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 Some of the most comprehensive ones I found were long out of date with many places on the lists since closed (the recession hit Palm Springs especially hard) and others only had a handful of recommendations that crossed over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.