48 Hours in Palm Springs: The Ultimate Itinerary

Midcentury Mod house

Courtesy of Greater Palm Springs CVB

Palm Springs is a mood. It’s pool parties, palm trees, and pampering. It’s at once elegant and sultry and casual and sporty. It’s as much about the natural beauty of sun-kissed and star-dotted skies, towering mountains, sculptural Joshua Trees, and twilight’s purple glow as it is the artifice of manicured golf courses, fake lakes, and drag queens. There’s a reverence for history as seen in care taken to preserve the midcentury architecture, the native American culture, and the legends of the old Hollywood guard who made it their second home and spread the desert’s gospel near and far starting in the 1920s. But it’s also become known for youthful and edgy music and art festivals like Coachella, Desert X, and Stagecoach, and as one of the most LGBTQ-friendly places on earth. 

A perfect getaway here can include a little of all of that or almost none of it as some people are content to post up in a cabana with a cocktail and good book all weekend. Should you not fall into the bathing suit-or-bust group, let this itinerary be your guide to 48 hours of food, drink, culture, history, architecture, wellness, shopping, entertainment, and outdoor fun in the nine towns that make up the Greater Palm Springs vacation zone. (Besides the namesake, this includes Palm Desert, Desert Hot Springs, Indian Wells, La Quinta, Rancho Mirage, Cathedral City, Indio, and Coachella.)

01 of 07

Day 1: Afternoon

Miramonte Indian Wells Resort

Courtesy of Greater Palm Springs CVB​

3 p.m.: Whether you drove or flew, you probably could use a surge of sugar, and Coachella Valley weather is almost always pleasant enough for ice cream. Trek out to Shields Date Garden in Indio for date shakes and date-infused coffee. Coachella Valley growers provide 95 percent of dates in the U.S., so this pit stop doubles as a Greater Palm Springs point of interest. Enjoy your treat while watching "The Romance and Sex Life of the Date" instructional video or walking the orchards. Hadley Fruit Orchards also sells date shakes in Cabazon. There’s less educational value here, but it’s conveniently located off the same freeway exit as the kitschy roadside dinosaurs seen in "Pee Wee’s Big Adventure," the Morongo Casino, and the outlet mall.

Disinterested in dates? More conventional scoops and shakes can be found at Great Shakes, Kreem, which always has seasonal and vegan-friendly flavors in the case, and Ice Cream Shop(pe), conveniently located at the ARRIVE Hotel.

4:30 p.m.: Speaking of accommodations, check-in and squeeze in some pool time before dinner. There’s no shortage of places to stay, including intimate historic haunts like The Willows (Clark Gable and Albert Einstein were fans) or Korakia Pensione (created out of a 1918 abode, 1924 bungalow, and 1930s villa), design darlings (Parker, Sands Hotel), adults-only (Villa Royale, Holiday House), upcycled motels (The Saguaro, Ace Hotel & Swim Club), gay/clothing-optional (Triangle Inn, The Hacienda), and lux mega-resorts like La Quinta Resort and Club (41 pools and five golf courses). Your choice will depend on your aesthetic, budget, and trip purpose, but picking one with a premium pool is paramount, especially during summer’s triple-digit heat. Some are saltwater while others are on the roof (The Rowan). Some are a perpetual party with inflatables, ping-pong, non-guest day passes, or DJs. Some even boast on-site waterslides and lazy rivers like the Hyatt Regency Indian Wells Resort (brand new in 2020) and Omni Rancho Las Palmas. The Ritz-Carlton, Rancho Mirage’s cliff-top number provides panoramic views of the vast valley floor, especially dramatic at night. 

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02 of 07

Day 1: Evening

Bootlegger Tiki

Courtesy of Greater Palm Springs CVB​ 

7 p.m.: The steakhouse was the king of the culinary scene for decades and you can still find an updated surf-and-turf scenario across the valley at spots like Mr. Lyons, LG’s Prime, or Lord Fletcher’s. If you prefer more farm-to-table flair or crave global flavors, consider Workshop Kitchen + Bar, Mister Parker’s, Rooster and The Pig, Del Rey, Sandfish, Azúcar, or Roly China Fusion. You can't go wrong with a patio either.

9:30 p.m.: The Rat Pack forever linked Palm Springs and cocktail culture. Nostalgia and martinis reign at Melvyn’s, a Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe favorite. Tiki bars are another still thriving post-war hangover. The best tropical tipples can be found at Bootlegger Tiki (in the former home of Don the Beachcomber), Toucans, and downtown’s Tonga Hut. Specializing in wine and beer, Dead or Alive feels like a moody big city joint especially when live jazz is on tap. The Alibi combines craft cocktails, bands, and rotating food pop-ups in indoor and outdoor spaces. Elevate your spirits at rooftop venues 4 Saints and Sugar High.

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03 of 07

Day 2: Morning

PS Aerial Tramway

Courtesy of Greater Palm Springs CVB​ 

7:30 a.m.: Today’s packed so get up and get moving early. But first, breakfast. Most people are familiar with California's solid Mexican food reputation, but may not yet have been introduced to the cuisine’s marvelous morning offerings. At Chúla Artisan Eatery, chef Katherine Gonzalez puts heritage front and center using dishes her mom taught her as a child as reference points to craft bright renditions of huevos rancheros, tamales, turkey chorizo breakfast burritos, and chilaquiles with pulled pork, chicken, or grilled veggies. The vegan bowl benefits from a dollop of homemade salsa. If you find yourself in the mood for Mexican at some other time of day, Las Casuelas Terraza has been operated by four generations of Delgados since 1958.

8:30 a.m.: There’s one directive today—play outside. Greater Palm Springs is a desert surrounded by three towering mountain ranges, and it's lousy with sunshine for 269 days of the year. How you accomplish the above goal depends on your interests, fitness level, and travel companions. Families might opt to spend the day with the animals, some of which roam freely or can be fed by visitors at The Living Desert Zoo, whereas rock climbers could prefer bouldering in Joshua Tree National Park, and plant moms should stick to the cactarium at Moorten Botanical Garden. (The arboretum showcases desert flora from around the world.) Remember as heatstroke and dehydration are very real struggles, adjust start times based on the season and drink lots of water.

It’s a great place to take a hike with a variety of trails to chose from. Some of the most popular, including a trio collectively known as Indian Canyons, are operated by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians and contain ancient village sites and rock art. Official guides talk A.C.B. history and legends while leading you to the waterfall/swimming hole in Tahquitz Canyon. Ramble through a completely different climate zone, one that spends part of the year blanketed in snow by taking the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, the world’s largest rotating car, up 2.5 miles from the desert floor to the alpine wilderness of Mt. San Jacinto State Park (elevation 8,516 feet) where there are 50 miles of paths. Even if you aren’t interested in gallivanting through the forest, the journey is a breathtaking must-do. At the top, there are observation decks, restaurants, a natural history museum, and theaters.

Take a swing at more than 100 golf courses in the Greater Palm Springs region with some located mere minutes from their hotel room. A few to consider: the Stadium Course at PGA West (which includes the Alcatraz hole), Players Course at Indian Wells Golf Resort, or the Nicklaus-designed Escena Golf Club. Tennis and pickleball are other readily available sporting options.

If these require too much personal exertion, leave the heavy lifting to four-wheel drive and Red Jeep Tours. Hop aboard an open-air Scrambler to visit a palm oasis and slot canyons before coming face to face with a powerful mover and shaker, the San Andreas Fault. The company also offers tours of JTNP and Mecca Hills/Painted Canyon.

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04 of 07

Day 2: Afternoon

Desert Modernism

Courtesy of Greater Palm Springs CVB​ 

1 p.m.: Time to refill the tank at Chef Tanya’s Kitchen. Her vegan sammies, salads, and desserts like the Chupacabra Chick’n or carrot cake pack well so grab them before you head out on your adventure and find a beautiful bucolic spot to enjoy them or take them to go to your next stop.

2 p.m.: Palm Springs is the capital of midcentury modern architecture and even inspired its own offshoot, desert modernism. Many great examples by the school’s biggest names (i.e. Albert Frey, John Lautner, Richard Neutra, Donald Wexler, E. Stewart Williams, and William Krisel) are not only still standing but in great condition. Mod Squad offers a range of programs including an interiors tour and one focused on celebrity homes and haunts. Owner Kurt Cyr is a charmer and a fount of knowledge. Pick up a map from the visitors center (itself a prime example of the genre), rent bikes, and go at your own pace. Those truly bananas for brise-soleil, should visit during February's Modernism Week

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05 of 07

Day 2: Evening

Toucans Drag Revue

Courtesy of Toucans Tiki Lounge

6:30 p.m.: If it happens to be Wednesday or Saturday, join The Barn Kitchen’s intimate family-style alfresco suppers. (Reservations a must as guests of Sparrows Lodge get priority.) Mexico-born, Palm Springs-raised Chef Gabriel Woo combines French techniques and fresh ingredients from local purveyors to create a desert dine you won’t soon forget with dishes like date and orange salad with sunflower seeds and jalapeño citrus vinaigrette. 

8:30 p.m.: Palm Springs has a long, lively LGBTQ+ legacy and, as such, the nightlife is heavily weighted with drag shows. The aforementioned Toucans is home to the desert’s longest-running drag revue, Tommi Rose & The Playgirls, every Saturday and Sunday as well as an all-Latin installment on Mondays and fierce queens on Thursdays and Fridays. The club also features occasional comedy acts. Michael Holmes’ Purple Room pays homage to its Rat Pack roots and the swingin’ ‘60s with live entertainment and stiff drinks six nights a week. Most of the supper club’s programs, including its popular and hysterical Judy Garland parody on Sundays, start earlier and pair well with the steakhouse cuisine. Hunters hosts bingo, karaoke, and trivia nights before DJs let the beat drop and go-go boys and the crowd swarm the dance floor. Copa (Wednesdays through Saturdays) is a more Vegasesque club experience with bottle service, scantily clad ladies, and light shows. 

Or if you prefer a quiet night out, go stargazing in Joshua Tree National Park. Designated as a Dark Sky Park in 2017, there’s an annual festival in the fall, ranger programs at the Sky’s The Limit Observatory, or simply set up in a roadside pullout and look up. The Desert Institute offers courses on safe night hiking and photography as well as guided hikes and workshops on wildlife, geology, art, and music. 

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06 of 07

Day 3: Morning

Two Bunch Palms massage

Courtesy of Greater Palm Springs CVB​ 

9:30 a.m.: If you chose the turnt up option last night, sleep in before hightailing it to Cheeky’s to soak up the excess alcohol with five-flavored bacon flights, from-scratch cinnamon rolls, and prime rib fried rice with kimchi. Hair-of-the-dog types should order a Bloody Mary made with vegetable-infused vodka and stuffed with crudité. (So it’s healthy adjacent, right?) 

11 a.m.: Continue on your recovery journey with a spa day. Aloe vera body wraps soothe sunburnt skin and a date scrub, reflexology, and paraffin package revitalize sore feet at The Spa at Desert Springs. Estrella Spa has treatment rooms with fireplaces (divine in winter!) and features CBD-enhanced self-care.  If you’re open to healing that’s a little more woo-woo, Venus Healing Arts Center has a salt cave and chakra dancing. Let serenity wash over you at Crystal Fantasy during a meditative sound bath or a Reiki session. Hypnotherapy, angel readings, and mud baths are house specialties of Two Bunch Palms. Order lunch at the spa to extend your lounge session. If that isn’t a possibility, grab fancy comfort food at King’s Highway or Provencal fare at Farm.  

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07 of 07

Day 3: Afternoon

Thick As Thieves

Jeremy Smick/Thick As Thieves 

1 p.m.: Now onto retail therapy. You should never leave vacation empty-handed, but it’s especially true in this vintage shopping paradise where one can score a Halston dress, beaded caftan, old-school hi-fis, Tiki barware, Lucite chairs, and original globe lights at stores like The Frippery, Mitchells, Modernway, or The Fine Art of Design. Local designers like Trina Turk and Candice Held focus on vivacious resort wear and accessories. If you can only hit one neighborhood, the Uptown Design District provides the most bang for your buck with a nice mix of new and vintage, as well as gift stores and art galleries. But if you make efficient use of your time, go a few blocks away to downtown. Although more national chains appear here, there are still some excellent local shops including Thick As Thieves, which stocks the kind of fedoras, rock tees, jewelry, décor, and cactuses that make Coachella devotees’ hearts skip a beat. If the trip includes a Thursday evening, rejigger your itinerary to check out the civic center during Villagefest as shops stay open late and there’s pop-up booths, street food, and live entertainment. El Paseo in Palm Desert is nicknamed the Rodeo Drive of The Desert for its high-end haute couture. Nab name designers at a discount at Desert Hills Premium Outlets. You might stumble upon the next Banksy at the Backstreet Art District, a collection of artist studios.

If you find shopping tedious, sub it for a visit to Palm Springs Art Museum, a 12,000-object collection rooted in modern and contemporary art, or tour of the iconic windmills on the outskirts of town..

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