In the early 20th century, Palm Springs was the height of glamour, coveted by movie stars and film directors for its year-round sunshine.
Today this oasis in the desert is a popular resort location and a place of pilgrimage for those who want to bask in old-school Hollywood cool.
Surrounded by stunning desert and home to fascinating history, this place has some serious substance as well. When you’re tired of fashionable bars, fancy resorts, and celebrity spotting, try one of the area’s many museums or discover the flora and fauna of the spectacular desert landscape.
Here are the 15 best things to do in Palm Springs
1. Take in the View from Above on the Aerial Tramway
Palm Springs is blessed with arid desert on one side, and snow-capped mountains on the other. The aerial tramway located here takes you all the way up nearby Chino Canyon and stops in San Jacinto Park, 8,516 meters up.
From the mountain-top station and restaurant, you will have unparalleled views over the desert below. Enjoy the picturesque views with a cocktail in hand, or head off into the park itself to traverse some epic trails.
2. Take an Architecture Tour
Palm Springs is famous for its iconic Modernist buildings, flanked by palm trees and swimming pools. Most iconic of all, perhaps, is the old tramway gas station-turned visitor’s centre, whose oddly distorted gravity-defying roof was designed by the great Albert Frey.
Many fantastic builds here were designed especially for Hollywood royalty. Lots of companies in Palm Springs do bespoke walking tours which will show you the architectural highlights of the city. Alternatively, surf the web for a list of walking trails that you can follow on your own.
Look out for eccentric builds by John Lautner, Richard Neutra, and Donald Wexler, among others.
3. Spot Some Amazing Cacti at the Moorten Botanical Gardens
Once the private collection of a cacti-obsessed local family, this incredible desert garden is now open to the public.
Follow the artfully planted trails to discovers thousands of species of succulents, cacti, and desert blooms. Flocks of dove and local turtles wander the grounds, in addition to more exotic birds attracted to the rarer flowers here.
Those with green fingers will find it particularly educational and may wish to pick up a cactus of their own at the gift shop.
4. Fly a Fighter Jet at the Palm Springs Air Museum
This museum is dedicated to the American air force and showcases some amazing planes. The historical exhibits are extraordinarily detailed and extensive and highlight the role of women and minorities in the Second World War.
The museum’s primary message is that innovations in aircraft technology have protected Americans during many 20th-century conflicts, from World War Two, to the Korean war, to Vietnam.
For a fee, you can inspect this technology for yourself by taking a flight in one of these incredible vintage planes. Local pilots will take you soaring over the desert making for a truly unforgettable experience.
5. Dine Like Sinatra at Melvyn’s Lounge
Melvyn’s Lounge in Palm Springs was once popular with the Rat Pack and is as cool today as it was back then. Frequently voted one of the best bars in America, come here for champagne brunches, classy cocktails, and fancy dinners.
Once frequented by mega-stars such as Elizabeth Taylor, the restaurant itself has an interesting history. With classy modernist décor and a pool out front, this swanky joint evokes memories of Palm Springs’ golden era.
The Piano bar makes for a fantastic night out and features many talented in-house musicians who play classic tunes from giants such as Sinatra himself.
6. Find the Waterfall in Tahquitz Canyon
Tahquitz Canyon features one of the many hiking trails that surround Palm Springs.
The Canyon itself is part of the local Indian preserve, Agua Caliente, and the Cahuilla Indians who once dominated this area of California now run a museum and reservation here.
After winding through narrow passes and groves of palms, you’ll find a 60-foot waterfall bursting from the rockface. This waterfall was once sacred to the locals, and you’ll find lots of ancient rock art and tons of local history to explore around this desert oasis.
Stop off at the visitors centre to learn more about the role that this important watering-hole once had in the lives of the indigenous Indians.
7. Visit Cabot’s Pueblo Museum House
This unusual museum was built by intrepid explorer Cabot Yerxa. Constructed in the style of an ancient Pueblo Indian house, the building itself is a bit of a maze. It features 35 rooms over 5000 square feet with 150 windows and 65 doors.
The house was built using scrap materials Cabot found himself, and the house has been preserved with most of his possessions still sitting on the shelves.
The home has a cool bohemian vibe and Cabot’s own unusual artwork is displayed across the museum, in addition to his extensive collection of Native American artefacts.
8. Visit the Coachella Valley Preserve
Palm Springs is flanked by the rocky Coachella Valley, a charming desert oasis that feeds a leafy palm forest. As one of the few spots in the area that can easily support vegetation, this preserve attracts many rare birds and other wildlife.
Far shadier than the other hiking trails in the region, it’s the best hike in the area if you want to avoid the fiery heat of the day.
The palms here have been left to grow wild, and they get up to extraordinary heights. Find the boardwalk trail for a magical trek through these majestic trees.
9. Tour the Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway
Elvis Presley was one of the biggest stars to ever live in Palm Springs, and his fantastic modernist mansion is open for tours. Elvis and Priscilla Presley stayed here for two years, and they spent their honeymoon in this luxurious house.
Whether or not you’re a fan Elvis, the building itself is a masterpiece of design and the preserved 1960s furnishings here are super-cool.
The extensive collection of Elvis memorabilia, as well as the knowledgeable tour guides, will appease superfans with snapshots from his life.
10. Visit Palm Springs Art Museum
This fantastic art museum has some great avant-garde pieces from the ‘50s and ‘60s, and its collection of glass sculptures is particularly unusual and well worth a look. The museum itself was built in 1938 and is a marvelous piece of modern architecture.
Most people come here for one of its core exhibits, Bill Anderson’s famous photographs of film stars and celebrities from the mid-20th century. His wonderful photos include glitzy snapshots of the likes of Judy Garland and Ava Gardner.
For those with earthier tastes, the museum has a great display of Native American art as well.
11. Drive Through the Palm Springs Windmill Farm
This forest of turbines in the desert looks surprisingly beautiful against the mountain landscape. One of the quirkier things to do in the Palm Springs area, this park offers self-driving tours and bicycle rides so that you can learn more about renewable energy while you take in the view.
Visitors are given a tablet on arrival and are sent off into the windy valley to explore the history of wind power.
Come here early in the morning for brilliant, dusty sunrises over this incredible stretch of desert.
12. Step Back in Time at Ruddy’s General Store
Ruddy’s General Store is an early 20th-century drugstore that has been well-preserved. One of Palm Springs’ smaller museums, this tiny shop makes for a nice break from the glitzier side of Palm Springs and gives you a window into the humble side of life.
Browse the shelves of curious old products and admire the vintage furnishings. The antique cash register is particularly cute and was installed in the 1930s.
The Palm Springs Historical Society that runs the museum is located just next door. Pop in to learn more about the origins of this desert town.
13. Explore Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree Park on the edge of Palm Springs is a rugged bit of desert filled with unusual plants and animals.
The Mojave and Colorado deserts come together here in one large open park. The Colorado section has picture-perfect rolling sand dunes and dusty grasslands, while the Mojave area is popular among climbers due to its huge rock formations.
The park itself is named after one of its native trees, and there are lots of other rare plants to find here. Get an in-depth guide from the helpful park rangers, or explore on your own and camp out under the stars.
14. Eat your Fill at Shanghai Reds Bar and Grill
This famous seafood restaurant was once praised to the skies by Anthony Bourdain himself. The fresh oysters and fish dishes are truly outstanding. The aromatic fish tacos are the grill’s signature dish, and they should ideally be enjoyed with an ice-cold beer.
The patio area at the back of the bar features many local bands, so you can get up and dance when you’re done eating.
Order a (literal) bucket of seafood, or sit at the bar with some small bites, while you listen to great live music.
15. Shop at the VillageFest Market
VillageFest is a local flea market that opens every Thursday in downtown Palm Springs. Far cooler and more glamourous than your typical local market, artwork, antiques, and fantastic food can be found here in abundance.
The stalls attract a young crowd, and the food stands range from classics burgers to experimental fusion food.
With some great performances by local bands, the streets here have a carnivalesque atmosphere late into the evening.