Five years ago, I visited Palm Springs for the first time and it changed everything I thought I’d wanted out of life. Literally.
The first thing you’ll notice upon arriving is that this desert oasis is not only beautiful but also incredibly friendly and welcoming. Joey and I have been invited into the condos of complete strangers and made friends while waiting in line at local restaurants. We’re now so smitten with the place that we are searching for a vacation home to put down more permanent roots by the end of the year (come visit!)
The truth is, before I experienced Palm Springs for myself, I had no idea what I was in for. My mom and stepdad used to vacation there every year and based on what I’d heard, I imagined the place being a sleepy retirement town full of tourists indulging in a long weekend of spa hopping, poolside lounging and plenty of golfing — all in all, not a youthful, happening place.
While some of the stereotypes are still true, Palm Springs has undergone a massive transformation over the last 10 years and is now a truly hip hotspot with new hotels and shops opening all the time.
The thing is, there are so many guides out there to dig through and most left me wanting more. Some of the most comprehensive ones I found were long out of date with many places on the lists since closed (the recession hit Palm Springs especially hard) and others only had a handful of recommendations that crossed over with every other list I found.
I wanted more so I started compiling my own guide — my hope is that this makes your Palm Springs vacation easier to plan.
If you’ve never visited, here are some fun facts to entice you:
• The sun is out over 300 days a year. Basically, it’s impossible to wake up in a bad mood.
• Liberace spent his downtime in Palm Springs and chose one of his many homes in the area to spend his final days.
• Palm Springs is home to Modernism Week, an 11-day event focusing on mid-century modern architecture.
• Rush hour is nonexistent since most folks are retired or on vacation. Rejoice because traffic jams are a distant memory!
• Celebrities including Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe and Estée Lauder once called the place home and Leonardo DiCaprio recently snapped up one the most iconic houses in town.
• Palm Springs is very GLBT friendly and has one of the highest concentration of same-sex couples in the United States.
• Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival is held annually in Indio, right outside of Palm Springs.
• Elvis loved his rented Palm Springs home so much that he honeymooned there with Priscilla and 9 months later, Lisa Marie was born.
The brighter and airier your outfits, the better. Keep your looks loose, comfortable and made of natural, breathable fabrics. It can be hard to remember everything (I set my suitcase out a month in advance of a trip and still miss a few things!) so here’s a quick cheat sheet of must-pack items.
• Sunglasses and sunblock: The midday sun is crazy intense.
• Large brimmed hat: If you want to avoid looking like a lobster, protect your face poolside.
• Water bottle: You never know where you’ll end up and you can’t survive on martinis alone!
• Fun beach towel: Hotel towels are often boring white standard issues so liven things up!
• Fuji Instax: Because instant photos conjure up the heyday of Palm Springs.
• Comfortable shoes: Whether you’re spending the day hiking, biking or shopping, avoid blisters and keep it casual with flats or sandals.
• Swimsuits galore: The brighter, the better.
I’ve flown directly into the Palm Springs Airport a few times but the most economical way to visit is to fly into LA and grab a rental car.
Tickets are much cheaper and the drive from LA to Palm Springs is only about 2 hours (as long as you bypass rush hour). I always start my search for flights on Kayak first to compare rates.
You’ll definitely want a car once you get to town to explore since Salvation Mountain, Joshua Tree and a ton of other desert cities are just a short drive away. Also, street parking is free and we’ve never had issues finding an open spot.
There are so many fantastic places to eat in Palm Springs — for being such a small city, it’s got a great variety of spots to try. These are some of my picks.
• Birba: Right next door to Cheeky’s (and ran by the same owner), you can’t miss the big red “B” at the entrance. This is the place for you if you’re on the hunt for gourmet pizza.
• Lulu California Bistro: This is the ultimate crowd pleaser for breakfast, lunch and dinner, especially if you’re with a group that is full of picky eaters. There’s literally something for everyone on the massive menu (including my vegan husband). Ask for an outside seat — since the restaurant is in the center of downtown, it’s the perfect spot for people watching.
• Norma’s: Make a point to visit this restaurant at The Parker at least once for breakfast. It has a sunny, kitschy mid-century modern feel perfected by Jonathan Adler and the menu will make your mouth water. Just beware of the portions — they’re so massive that I’d recommend splitting with someone. I’ve tried everything from oatmeal to French Toast and it’s impossible to have a bad meal. I love that they have a section called Mom Can’t Make This. Haha!
• Chi Chi: Named after the original Palm Springs nightclub, this is a new restaurant inside the Avalon Hotel with a Latin-inspired twist. Stop in for breakfast, lunch and dinner poolside or better yet, stay at the hotel and use the tablet to order room service!
• Ernest Coffee: This independent coffee shop is located in the same spot where the original Don The Beachcomber’s tiki restaurant once was. If you need a quiet place to chill, grab a treat and get some work done, this is it.
• Reservoir: This brand new restaurant does breakfast, lunch and dinner. The menu is small but solid and I was happy with everything I ordered from fish tacos to scrambled eggs and toast to rosé. Let’s talk about the real draw, though — pastel tiled floors, wood paneled walls and beautiful natural light.
• Trio Palm Springs: While I personally haven’t eaten here, the locals constantly recommend it and I’ve only heard positive things. It’s on my must-visit list when I head back to town.
• Ice Cream & Shop(pe): With a marbled tile backsplash, mint green chairs and a neon sign of an ice cream cone, this ice cream parlor is bound to put a smile on your face. My top pick is the birthday cake ice cream inside the pretzel cone. It’s the perfect mix of sweet and savory. Bonus: there’s a small gift shop to the left, full of fun goodies.
• Loco Charlie’s: This is my secret hangout. Don’t be fooled by the nondescript restaurant tucked in next to a grocery store in a strip mall. This place is the bomb. Much cheaper than the big local chain in town, this is where the locals go for no-nonsense, tasty Mexican food with fantastic service.
• Tonga Hut: It’s a crime to visit Palm Springs and not have at least one tiki drink! Get your fix here — the staff are super knowledgeable and friendly, the tiki-themed music is great and the kitschy atmosphere is super fun.
• King’s Highway: While this isn’t my top pick since the service has gotten progressively worse over the last few years and vegetarian / vegan options have been pruned, King’s Highway does a great American-style breakfast and the atmosphere inside the restaurant is really lively. A former Denny’s, Ace Hotel has done an great job of leaving the authenticity of the original restaurant intact.
• Cheeky’s: Show up when the doors open or be prepared to wait…for a very long time. This is a spot for the most serious of brunchers and the rave reviews back it up. I love the outdoor seating area with orange lucite chairs.
• Customs Coffee: My number one Palm Springs obsession at the moment, this cozy little coffee shop is wallpapered in vintage-style travel tickets. I love the attention to design they put into the place — it makes the experience feel extra special.
I’ve stayed in a mix of private residences and hotels while in town and it’s nice to try both. If you’re willing to take a gamble, give Hotel Tonight a try for insane last-minute deals. I’ve seen rooms listed at a third of the regular price!
• Caliente Tropics: This place is a total tiki trip. Originally built in the 60s, The Tropics as it was known back then was a frequent hangout of Elvis, Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack. They host regular tiki-themed events and the staff is super nice. The last time we checked in, they gave us an awesome room upgrade. The pool area and bar is a happening hangout on the weekends.
• The Avalon: If boutique hotels are more your style and you prefer a minimal black and white color scheme with a dash of lemon yellow, you’ll fall in love with this place. The rooms are spacious and the service is fantastic.
I love the complementary bikes, the brightly tiled lobby, the koi pond out front and the drink menu — save room for my personal favorite, the Desert Jewel (mandarin vodka, Aperol, grapefruit, lemon and bubbles).
• The Saguaro: By far one of the most recognizable hotels in Palm Springs, this spot is a rainbow-colored paradise. The pool area is great and the color-themed rooms add a dose of fun to the mix.
• Air bnb: If you’re traveling with a big group or need somewhere with an especially picturesque backdrop for a photo shoot, renting a private residence is a great bet and often cheaper than a suite. I’ve rented houses a few times and it was extra relaxing having my own private pool and fire pit in the backyard, not to mention complete silence. My last stay was at this house and I highly recommend it — check out more shots of it here.
• Ace Hotel: I love visiting The Ace for its awesome pool parties but after multiple stays, I feel that the hotel itself is really overpriced for what it is (think: folding card tables, curtains made of tarps, bare concrete floors). I’m into a bit more polish but if you prefer a more casual vibe, this may be a great spot for you.
• Parker Palm Springs: I know this place gets mentioned a lot but it’s for a good reason. It boasts some of the best designed interiors and most artfully manicured grounds in all of Palm Springs and from the gorgeous swimming pools to inviting seating areas to croquet to the adorable lemonade stand, if you have the budget (or can find a great deal on Hotel Tonight!), it’s worth the spurge. Learn more about the hotel’s eccentric history here.
If you want to break up lounging by the pool, here are some low-key, easy things to do around town.
• Rent Bicycles: The downtown area of Palm Springs is super fun to explore by bike. I loved renting some wheels from Bike Palm Springs with my two BFFs.
• Take a Tour: The heart of Palm Springs’ appeal is the abundance of mid-century modern architecture and there’s no better way to see it (and get an earful of history!) than a guided tour. There are a number of options including the Palm Springs Mod Squad and Palm Springs Modern Tours.
• Pose in the Ace Photo Booth: Tucked inside the hallway just off the lobby in the Ace Hotel is a black and white photo booth. Swipe your debit card and record those late night drunken memories!
• Visit the Cabazon Dinosaurs: These massive sculptures are located on a freeway exit as you drive from LA to Palm Springs and worth the photo op after you’ve loaded up on snacks at the gas station next door.
• Visit Joshua Tree: Just a 40 minute drive outside of Palm Springs, visiting this national park is an absolute must. The atmosphere is completely otherworldly and you can get a feel for it in this mini video. Get a really early start to avoid the sweltering mid-day heat.
• Tour Ruddy’s General Store: This place is a total trip — and definitely worth the visit. It’s a replica of a general store from the 1930s and stocked to the ceiling with authentic, unused antique merchandise (there are over 6,000 items!) and they’ll let you take as many photos as you want.
• Tour the Art Museum: Located in the center of downtown, this museum rivals those in larger cities with artwork ranging from Picasso to Warhol. Even better, there’s free admission every Thursday evening from 4-8 p.m. and every second Sunday of each month.
• Pose in The Parker Lobby: While I would love to stay here, I usually settle for a photo in their very Instagrammable lobby featuring a large sign emblazoned with DRUGS and hanging wicker chairs. It’s the perfect spot for catching up with your BFF.
• Tour Moorton Botanical Garden: One of my absolute favorite places to visit in Palm Springs, this landmark was established in 1938 and is packed with rare cacti from around the world. The real gem is the greenhouse in the very back.
Part of the fun of being on vacation is shopping, right? I love exploring new stores and there are a bunch of great places around town to check out.
• Trina Turk: If you’ve packed a little too much black (always my problem!), make this boutique your first stop. Trina Turk is filled with everything you need from psychedelic beach towels, swimwear, workout gear and stylish looks for hitting the town.
• Paul Kaplan Studio: Paul is the man about town when it comes to selling beautiful mid-century modern properties but even better, the front half of his office features a spectacular shop with the best finds including a killer selection of Palm Springs-themed books, locally made pottery and barware.
• Just Fabulous: I love browsing around this store for great hostess gifts and unique coffee table books. A must-visit.
• Just Modern: This store has an eclectic mix of modern furniture, housewares, lighting and art. It’s great for getting inspiration on how to add a mid-century touch to your place.
• Destination PSP: If you want a Palm Springs themed t-shirt or art print, this is the place to pick up a non-cheesy souvenir.
• The End: A bit of a drive, this place is a vintage mecca in Yucca Valley full of the coolest finds, not to mention a great psychedelic wall to pose in front of.
I’m by no means an expert on all the great mid-century architecture in Palm Springs (and this subject could easily fill a few dedicated posts) but here are a few places to get you started on your sight-seeing adventure.
• Wexler Steel House #1: This was one of seven pre-fabricated steel houses built in 1962 and is immediately recognizable by its zig-zag roofline.
• Palm Springs Visitor’s Center: Built in 1963, this space age gem with an iconic pointy roofline was originally a gas station.
• Palm Springs City Hall: Designed by Albert Frey in 1952, this building features panels made of metal tubing and has a massive hole in the roof that palm trees reach through!
• Kaufmann House: I’ve been smitten with this house ever since I found out it was the scene of Poolside Gossip. Designed by famed architect Richard Neutra in 1947, it’s one of the most iconic houses in Palm Springs.
• Pink Door House: It’s rare that the door of a house has its own hashtag but #thatpinkdoor is filled with images of this Palm Springs pad featuring a 10 foot tall door coated in bubblegum pink paint.
• Royal Hawaiian Estates: These are just a block from The Ace so if you’re staying there, make sure to walk past this historic grouping of tiki-themed condos built by Donald Wexler in 1959.
• Swiss Miss Houses: I am obsessed with these houses which resemble a cross between a Swiss chalet and tiki hut. They dot the same neighborhood as Elvis’ one-time house and only a total of 15 were built.
There are so many more places around town that I’m itching to visit! Here’s a bonus list of unique, beautiful destinations to check out.
• Desert Hills Outlets: If high-end shopping is your thing, this mall on the outskirts of Palm Springs has the largest collection of luxury outlets in California!
• Colony Palms: This hotel has been around since 1936 and looks like a great place to relax. I’m a fan of the patterned backdrops in many of the rooms and want to visit the Purple Palm for some poolside dining.
• Korakia Pensione: I’ve dreamed of staying at this Moroccan-inspired hotel for ages — it’s so beautiful. If peace and quiet are your jam and you truly need to unplug, this is your spot.
• Spencer’s: I just discovered this restaurant on my last trip to Palm Springs — it’s a bit hard to find and tucked into the side of a mountain. I need some friends to visit so I have an excuse to check this place out!
• Workshop Kitchen + Bar: I’ve heard that the food here is great and I love the modern white outdoor seating area.
• Arrive Hotel: This boutique hotel just opened in downtown Palm Springs and conveniently has Ice Cream & Shop(pe), Customs Coffee and Reservoir restaurant all attached. Yum! I’m most intrigued by the monthly poolside movie night.
• Melvyn’s: A super classy, old school hangout, this place has won tons of honors including the best martini in town, the best place to spot a celebrity, the best romantic restaurant (ooh la la!) and more. Anyone want to join me for dinner here?!
These are some of my favorite Instagram accounts to follow and get the inside scoop on what’s happening around town.
• Sarah Sherman Samuel: She recently bought an a-frame fixer-upper in Palm Springs and is constantly sharing the progress — plus plenty of stylish hotspots.
• Palm Springs Style: My favorite local magazine also has an Instagram account cataloging all the hip shop openings and happenings.
• Visit Palm Springs: The official Instagram of Palm Springs, this is the place to check for upcoming events.
• Paul Kaplan Group: This mid-century modern realtor shares plenty of amazing houses that are hitting the market.
• Megan McKean: This Australian illustrator and designer has a Palm Springs obsession and it often pops up in the themes of her work.
Whew, that was a loooong list! I’ll have even more fun spots to share once Joey and I settle on a Palm Springs pad later this year but in the meantime, I hope this list gives you some ideas of the unique, entertaining things you can do during your stay. Have fun! xo