, the winter retreat of Walter and Leonore Annenberg. Completed in 1966, the home designed by A. Quincy-Jones has welcomed 8 US Presidents and world leaders with a goal to enhance international understanding and civil discourse.

The property includes a 9-hole-golf course, a mid-century home, beautiful gardens, and a welcome center with art exhibits. Today, the Annenberg Foundation Trust runs the 200-acre estate with sustainable practices at the forefront of maintaining the property. Besides visiting this magnificent property, US dignitaries still hold retreats to solve world problems. Sunnylands offers three different tours, but reservations are needed well in advance.

Let the Dogs In

Boozehounds brings both people and their pets together for great dining and socializing. Co-owners Jimmy McGill, Bryan Rogers, and Steve Placenza, dog lovers extraordinaire, created a place for people to socialize with their pets.

The attractive patio and open-air lounge are the ideal settings for well-behaved humans and dogs. Dogs can bring their humans for a great meal. Chef Cory Baker’s menu incorporates southern California cuisine sparked by global influences.

At the same time, mixologist Justin Gordon does his magic with the eclectic array of mixed drinks. There is even a healthy menu for our fur babies. Inside dining is for those without their pets.

Additional Palm Springs Dining

Palm Springs has a plethora of great dining spots, most with outdoor patios. Here are some to consider.

  • Zin American Bistro: Located in the heart of downtown, this restaurant has been a fixture in Palm Springs since 2004. Its name evidences the fact they have an impressive wine list. The menu consists of classic seasonal locally sourced ingredients to create an authentic experience. The hummus is a must, and the secret, they peel the garbanzo beans by hand, making the creamiest hummus you will ever taste.
  • Farm: Take yourself to the South of France, Provence, as you enter the charming courtyard to a patio filled with bougainvillea. The cuisine is traditional French with local ingredients and artisan meats. The ambiance changes as sunset sets in, and the decorative lights go on everywhere. Sit back and relax as you enjoy a five-course meal.
  • El Mirasol: It is a family affair dining out on the patio of this traditional Mexican restaurant. Everything is homemade, from the guacamole to the tortillas, and features regional Mexican cuisine. This restaurant is very popular with locals.
  • Chicken Ranch: Find a great spot for a chicken-centric lunch. The chicken is sourced from local farms that utilize sustainable, eco-friendly standards. The chicken is free-range, farm-fresh, and locally grown.

Small Hotel – Alcazar

Alcazar Hotel Pool
©Cori Solomon

If you prefer small boutique hotels, the Alcazar is the place. The Spanish-style hotel invites you in immediately as you enter the Star Jasmine scented patio that leads you to a serene oasis in the heart of Palm Springs.

General Manager Robert Hunt makes you feel at home in this 34-room hotel. First-floor rooms open to a lovely private patio where you can relax with a drink at sunset. The simplicity of the sleek modern, white-walled rooms is reminiscent of the architecture one might find on a Greek Island such as Santorini or Mykonos. Your stay includes free Wi-Fi, complimentary bicycles to ride around town, and comfy beds adorned with Italian linens.

Colorful & Youth

The Saguaro Hotel
©Cori Solomon

Looking for a more upbeat hotel that caters to millennials and younger, stay at The Saguaro Hotel. This trendy hotel exudes a joyful spirit with an exuberant array of colors to inspire some creativity in your room and around the pool.

Author

  • Cori Solomon

    Cori Solomon, an award-winning freelance writer/photographer, based in Los Angeles, California, focuses on travel, art, food, wine, and pets. She often highlights the story behind the restaurant, chef, winery, winemaker, or artist.