Panoramic View Of Houses And Mountains Against Sky

Palm Springs Guide: Planning Your Trip

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It’s not a mirage. Palm Springs—long the preferred desert retreat of Hollywood royalty, presidents, wellness seekers, golfers, and sun-worshippers—is a vacationer’s paradise whether your perfect trip checklist is topped by beautiful scenery, fine dining, historical and cultural attractions, unique architecture, luxuriant resorts or hip hotels, ideal weather, indulgent spas, shopping sprees, active pursuits, LGBTQ-friendliness, music festivals, or vibrant nightlife. 

Surrounded by three mountain ranges and a national park and blessed with more than 300 days of rays a year and clear twinkling night skies, Palm Springs, and the other eight cities that populate the Coachella Valley like Indian Wells, Rancho Mirage, and Desert Hot Springs, promise you will find your personal oasis here. This planning guide, with its tips on where to stay, when to go, and what to eat, drink, and do, should help sunlight the way.

Planning Your Trip

Best Time To Visit: The desert truly dazzles in winter. When much of the nation is facing months of rain, snow, and polar vortexes, daytime temperatures dip below 69 so infrequently that most residents probably don’t know what sleet is exactly. This means visitors can comfortably golf, hike, play tennis, shop in outdoor malls, and lounge by the pool even in the coldest month (December). Most of the valley’s significant events, including the film festival, Modernism Week, and PGA tournaments, are held before April when music fans rush in for Coachella and Stagecoach. Of course, prices are higher, and the crowds are more prominent during the high season between winter holidays and mid-Spring.

Language: English, but many residents speak Spanish, too.

Currency: U.S. Dollar 

Getting Around: Palm Springs proper is relatively compact and walkable with the only commercial airport less than three miles from downtown. If you don’t intend to explore the larger area or leave resort property from the time you arrive until it’s time to say goodbye, you can get by using taxis or rideshare apps. But if you want to adventure outside the city limits, rent a car. Sunline Transit Agency also operates busses around town, including The Buzz, which is a free trolley that loops through downtown and uptown along Palm and Indian Canyon roads from noon to 10 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays.

Travel Tip: As beautiful as it is, the desert is not be trifled with.  Dehydration is a serious issue, especially when the summer heat soars into triple digits. Even if you’re just lounging by the pool all day, drink plenty of water. Plan active outdoor activities early in the morning during summer. Some experts recommend skipping valley floor hiking trails all together in this season, but if you insist, they recommend each person carry at least 100 ounces of water in a bladder plus a full water bottle. Stock the car with more to drink upon return. Always tell someone where you’ve gone, never wander off-trail, and look out for venomous rattlesnakes. They’re most likely to be seen in May and June and should be given a wide berth. 

Modernism Week
 Courtesy of Greater Palm Springs CVB

Things To Do

The desert easily lends itself to dichotomous itineraries. Some folks turn up to solely tune out, spending hours at the pool, spa, or on a porch with a cocktail mesmerized by the purple glow of dusk. Others book their days end to end with activities that start with early morning tee times at one of more than 100 golf courses and finish with lost inhibitions and pulsating EDM beats at a nightclub within the deeply rooted and energetic LGBTQ scene. In between, they hop around off-roading, getting an up-close look at the iconic windmills, feeding animals at The Living Desert Zoo, taking a photography workshop, or star-gazing in Joshua Tree National Park, hitting a museum, birding at the Salton Sea, or visiting a date farm. However, you prefer to roll, consider these very Palm Springs pastimes: 

• It's the capital of midcentury modern architecture with the country's largest collection of still-standing preserved examples. Many were once owned or visited by movie stars or Rat Packers like Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Bob Hope, Peter Lawford, and Lucille Ball. Because the walls can't talk, book a tour with an outfit like Palm Springs Mod Squad to dig into the dirt. Some programs even take you inside mansions or come with cocktails. Maps for self-guided exploration on bike or foot are plentiful. Design devotion reaches a crescendo during February's Modernism Week

• The best way to take advantage of the great weather and the even greater outdoors setting is hiking. There are fantastic and diverse hikes for all fitness levels, including trails that wander past waterfalls, ancient Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indian sites, rock formations, and wildflower-dotted hillsides. You can even trek through snow by taking the Aerial Tramway (another must even if you only ride up and back for the views) up to the wooded wonderland of Mt. San Jacinto State Park, which sits at 8,516 feet above sea level. 

• There's top-notch vintage shopping in the Coachella Valley. Most boutiques are independently owned, so you can feel good about spending a small fortune on gauzy caftans, fedoras, and Lucite dining room sets. Uptown and downtown Palm Springs have the largest concentrations of stores, but serious hunters should continue to Perez Road in Cathedral City and The Fine Art Of Design in Palm Desert. 

Decide how to further fill your schedule by checking out the ultimate 48-hour itinerary and articles on the region's best museums, annual events, and festivals, and 10 fun day trips from Palm Springs.

Famous Coachella dates
Courtesy of Greater Palm Springs CVB 

Where To Eat and Drink

For decades, the destination was a stronghold of steakhouses and stiff drinks. While you can still feast on filets and get buzzed on bourbon and martinis at plenty of meat-forward joints and dark bars, the dining scene has evolved to reflect the diverse California population, the farm-to-table movement, and the fact that agriculture is the second-largest contributor to the local economy after tourism. Making good use of all that produce is the founder of the first national vegan chain (Native Foods) at her new venture, Chef Tanya's Kitchen, and James Beard Award winner Workshop Kitchen + Bar, who sources a majority of their ingredients from within an hour of their tables. One of the most commonly used ingredients on menus around town is dates. Date palms were planted here in the 1890s , and now the Coachella Valley grows 95 percent of U.S. dates. Several farms are open to the public for tours, sales, and samples (or even better date shakes) like Shields Date Garden and Oasis Date Garden. As this is the southern Golden State, the town goes big on brunch, never met a patio it didn't love, and Mexican food is always a good idea.

Lively day drinking scenes can be found at (and often in) resort pools all over the valley. Especially good are the party plunges at The Ace Hotel and Swim Club (so fun it's in the name!), La Quinta Resort's Veuve Clicquot-fueled Aprés Swim, and Saguaro (known for fresh fruit punches and frozen tipples). Once the sun goes down, the action moves to tiki bars (Bootlegger Tiki, The Reef, The Tonga Hut), jazzy cocktail lounges, the occasional brewery, and any number of gay bars, drag shows, and nightclubs like Hunters, Streetbar, and Eagle 501. Sometimes they check more than one box like Elixir at V (poolside and Polynesian) or Toucans (drag queens and hula themes). For a more exhaustive directory, check out the Gay Desert Guide.

See our picks for the area's 16 can't-miss restaurants

The Saguaro pool
Courtesy of Greater Palm Springs CVB 

Where To Stay

Lodging is the most challenging choice you'll have to make regarding this trip because the Greater Palm Springs region is truly blessed in the accommodations department. Available to book are modern desert dwellings formerly owned by celebrities, mega-resorts with golf courses, historic hotels, chic boutiques, hipster haunts, campsites, budget motels (and design-savvy overhauls of said motels), B&Bs, and charming inns. As almost all have good restaurants, sparkling pools, popular bars, and lush grounds, narrow the field by deciding what hotel style best suits you and what amenities are most important, whether it's a rooftop pool (Kimpton's The Rowan is the only one in town), ice cream shop (ARRIVE), natural hot springs (Two Bunch Palms, which runs entirely on solar power), a high-end spa (Parker), complimentary bikes and a library (Korakia Pensione), or a waterpark (newest one's at Hyatt Regency Indian Wells Resort).

Many of the best Palm Springs boutiques, updated historic properties, and home rentals are found in downtown, the Uptown Design District, and ritzy neighborhoods including Twin Palms, Tennis Club, Movie Colony, Indian Canyons, and Vista Las Palmas. Many of those will be a short walk or bike ride to restaurants, bars, shopping, and attractions. A growing number cater to over-21 travelers, including Les Cactus, L'Horizon, Sparrows Lodge, and Villa Royale.

As a general rule, the massive luxury resorts, many run by upmarket chains, are located in the surrounding cities like Indian Wells, Rancho Mirage, and Palm Desert. These are great for folks looking for a one-stop-shop stay or who are traveling with kids or large groups. 

Palm Springs also has the largest concentration of LGBTQ resorts in the Western United States, most of which are clothing optional and found in the heart of the community, the Arenas District. See our recommendations for gay-friendly stays and romantic hotels.

Getting There

How best to arrive in Palm Springs depends on where you’re coming from.  Many people drive from other parts of Southern California, Las Vegas, or Arizona. If you’re coming from farther away, a plane might be a better option, in which case you will find yourself at the Palm Springs International Airport (PSP). The mostly outdoor, architecturally-significant (of course it is!) airport is served by 11 airlines, including Delta, American, Air Canada, and Frontier, providing nonstop flights to and from 23 cities in the U.S. and Canada (hence the international designation!). Amtrak has bus service to Palm Springs from train stations in Fullerton and Los Angeles. More transportation information can be found in this guide to PSP.

Coachella music festival
Courtesy of Greater Palm Springs CVB 

Money-Saving Tips

• To say summer in these parts is scorching would be an understatement as 100-degree-plus days are the norm in June, July, August, and September. Therefore it has always been the slow season. But if you can stomach the heat, or are someone who thrives in it, you can cash in on big hotel deals or easily score prime rentals and timeshare slots. Word of warning: if you have your heart set on visiting a particular restaurant, bar, or shop, call ahead as quite a few businesses take extended breaks in July or August.

• If you aren’t attending one of the music festivals, avoid those weekends if you can. They mark the most crowded and expensive time of the year to visit the entire Coachella Valley (as well as the rest of the Morongo Basin where Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms are located). Even budget motels ask several hundreds of dollars a night. Traffic ratchets up, and lines are long. If you are a ticket holder, secure accommodations ASAP.

• Designer duds from more than 150 name brands, including Prada, Alexander McQueen, and Gucci, can be found at a discount at the Desert Hills Premium Outlets in Cabazon. If you drove, it’s an easy detour on your way into or out of town. 

• Check attraction websites to see if there are weekly or monthly free days or discounts for active-duty military, seniors, or AAA members. For instance, the Palm Springs Art Museum is free every Thursday night from 4 to 8 p.m. and every second Sunday of the month. It also provides complimentary admission for children under 18 and active-duty military and their families as well as discounted tickets for people 62 and older, college students, and teachers. If art isn’t your cup of tea, browse this Greater Palm Springs CVB-compiled list of other activities that won’t cost a penny, including polo matches in Indio, scenic drives, and live music at Agua Caliente Casino and Fantasy Springs Resort Casino.

Article Sources
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  1. Greater Palm Springs CVB. "Weather In Greater Palm Springs."

  2. Visit Palm Springs."Mid-Century Modern And Architecture." 2019.

  3. Growing Coachella Valley. "Key Industries." 2020.

  4. American Society for Horticultural Science. "The Commercial Date Industry in the United States and Mexico." November 2016.

  5. University of California, Riverside Today. "Date Industry, National Date Festival Subject of Dissertation." January 2012.