Palm Springs is half of what you heard, and double how fun you think it might be.
It’s half true that in terms of architecture and design, not much has changed since Sammy Davis Jr, Steve McQueen, Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe were bopping around, but that’s all part of the iconic charm. But what you’ve heard about it being just a sleepy old place in the desert for retired folks is long gone and totally untrue.
It’s a booming hideout for everyone from A-list celebs to sun starved travelers looking for glorious, bountiful outdoors and it’s got the food and attractions to match now. Even the city benches have been purposefully graffiti’d by local artists.
Here’s your ultimate guide to 48 perfect hours in this desert oasis known as Palm Springs, with tips for more, if you can swing it. I just did a month there and could easily have stayed forever.
Getting To Palm Springs: Flights, Cars
Palm Springs proper is a relatively small city and from any locale you’re only a few minutes from the airport. But, flights can often be considerably more expensive into Palm Springs than nearby airports in Southern California.
Travelers venturing into the city of Palm Springs are best served by comparing prices into Los Angeles (LAX), San Diego (SAN), Orange County (SNA) and Palm Springs (PSP), and weighing up prices of picking up a rental car and driving from one of these locales.
The drive from San Diego or Los Angeles to Palm Springs is around 2 hours of largely easy highway driving, so factoring in flight prices and rental car prices can shift a travel budget considerably. If you’re not on a budget, the convenience of Palm Springs Intl is too good to pass up, and puts you minutes from downtown. It’s only a 35 minute walk!
Hot tip: Uber drivers play games to jack up prices in Palm Springs, so just be aware of that before you arrive, and pad arrival time at the airport a bit.
Palm Springs Neighborhoods And Where To Stay
Palm Springs offers a variety of little enclaves and neighborhoods within walking distance of the downtown Palm Springs strip which focuses around Palm Canyon Dr.
Palm Canyon Drive goes from North to South, and the simplest way to explain it is that the further South you go, the more chain hotels and big brand restaurants you’ll find, and the further north you venture, the more ‘European’ feel, unique boutiques, cafes and upscale dining offerings you’ll encounter. There are exceptions, of course.
If you’re coming to Palm Springs for seclusion, there’s plenty of choice as to “how” to make that dream a reality, and that includes the type of lodging too. Airbnb, VRBO and other sharing economy style stays can bring superb value, offering private pools, outdoor areas and multiple bedrooms for the same price as many resorts.
Hot tip: homeowners typically don’t need to pay tax on monthly rentals, but do on short term rentals, so staying a long time can save you considerably more than 2-3 week stays.
Focusing on neighborhoods such as Movie Colony, Old Las Palmas or Racquet Club will put you in great areas. GSTP pick: Movie Colony. This area is just a few blocks off Palm Canyon with superbly designed houses, classic Palm Springs vibes and gorgeous views and an easy walk to the best shops and restaurants. It”ll give you a sense of place – and relaxation of the greatest magnitude.
Many of the chain hotels are found on the Southern part of Palm Canyon Drive, and this includes options like the Renaissance, Viceroy, Kimpton Rowan and Hyatt. These locations all put guests within walking distance of Palm Canyon Drive, where most of the food, shopping and drinking is found.
Don’t be afraid to look into smaller more boutique options, particularly if you’re trying to limit social contact with others right now. Smaller boutique hotels are what the Palm Springs charm was built on, and there are cute options tucked throughout the streets, including the Saguaro, The Ace, Triada, Colony and Alcazar.
But First, Coffee
No trip can start without good coffee, and Palm Springs is experiencing a stunning exodus of Angelenos flocking to this less crowded desert paradise, where the best of city life is following. And yeah, the weather is very hard to leave. That means hip third wave coffee is everywhere in the city now. If you like the good stuff, that’s good news.
La Jefa provides a wonderful outdoor space to enjoy your curated caffeine, while Cartel and Ernest duke it out with the most refined. Expect well brewed, well roasted
Palm Springs Best Dining Spots: Brunch, Lunch & Dinner
Palm Springs is striking an amazing balance for travelers right now, with incredible options to dine in, and just about all the best also doing takeout and delivery. It’s fair to say sometimes the only thing better than a delicious restaurant meal is enjoying it by the pool at home.
Palm Springs has at least 10 restaurants which should win a seal of approval from any food critic, each with their own unique twist or angle on American classics, or regional mastery from the far reaches of the globe. Here’s a few worth prioritizing…
Birba: “Real” Italian food done right. I say real, because it’s seasonal and the menu champions top quality produce. New Yorkers could compare it to the Barbuto of old and Angelenos could compare it to Jon & Vinny’s. It’s fun, and inventive with great atmosphere and also available for takeout.
Roly: This is Chinese and Asian fusion, but without the trappings or failures of many spots which attempt “fusion”. The ambiance is lovely indoors or outside by the pool, each dish is made from the best seasonal ingredients, and as a frequent explorer of Asia, rather authentically spiced. It’s reasonably priced and a great comfort meal.
Cheeky’s: A lunch time go-to in town, with al fresco dining and excellent variation on the menu. You’ll find inspired menu items from around the world, like a superb Asian chicken salad to zucchini fritters right out of a Greek taverna, with things like Bacon flights (yes, that’s a thing) and great sandwiches too.
El Jefe: How can you talk California without real, homemade masa corn tacos or guacamole? There’s plenty of mass appeal margarita and fajita dens in town, but EJ Jefe at the Saguaro is ingredient forward, with superb Mexican food. Meat eaters will love the al pastor or short rib, and veggies can adore the roasted sweet potato with herbs and aioli. The guac is also a-list.
Rooster & The Pig: Southeast Asian food is often simply represented by Thailand in America, but Rooster And The Pig changes that, a bit. It’s more Vietnamese than Thai, but draws on authentic dishes from around the area. Everything packs the flavor, heat and aroma of the genuine article and this hole in the wall is an absolutely ideal takeout meal. It gets busy, so order ahead!
Eight4Nine: This is a fun, slightly scene’y go to for new American staples done well and some creative international twists too. Lunch or dinner, the outdoor seating area is a dream. Whether it’s the roasted cauliflower steak with puree or the actual carne tacos, the food is great and the atmosphere will make you happy you came.
Sandfish: Quality sushi with a more traditional focus than others, even if there’s a selection of specialty rolls. The rolls are great, the rotating nigiri specials are very good, but it’s actually the Brussel sprouts which are most mind blowing.
Jake’s: The simple classics with a little twist done right, with a lively patio and fun buzz about the place. The margaritas are huge (and good), the sandwiches are inventive and the staff is nice. Think BLT with basil and tarragon aioli type stuff. The weekend brunch sees an expanded menu with incredibly good pastries.
Monsoon: Think: Indian food you know and love, some you don’t, and all done well. This predominantly North Indian spot has all the good chicken tikka masala, but also lovely daal makhani and Indochina inspired bites. The cauliflower is like crack. You can’t go wrong here, if you’re feeling some Indian food.
Shopping In Palm Springs
With more and more (often) young city people moving out to the Palm Springs area permanently, the shopping is on a serious high, not just the dispensaries in the area.
New boutiques and small designers are opening up shop and there’s just a lot to love from on trend ‘tie dye’ hoodies made from organic cotton to hand poured candles and Scandinavian homeware options. GSTP fell in love with a few unique shops in town.
First, the ultra chic The Shops at 1345, which brings together a series of small boutiques and galleries into a highly enjoyable little market. You can browse from designer to designer, with all things ranging from throw pillows to jewelry and high brow loungewear.
Second, Windmill City. This is a shop trying to champion regionally made products from designers and producers in the area. It’s a great spot to find heavenly Joshua Tree Candle Co candles, limited run clothes, totes and postcards. The people are lovely too.
If you’re trying to bring some Palm Springs inspiration home, or rather into your home, Pelago is a must visit. It’s a star among the many inspired homeware and design shops in town, and home to prints from the artist Michael Murphy, who champions aviation and retro Palm Springs in his work.
Just wander North Palm Canyon Drive and the shops, little art galleries and great coffee spots will come at you. You might even miss them if you blink. And if it all seems a bit much, pull off into the gorgeous hidden courtyards just off the main strip, like the one tucked between Alejo and Chino, near the mountains off Palm Canyon.
Things To Do In Palm Springs
You’ve already got your food, drinking and shopping, so what else is there in life? Just kidding, of course. Palm Springs proper has hiking, tennis, golf and enviable outdoor lifestyle at every turn, and a variety of things not too far away, either.
If it’s hot, the Palm Springs Art Museum is wonderful, with a rotating cast of excellent exhibitions. The city’s ‘modernist week’ is always worth the trip.
Ruth Hardy Park is the perfect place for families to entertain kids, or friends to play some tennis, within walking distance of most places to stay. Hikes are plentiful and are an amazing way to see just how much of a valley the city of Palm Springs is in.
On the family travel note, The Living Desert is a world class zoo and gardens, just some 20 minutes away near Palm Desert. It’s open and worth the trip, kids or sans. Look out for the giraffes, which enjoy a huge area where photos could fool friends into thinking you’ve gone to Kenya.
If you’re in town in a normal year, nearby Indian Wells is the home of a huge ATP Tour tennis tournament featuring all the top names and takes place in mid March. It’s all scheduled to return next year in 2022.
DesertX is an awesome art initiative bringing installations all throughout Palm Springs and the valley, with moving exhibitions set against nature. This is an attraction which will trend upwards now and in the future, so if you know, you know.
Palm Springs is about relaxing though, so don’t feel bad if you just sit by the pool tanning, or snap some photos while walking through Movie Colony, or any of the old neighborhoods with classic homes.
Day Trip: Joshua Tree Excursion
If you’re not in the region often, a trip to Joshua Tree really is a must. It’s easy, and under an hour to reach from the Palm Springs area. The Joshua Tree National Park is easily accessible by car if you’re traveling on your own and simple ‘quick snap’ trips would do fine without a guide.
Getting a guide is awesome though, and opens up so many more possibilities, like late night astronomy with huge telescopes and more. An adventure with the Joshua Tree Excursions team is highly recommended, even if it ain’t cheap! There’s nothing like a desert sunset.
Hot tip: it gets colder at night than you could imagine. Even Bostonians and those coming from the worst winter weather areas will want to heed the warning, if you plan to stay out past sunset!
Palm Springs Is The Place Right Now
In the times we’re living through, it’s hard to think of a better destination for outdoor enjoyment, social distancing and vibrant lively features than Palm Springs. With more city folk giving up the hustle and bustle for the seclusion offered, the curated elements will only continue to improve, and that means the reasons to visit will too.