Just because most people fill their Palm Springs agenda with rejuvenating leisure activities like lounging poolside, playing golf, communing with nature, or hitting happy hours doesn’t mean you can’t learn a thing or two while on your desert vacation. Whether you prefer museums of the art, historic, or cultural variety, Palm Springs and neighboring cities like Rancho Mirage and Palm Desert offer plenty of options to engage your brain, wow your senses, and widen your horizons.
Focusing primarily on modern and contemporary art, the galleries here are curated from a collection of 3,000 sculptures, paintings, and prints; 2,000 fine art photographs; and 40,000 negatives and other photo-based objects with contributions from Diane Arbus, Alexander Calder, and Zhan Wang. The art museum also features a large number of Native American pieces (Cara Romero, Rick Bartow), Californian artists (plein air movement, Mark Bradford), and works by North American artists and photographers exploring western themes. Admission is free on Thursdays; children under 18 and active-duty military and their families are always welcome at no charge. An auxiliary arm of the museum is located in Palm Desert and features an estimable sculpture garden.
This offshoot of the previously mentioned art museum features a collection of models, furniture, architectural drawings, textiles, photographs, and the actual Albert Frey House II. Originally the Santa Fe Federal Savings and Loan, the 1961 structure is an example of classic midcentury international style by E. Stewart Williams. (He’s also responsible for the art museum’s building.) It’s a great supplement to taking a design tour with an outfit like the Palm Springs Mod Squad to look at the area’s many mid-century modern masterpieces in person.
Envisioned as a West Coast Camp David by ambassadors/philanthropists Walter and Leonore Annenberg, this magnificent Rancho Mirage estate features their 25,000-square-foot mid-century residence, manicured gardens, and a nine-hole golf course. Since it was completed in 1966, Sunnylands has welcomed eight sitting U.S. presidents as well as numerous world leaders, celebrities, CEOs, charities, task forces, and artists. Nixon hid out there after being pardoned for Watergate in 1974, Frank Sinatra married there in 1976, and Queen Elizabeth II stopped by in 1983. Several types of tours are available, including one that focuses on the house design and history and another one for birders. The foundation also hosts guided walks, yoga, family activities, and other free public events throughout the year.
Agua Caliente Cultural Center
Set to open in 2021, this 5.8-acre complex—designed to mimic the baskets and pottery they traditionally produced—celebrates the history, culture, and modern life of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians with a museum, gathering plaza, gardens, and the Oasis Trail. The site is home to the mineral hot springs that inspired the tribe’s name; there will be a state-of-the-art spa and bathhouse that utilizes its healing and restorative powers.
During World War II the area was home to a major Air Force base, so it's only natural that there’s an excellent aviation museum here. Their holdings include more flyable WWII aircraft than any other museum in the world—flyable as in you can book a seat in several vintage warbirds like a P-51D Mustang or a C-47 Skytrain and take to the sky with a trained pilot or veteran. Also found in the massive hangers are planes from the Korean and Vietnam Wars, more current jets like a Phantom and a Tomcat, an extensive library, models of warships, dioramas, military vehicles, weapons, and uniforms from the eras.
Artist, collector, adventurer, builder, entrepreneur, and one of the founders of Desert Hot Springs, Cabot Yerxa homesteaded 160 Coachella Valley acres in 1913. From 1941 until his death in 1965, he built a 5,000-square-foot Hopi-inspired pueblo using only reclaimed and found materials. The plan was to live there and use it as a museum to display his giant collection of Native American art and artifacts as well as souvenirs from his world travels. The 35 rooms are just as he left it, with every nook and cranny filled with odds and ends. Appealing to architecture and design buffs, notice the peculiar choice for a living room floor while on a guided tour.
Located in the Village Green Heritage Center, Ruddy’s recreates a 1930s general store. Its shelves are packed with 6,000 genuine, unused items like sarsaparilla, Father John’s Medicine, Uneeda biscuits, and penny candy guaranteed to send older visitors down memory lane. (Paying less than a dollar for admission also feels nostalgic.)
Afterwards, visit the 1884 McCallum adobe (now the Palm Spring Historical Society), the oldest building still standing in Palm Springs, and Miss Cornelia White’s house. Made with railroad ties from the defunct Palmdale line, it contains the town’s first telephone.
This nascent Cathedral City outfit has gathered 375 professionally-made replicas of artifacts and fossils to create a small-scale world antiquities and natural history museum—the only one of its kind in the desert. Organized into five distinct vignettes, the treasures of the past include King Tutankhamun’s golden chariot and other tomb trinkets (the originals are in permanent residence in Cairo’s Grand Egyptian Museum), dinosaur bones, a cast of the 3.2 million-years-old "Lucy" skeleton, Grecian urns, and African masks.
Coachella Valley History Museum
This historical campus in Indio includes a 1926 adobe with exhibits covering topics like the Desert Cahuilla People and the railroad. Here you'll find vintage farming equipment, a 1909 Indio schoolhouse, a hall showcasing local artists, a blacksmith shop, a 1921 water tower, and gardens featuring native plants and flora introduced to the desert. It's also home to the world’s only date museum, where visitors can learn about one of civilization’s oldest (and the valley’s most abundant) cultivated crops. An extensive archive houses more than 100 years of area newspapers, magazines, photos, and business licenses.
Established in 1970 and covering 1,200 acres, the Palm Desert zoo and botanical gardens strive to preserve, conserve, educate, and foster appreciation for the flora and fauna found in the globe’s deserts. Among the almost 400-species-large menagerie are local inhabitants like bighorn sheep, gray foxes, queen butterflies, and chuckwallas—many of which come and go as they please. You'll also see more exotic animals like giraffes (which can be fed for an extra charge), zebras, African dogs, and wallabies and echidnas. Watching operations at the veterinary hospital is a highlight as are the hiking trails.