Photo by Lisa Corson, AFAR Media
Majestic palms and the San Jacinto mountains set a dramatic scene in this storied desert getaway.
Less than two hours from Los Angeles, Palm Springs has long been the city’s popular desert getaway, welcoming both Hollywood stars and less famous visitors.
The human history of Palm Springs dates back more than 2,000 years when the Agua Caliente Indians first settled in the area. Its history as a vacation destination goes back longer than many realize, too: The springs that are part of the city’s name and the dry desert climate drew the wellness travelers of the 19th century, and the Palm Springs Hotel (the first in the Coachella Valley) opened in 1886.
It was, however, in the 1920s and 30s that Hollywood royalty began to make the 100-mile drive from Los Angeles and in the process spread the city’s reputation beyond Southern California. Its mid-century modern buildings—many built as homes for Hollywood stars like Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra—continue to be a major draw for those interested in architecture.
For many Angelenos, Palm Springs is primarily a long weekend getaway, a place to lounge by a swimming pool with a good book in hand. The city, however, rewards those who make time for a longer visit. There’s downtown Palm Springs, with Palm Canyon Drive its major artery. There you’ll find the famous Visitor Center built in 1963 which is both an architectural masterpiece and a source of information for your stay, while the same street includes the Architecture and Design Center, part of the Palm Springs Art Museum. A trip on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to near the top of San Jacinto Peak provides bird’s-eye views of the area.
While Palm Springs may be the most familiar name, it is just one of nine towns in Greater Palm Springs. Desert Hot Springs, Indian Wells, La Quinta, Rancho Mirage, and the area’s other communities all have their own highlights and attractions. Finally, one of the gems of the national park system, Joshua Tree, is just 45 minutes away by car.
With Palm Springs’s long history that includes Indian Canyons and the city’s Hollywood connections, it is the best known of the nine communities in the Coachella Valley. Its downtown has many popular restaurants and resorts range from venerable favorites to gleaming new additions. It’s not the most populous of the cities in Greater Palm Springs, but it is the largest by area.
This city’s El Paseo gives Palm Canyon Drive some competition when it comes to the title of the Coachella Valley’s best shopping street. With three different college campuses, there’s a definite student vibe here compared to other retiree heavy communities. A plus is restaurants that cater to the budgets of students—and those of frugal travelers. The fascinating Living Desert Zoo and Botanical Garden is also located in Palm Desert.
Sitting between Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage, Cathedral City’s family attractions include an IMAX theater and the Big League Dreams Sports Park. A vast city revitalization project begun in the 1990s included a new city hall and other projects. The effort paid off and Cathedral City now often appears on lists of America’s most livable communities.
The largest city of Greater Palm Springs in terms of population, Indio has become famous in recent years as the location of the Coachella Valley Arts and Music Festival—simply Coachella, to many attendees. There are, however, many other events throughout the year in this self-described “City of Festivals.”
Many Rancho Mirage residents live behind the gates of private communities, but the city does include a few stops of interest to travelers. Foremost among them is the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands, a beautifully designed conference center that is open for tours.
The population of Greater Palm Springs is decidedly seasonal. By some estimates there are four times as many residents in January compared to August. This is with good reason: Daily highs in July and August are usually above 100°. When the temperatures soar that high, the fact it is dry heat isn’t much of a consolation. In December and January, on the other hand, they are typically in the low 70s. Winter is undeniably more appealing though also more expensive. (Rain is not an issue in any season—this desert region typically receives less than two inches of precipitation each year.)
Remember that many of Palm Springs’ visitors are coming from Los Angeles, where diners accustomed to farm-fresh produce prepared by celebrated chefs, and the excellence of the area’s culinary offerings makes sense as Palm Springs resorts and restaurants are in an ongoing competition. Finding a memorable meal is an easy task. Some currently popular options where you’ll want to reserve a table are Workshop Kitchen + Bar, in a repurposed 1920s movie theater; King’s Highway, a retro diner attached to the Ace Hotel; and the adventurously creative Sandfish by Engin Onural.
Architecture dominates the cultural scene here. A variety of tours of mid-century modern sites are offered—the Visitor Center can lead you through options. The Palm Springs Art Museum has speaker and film series in addition to exhibitions. If you plan on attending Coachella, in late April, make your plans far in advance, but don’t overlook other events from the Stagecoach Country Music Festival (also in April) to the mouth-watering International Tamale Festival in December.
For a small city, Palm Springs is surprisingly well connected with the rest of North America. In the high season, there are non-stop flights from Boston, Chicago, New York, Toronto, and other northern cities with residents looking to flee the cold. From Los Angeles, it’s less than two hours by car. While there are public buses, their limited schedule and routes mean they are not ideal for exploring the area and may want to rent a car. Uber and Lyft, as well as local taxi companies, operate in the city, including at the airport.
Incidents of valley fever, a disease with flu-like symptoms caused by a fungus in the soil in parts of the Southwest (including Palm Springs), have been increasing in recent years. Travelers over 60, pregnant women, and those with compromised immune systems may want to discuss it with their doctor.
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