Palm Springs: Fun in the Desert Sun
Check out these top Palm Springs attractions in this wonderfully warm destination, from golf to architecture to Hollywood history.
Palm Springs is really colorful, and I’m not only referring to the population. Of course, I’m often coming from a gray New York City, but even when I arrive during the summer when my own environs are nice and green, Palm Springs is just so bright and well … colorful—from the eye-popping blue skies to the astro turf-green grass to the bright lemon and grapefruit orchards.
The city was in its heyday back in the 1950s and '60s, but it's been making a comeback the past decade, drawing celebrities again, retro lovers, gay and lesbian travelers, even families. Here are some of the top things to do and attractions to check out on your next Palm Springs vacation.
Sunny Palm Springs Weather
With 354 days of sun and less than six inches of rain per year—the weather is one of the biggest draws. You’ll find plenty of things to do in Palm Springs, especially outdoors. Spring and fall are perfection, but winter can get a little chilly. Although winter temperatures range from 40 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit, a chaise in the direct afternoon sun can still heat you up just fine—and goes nicely with a margarita. Plus, heated pools and hot tubs are all over the place and often they’re empty, since the natives think it’s really winter.
In summer, things turn inward and more air-conditioned with a few months of endless days hitting well over 100 degrees. Head out at 7 a.m. and the streets are filled with joggers, strollers and dog walkers. Cafés like Koffi on North Palm Canyon Drive, is already full and everyone is getting their fill of the great outdoors before the mercury makes it too hot for many.
If you don’t mind hot weather, summer is a great time to visit. Things are cheaper and the midday streets can be almost empty. Enter just about any store and you’ll be treated like a long lost relative. The many outdoor cafés have mist machines that make it fairly pleasant to sit outside in the shade, just about any summer day.
The clear air, blue skies and green green grass are ideal for golf, which is why it boasts more than 100 courses in the area and is often dubbed the "Golf Capital of the World."
Indian Canyons Golf Resort (1097 E. Murray Canyon Drive, Palm Springs; tel. 760-327-6550, indiancanyonsgolf.com) is like a golfer’s mirage. Look up and see the beautiful San Jacinto Mountains. Look out and see two very different golf courses that are standouts in every way. The South Course boasts more than 850 palm trees. The North Course is set along the Canyon region, amid glorious mid-century modern homes and spectacular mountain vistas. Open to the public, this course is a must, if golf is on your agenda. Rental clubs are available, if you don’t want to lug your own.
Next: Film Stars and Festivals
Films Stars and Festivals
In the heyday of Hollywood, Palm Springs offered an easy escape for Hollywood’s elite. Stars like Lana Turner, Frank Sinatra, the Marx Brothers, Liberace and Bob Hope became regulars with their own homes. Even Elvis and Priscilla Presley spent their honeymoon in Palm Springs in a home that is right out of The Jetsons and can be toured today. Many other stars vacationed in town, often for their trysts. This era gave rise to the many hideaway Palm Springs hotels tucked into the foothills that still survive today.
Cary Grant, Dinah Shore, Marilyn Monroe, Jack Benny and Al Jolson owned homes in a downtown neighborhood known as the Movie Colony. With 170 houses and the recently renovated Movie Colony Hotel, it’s a real piece of Hollywood history. To see these homes and more, sign up for the full or half-day tour given by Celebrity Tours (tel. 760-770-2700).
The stars still shine in Palm Springs, especially during the Palm Springs International Film Festival that kicks in just after the holidays. Celebrities show up for the opening and the festival features the vast array of international, independent and interesting offerings. Like your films on the short side? Then the Palm Springs International ShortFest is for you. This year, it’s from June 23 to 29 and it’s sure to feature lots of little-known wonders.
[Read more about Palm Springs’ Hollywood Connection.]
Palm Springs Suburbs
Downtown Palm Springs is where you’ll find most of the restaurants, hideaway hotels, mid-century antique shops, art galleries and yoga studios (Urban Yoga, in a downtown storefront, is a favorite for its especially welcoming atmosphere).
North Palm Canyon Drive is the epicenter of the action for Palm Springs attractions. The streets closer to the foothills are home to some of the more charming Palm Springs restaurants and hotels such as Korakia Pensione, Melvyn’s, Viceroy Palm Springs and Spencer’s. The Palm Springs Art Museum is at the foot of the mountains and is definitely worth a visit for its art glass, cowboy furniture, retro chic exhibits and its excellent gift shop.
Driving east, you’ll hit Cathedral City, consisting of modest homes, movie theaters and car dealerships, followed by the wealthy settlements of Rancho Mirage and Palm Desert. While these two towns have some intriguing mid-century architecture, they’re a little generic for my taste. Things do get a little wild in Palm Desert at the Living Desert Zoo & Gardens. Take a wildflower walk, learn about endangered creatures or visit the many resident desert animals including meercats, bobcats, birds and more.
The Palm Desert area is home to copious malls, newer houses and a Rodeo Drive-esque shopping street called El Paseo. Well-fixed retirees looking for their place in the sun tend to settle here, in the same way they might have chosen Phoenix or Santa Barbara. Nice, but with far less individuality and character than Palm Springs proper.
Located about 30 miles southeast of Palm Springs is Coachella, is a small desert town with its fair share of casinos, top-rated golf courses and RV parks. The biggest attraction though is the Coachella Valley Music Festival, actually held in nearby Indio every year. The three-day event in April features dozens of musical performances each day, and arts and environmental events. This year’s event takes place this weekend, April 17 to 19. www.coachella.com
Vintage Shopping and Art Galleries
Whether you’re looking for an Eames chair, a modernist painting or something smaller like a vintage ice bucket or a bakelite bauble, you’ll find it on North Palm Canyon.
Palm Canyon Galleria is in a splendid building full of individual dealers that know how to show their wares (457 North Palm Canyon Drive, tel. 760-323-4576, palmspringsgalleria.com). Harker Design is well-known for its well-priced art, among other finds (457 North Palm Canyon Drive, tel. 760-320-9132, www.harker-design.com).
A La Mod at features everything from photography and furniture to books and bar carts (768 N. Palm Canyon Drive, tel. 760-327-0707, www.alamod768.com). If your timing is right, a stainless martini shaker may be heading home to upgrade your cocktail tools.
While sculpture and sofas are fun to peruse, it’s a lot easier to pack a new dress. Therefore, I never miss a stop (or two) at Trina Turk, my very favorite Palm Springs clothing store. Housed in a super-cool Albert Frey building with décor by Kelly Wearstler, this store has lines for both women and men. While Turk’s colors are sometimes sorbet bright, she always has lots in black and gray that fit right into my New York life. The fabrics, details and variety make it the clothing store in Palm Springs. Right up the street is her latest addition, Trina Turk Residential with a carefully edited selection of updated vintage pieces, books and objets d’art (891 North Palm Canyon Drive, tel. 760-416-2856, trinaturk.com).
Up for more foraging on your Palm Springs vacation? Perez Road in Cathedral City has a few worthy stops. Try the 10 dealers at Spaces (68-929 Perez Road, Suite K; tel. 760-770-5333) and see what you can uncover.
111 Antique Mall and El Paseo
The best finds of all are found at a place that’s a bit of a moving target of Palm Springs shopping. The 111 Antique Mall opens and closes locations as often as the store refreshes its fascinating stock of furniture, artwork, jewelry, books and more. The big store in Cathedral City just up and closed last year. Last time I visited, they were located on Racquet Club Drive. The next time, they’d moved across the street and as of a few weeks ago, they’d closed up and posted a “soon to reopen” sign on the door. If you’re up for a hunt, call information and see if you can find them. If they’re back in business, you’ll be smitten with the merchandise and the hilarious guy who runs the place.
El Paseo in Palm Desert is the Rodeo Drive of Palm Springs. Upscale galleries, familiar chains, posh boutiques and charming cafés make this a nice spot to shop and stroll beneath the towering palms. As for malls, there are many, but The River in Rancho Mirage is the prettiest thanks to its ponds, fountains and indoor/outdoor feel.
Mid-century Modern Architecture
For a small city, Palm Springs was built by lots of big names—from Lloyd Wright (Frank’s famous father) and Albert Frey to Richard Neutra and William Cody. The innovative architecture spans the genres—hotels, motels, houses and commercial buildings.
There’s one guy who can show you the sights like no one else. Robert Imber of PS Modern Tours takes you out on the town in his minivan and in a few hours, you’ve seen all the mid-century marvels that should be seen. Get in touch and set up your stylish tour (tel. 760-318-6118, email@example.com).
[Read more about Palm Springs’ Modernism.]
High Style Hotels
When it comes to hotels, Palm Springs is a fertile ground. Many are surprisingly affordable. One of the first places I discovered there was the Korakia Pensione, a wondrous enclave in a quiet neighborhood that feels like a small hotel in Tangier. Fire pits, tile work, a heated pool, luxe rooms and a laid-back vibe make this place the original hip hotel in Palm Springs. Still, it rises to the top.
These days, there are lots of others vying for attention. For small and intimate, The Orbit In is tops in style. For medium with modern flair, I love the charming Viceroy Palm Springs. Just one block off Palm Canyon, it’s a watery, green hideaway right off the main drag. Parker Palm Springs is the penultimate desert oasis. Its Jonathan Alter décor is quirky, surprising and cool. The grounds are somehow huge and intimate at the same time. The gym, known as the Yacht Club, is as luxurious as they come. And even though this place gets all the press, the staff is as warm and welcoming as can be, making every guest feel like an important one.
[Read more about Palm Springs’ hotels and resorts.]
There are several terrific Palm Springs restaurants to choose from when it’s time to pull up a chair and sate your appetite.
Start the day with a first-class latte at Koffi or a buttery biscuit aside the regulars at Bit O’Country. Hamburger Mary’s not only looks good, the burgers are the best. Thai Smile beckons in a cozy corner location close to all the great mid-century stores along North Palm Canyon. The iced tea is delicious and the fresh, stir-fried fare is one of the best buys in town. With a big menu and accommodating staff, it’s the perfect spot to take the kids. Across the street is Cheeky’s, the most popular newcomer in town—open only from 8 a.m to 2 p.m. The cinnamon rolls are memorable, as are the unique items such as the sweet potato, feta and tomato sandwich I just can’t stop reliving.
When it’s time for a cocktail with flair, try Citron at Viceroy Palm Springs. As yellow as a Meyer lemon, it’s right off the pool. The small, friendly bar makes excellent, icy drinks. Wander outside and put a toe in the water as you sip your drink under the palms and the moonlight.
As for the splurge meal, make it Johannes. This casually elegant spot is always a cut above. Lovingly-sourced ingredients, fine wine, a professional waitstaff and the chef/owner’s Austrian touch make it well worth the money.
[Read more in our Palm Springs restaurants article.]
Destinations: Palm Springs
Best time to go is January - March. New Bureau of Tourism website has great information on places to stay and things to do with interactive maps - www.visitpalmsprings.com
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