Looking for the best things to do in Palm Springs CA? Then you’ve come to the right place!
What conjures endless sunshine, the ubiquitous Southern California palm tree, mid-century modern architecture, and Hollywood stars, all set against the backdrop of vivid arid mountains jutting steeply into the sky from the desert floor? And mountains that provide a made-for-pictures backdrop?
Palm Springs, with its fabulously sunny and temperate climate, got its modern start as a huge destination for tennis and swimming in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. Old Hollywood stars flocked here to escape the prying eyes of the Studios. In 1954 President Dwight Eisenhower arrived for a week in the desert, bringing with him a passion for golf that spawned a lasting boom in golf resorts.
The Rat Pack famously frequented the city’s nightclubs in the 1960s, and nowadays you may spy Leo DiCaprio, whose lavish home at 432 Hermosa Place is available to rent.
Palm Springs—that’s PS for shorthand—is one of the most gay-friendly destinations in the United States. The city council became the nation’s first all-LGBTQ governing body in 2017.
Before the brand PS sprang to life, the Coachella Valley in which Palm Springs sits had been, and still is, the ancestral lands of the Agua Caliente Band of the Cahuilla Indians. When the Agua Caliente Reservation was established in 1876, the federal government gave the land in Palm Springs out in checkerboard parcels to the tribe and to the railroad, with even numbered parcels going to the tribe and odd-numbered lots going to the railroad.
Today, there’s a lot more than just streets named after them. The Agua Caliente Band works in partnership with the city government on administrative matters, and they jointly host the Palm Springs International Film Festival. The tribe is present and active, owning hotels, casinos, and spas, giving charitably, and operating Indian Canyons and the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum.
In the Greater Palm Springs area, you’ll have outdoor adventures, art galleries, museums, cafes, vintage shops, and all kinds of shopping at your fingertips. Bars and restaurants abound, and glam is everywhere. You’ll find that the central town is remarkably small and easy to get around by foot or by bike, and the city is incredibly dog-friendly!
There is plenty of nightlife to excite your senses and get your groove on. The cool crowd heads for the poolside bars with live DJs, perhaps to rendezvous at the fabulous High Bar at the Rowan Palm Springs, Toucan’s, or Shanghai Reds. On Thursday evenings check out bands and booths at VillageFest, a weekly street fair along Palm Canyon Drive.
Palm Springs’s attractions are so plentiful, more than I could possibly cover, so here are just seven of my favorite “must-try” things to do in Palm Springs CA.
Table of Contents
The 7 Best Things To Do In Palm Springs CA
Palm Springs Activities
1800 E Palm Canyon Dr // +1-651-342-0777
Dive into your Palm Springs visit with a fun and information-packed tour with Palm Springs Mod Squad. Founder and local celeb Kurt Cyr offers architectural and design tours of some of the city’s most beautiful and interesting mid-century modern architecture, including the homes of iconic 1960s Hollywood stars, like Frank Sinatra. Drawing upon his deep expertise and love for Palm Springs, Kurt’s tours are filled with fun facts, trivia, and humor.
The Essential Palm Springs Tour introduces you to the six local architects most responsible for shaping the Palm Springs modernist look—all of them lived and worked here. A quick lesson breaks down a few of the basic Southern California modern architecture elements that interplay with light and shadow—the cantilever, the brise soleil, and the pattern brick. You’ll learn the function of each feature and start to notice their prevalence throughout the city. It’s one of the things to do in Palm Springs CA that will leave you in awe.
The Movie Colony is a swank area that sprung up back in the initial 1920s Hollywood heyday. Actors were bound by their studio contracts to stay within 100 miles of work, and Palm Springs, lying an enticing 99 miles away, become their haven away from home.
Another aspect of Palm Springs architecture is the abundance of unique small boutique hotels of exceptional architecture. There’s a cool selection of apartment-style motels designed by Herbert Burns: the 400, the 500 West, and the Orbit Inn to name a few. And Kurt knows everyone, so you’re sure to get a taste of some of the most stylish examples.
1 Tram Way // +1-888-515-8726
Take the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, it’s one of the most fun things to do in Palm Springs! It’s a fantastic way to spend a day and there’s a whole world up top that couldn’t be more different from the desert floor. Be warned that temperatures are typically 30-40 degrees Fahrenheit cooler at the top. Dress accordingly, and that includes your footwear.
The tram ride will take your breath away at certain points as one of the world’s largest tram cars glides what feels like straight up 2.5 miles between the jagged canyon peaks to Mount San Jacinto. Windows open on the top half so that you can peer out as the tram car slowly spins around a full 360 degrees. Gnarled trees cling tenaciously to their precarious perches on the canyon walls, while the Coachella Valley spreads out wide to the west.
Mt. San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness opens up around you once you arrive at the top.
You can hike along trails of varying degrees of challenge—meander among granite peaks through mountaintop meadows and conifer forest. Be sure to get your day-hike permit at the Long Valley Rangers’ Station. Wildflowers burst forth in spring while the cross-country skiing is apparently spectacular during the wintertime.
There are two distinct food options to take care of that noisy growl in your belly. Pine’s Café has cafeteria-style eating with a selection of sandwiches, salads, soups, and snacks. At 4:30 pm they offer a yummy salad and entree menu for their Ride & Dine special.
Fine dining at the newly renovated Peaks Restaurant is an adventure unto itself with a stunning vintage look that boasts dramatic floor-to-ceiling windows with panoramic views of the valley below. Lounge in the sky in a setting that draws directly from its natural surroundings—gnarled pines and big boulders mingle with meticulous wooden floors and stylish lampshades. Their beef carpaccio is to die for, razor-thin slices with shaved fennel, parmesan, and truffle oil.
CA-111 // +1-760-341-7323
The Rancho Mirage Library & Observatory is a truly revelatory experience and one of the best things to do in Palm Springs CA. Opened in 2018, this research-level facility features a powerful, ultra-sexy PlaneWave CDK 700 telescope designed for superior astrophotography, research, and visual observing.
City Astronomer Eric McLoughlin (yes, that’s a real job!) expertly helms the Observatory. His passion for the stars is contagious as he skillfully introduces laypeople to the wonders that surround us, gazing at celestial bodies that lie hundreds and thousands of light-years away.
We started on the outer deck peering at the night sky through telescopes with up to 100 times magnification. The desert sky with its low level of light pollution proved an excellent location for stargazing. Eric led us into the Dome that houses the CDK 700 telescope.
A great panel eased open to the night sky, and we oohed and aahed at Saturn and met M13 and M7, relics of galactic formation light-years away that came into existence some 11 billion years ago. Long-time docent Ron Treat accompanied Eric throughout the evening. He’s an amateur astronomer in his own right, and they play each off masterfully.
Closing the dome, Eric had one more surprise in store for us— their Integrated Space Theater system, which simulates the night sky with a view from where you’re standing. We stood mesmerized as the moon swung into sight, so close up that we could see the pockmarked surface and the Sea of Tranquility where Apollo landed.
Then came Saturn, magnified so that its rings looked like grooves on a vinyl record. The evening tour ended with a whirling show of stars and captivating night shots that rivaled the most splendid of fireworks. This is definitely always on my list of top things to do in Palm Springs when I am around!
Palm Springs Attractions
401 E Tahquitz Canyon Way // +1-760-325-1199
At some point during your trip treat yourself to Sherman’s Deli and Bakers, an old-school Kosher New York style-deli that does everything right. It’s open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Not your typical activity on the things to do in Palm Springs CA list but still worth it.
Their dessert case is pure food art. Everything is made fresh onsite daily—cakes, pies, cheesecakes, pastries, and other specialty items. Luscious layer cakes abound, and the German Chocolate is epic, with its thick topping of toasted coconut and pecan custard.
Freshly grated Potato Latkes are made the old-fashioned way. Soft and moist on the inside, crispy on the outside, they’re served with sides of apple sauce or sour cream. Sherman’s bagels live up to their New York reputation, with generous servings of lox and other fixings.
And there’s a reason they call it their “Famous Sandwich Board.” You can get lost in the list and be sure you’re hungry (or plan to take ½ home with you). The Hot Pastrami with Swiss Cheese will do you right every time, a perfect specimen of the classic. May I also recommend the Cold Beet Borscht, which is straight out of the Old Country.
Sherman’s Deli and Bakery is a slice of Yiddish culinary heaven that hews straight to old recipes that are tried and true.
Tahquitz Canyon & The Indian Canyons
500 West Mesquite Avenue // +1-760-416-7044
The ancestral land of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, Tahquitz Canyon & the Indian Canyons are a special place filled with natural beauty, where ancient rock art, house pits, and other sacred relics exist. The Cahuilla people have thrived in the area for thousands of years now and lands on their reservation are graciously open to visitors.
The highlight of the Tahquitz Canyon hike is a 60-foot waterfall that’s spectacular during the wet season. The rush of the water is a refreshing contrast to parched desert surroundings.
It’s a moderate-level round-trip that is good exercise and takes you along a trail of rocky path that also contains higher stone steps to climb. Do watch your step on this hike as uneven stones can make it easy to lose your footing. The picturesque trail winds through the steep granite canyon, crisscrossing over a creek several times.
If you’re lucky, you may see a group of Big-horned Sheep cross your path! They’re quite something to watch as they sure-footedly scamper their way up the craggy canyon walls. Definitely one of the most exciting activity amongst the things to do in Palm Springs CA.
Tahquitz Canyon Visitor’s Center is worth a stop with its observation deck, displays of artifacts from the canyons, and cultural exhibits meant to increase understanding of Cahuilla history and culture. A larger, comprehensive Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza complex and world-class Museum are coming soon. It’s an impressive endeavor.
1700 S Camino Real Suite #2 // +1-760-636-8442
PS Underground is a one-of-kind supper club offering an over-the-top culinary theater experience that will leave you raving about your evening. They have a new show every week along with a periodic brunch. Tickets sell out fast, so jump on them. Definitely deserves a title as one of the best things to do in Palm Springs CA.
Top-notch food and drink flow freely throughout the show. From the moment you walk in the door waiters circulate, ensuring your cup and plate floweth over. I was there for Beatnik, a retro show featuring a talented acting troupe where we donned our berets and black turtlenecks for a laid-back evening of music, poetry, food, and wine in a counterculture celebration of cool.
The hip sounds of sax, bongo, and keyboard kept us snapping along to the beat as the stage evoked a 1950s living room replete with a long white shag rug, colorful pillows, and a vintage radio atop a mid-century modern coffee table. The actors were cool, man, and we listened mesmerized as Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” wove in an apropos moment of modern words.
The food was plentiful. Scrumptious cheesy vegetable fondues were the starter, followed by cups of Italian antipasto. There were more nods to the 1950s with a Chicken Divan and a tantalizingly light Ambrosia Salad for dessert.
Every dish was excellent, led by their executive chef who designs a bespoke seasonal locally sourced menu tailored to each show.
I can attest that the room buzzed with energy all evening long. The contributions of the actors, the chefs, the audience, the servers, and the bartenders meld together in a magical interplay.
PS Underground is a creative venue that consistently knows how to throw a stellar party in a supper club format. You don’t want to miss it.
Another Palm Springs unique characteristic is their special collection of Palm Springs Preferred Small Hotels. These boutique hotels, many of them architecturally significant, offer an experience that you won’t find at chain hotels or home rentals. They’re an essential part of this desert resort town’s creative local character and economy. Some are clothing optional, many are dog-friendly, and they run the gamut from quirky to luxury. Not your typical thing to do but worth a mention in my best things to do in Palm Springs CA.
Inn at Palm Springs feels like a little oasis set right up against the jagged San Jacinto Mountain backdrop. It’s funky, bohemian spot filled with all kinds of accents and details dotting the grounds. Ideal for travelers wanting a casual, laid-back vibe at a modest price, it lies between Little Tuscany and the Uptown Design District at the north end of town.
The small grounds are filled with green touches and a 24-hour pool with a deck painted with whimsical dots and a nice BBQ grill that’s available to use.
Owners Sam and Paul live onsite and will welcome you and your four-legged friends warmly. The Inn would be a fantastic spot to rent out for a friend’s or family reunion, the setup is pretty perfect for that kind of private event. Check out their website for more details and specials, like their “spend five nights and your doggie stays free.”
Billed as “A Hip Desert Hideaway with Old Hollywood Heritage,” I was smitten with the adults-only Villa Royale at first sight. This stylish Mission Revival-style hotel emanates a terrific vibe and is tucked away in a cul-de-sac off the main road. You’ll be greeted at check-in with a beer, cocktail, or a tasty shot of tequila.
Rooms are decorated with Portuguese tiled walls, original commissioned artworks, and mid-century modern furniture; the bedding is plush and suites enjoy gorgeous fireplaces. In a swish touch each dry bar comes fully stocked with top-shelf liquor, think Herradura Tequila. Sit back and relax in a private cabana at one of three pools. Dogs are welcome too.
Be sure to visit Del Rey, their delectable onsite Spanish tapas-style bar and restaurant, where guests are given priority.
That’s all folks, this is the list of the best things to do in Palm Springs CA. Hope you enjoyed it!
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Which of these best things to do in Palm Springs will you try first? Let us know in the comments section below!
Tonya Hennessey is a freelance writer and non-profit professional who resides in the San Francisco Bay Area, and grew up in the Minneapolis, Minnesota metro area. Early travels awakened her astonishment at the world’s varied cultures, landscapes, and, of course, food. She’s now marrying a passion for travel with love of the written word. Food tops the list of Tonya’s writing interests, with cultural and sustainable travel right behind. Learn more about her work on Instagram and her website.