Palm Springs and the Desert
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.
Can’t miss things to do in Palm Springs and the Desert
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.
- If you are passionate about midcentury architecture, Modernism Week with its busy schedule of lectures and exclusive house tours takes place in late February.
- Whenever you visit, the Architecture and Design Center of the Palm Springs Art Museum provides an introduction to the city’s remarkable buildings. The museum’s main location in downtown Palm Springs has nearly 30 galleries displaying everything from centuries-old Native American pieces to recent works by contemporary artists.
- The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway offers stunning views of the desert landscape.
- A walk through Indian Canyons, an oasis dotted with palms, provides a glimpse of how the desert looked when the earliest Agua Caliente Indians arrived here.
- A very different stroll, along Palm Canyon Drive, can include stops at the lively bars and restaurants that are oases for today’s travelers.
Palm Springs: 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.
Palm Desert: 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.
Cathedral City: 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.
Indio: 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.”
Rancho Mirage: 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.
Food and drink to try in Palm Springs and the Desert
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.
Culture in Palm Springs and the Desert
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.
How to get around Palm Springs and the Desert
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.