We were in Palm Springs in late October 2022, as part of Big Trip #4.
The main reason we wanted to go to Palm Springs as we headed east from Oceanside on the coast was for its signature Desert Modern architecture–the local spin on mid-century modern, adapted for a sunny, leisurely lifestyle. J also wanted to explore some loose family ties to the area: his grandfather retired to nearby Palm Desert, and his uncle is a long-time annual visitor. But mostly, we wanted to ogle the houses.
Palm Springs has more mid-century modern houses per square mile than anywhere in the US. The style here is distinctive for clean lines, flat roofs, carports, and large windows and sliding doors for blending indoor and outdoor living. It’s quirky and fun and we love it.
Some fun facts about Palm Springs: Palm Springs is part of the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation, and if you buy real estate there, you’re actually leasing the underlying land from the tribe. Palm Springs was the go-to desert destination of Hollywood stars before Vegas became big, as the studio execs supposedly had a rule that their stars must stay within two hours of LA. And the population of Palm Springs triples between November and March, due to snowbirds.
We stayed at Happy Traveler RV Park, a not-short walk (but a walk!) to downtown Palm Springs. It’s a nice campground, with very private campsites, but it’s crowded and the road through the park is very narrow. Once we made it into our spot–a tricky feat working around the tight angles and neighbors’ cars–we were very happy with our temporary home and enjoyed spending time in our yard.
It seemed that many campground residents were long-term, and the park has all the amenities to support them, including laundry and a pool. We didn’t use the pool, but it seemed to be a happening hangout spot, and as befits a snowbird destination, kids are only allowed at Happy Traveler during the summer season.
We did lots of walking in Palm Springs: we walked from the campground into town, we walked around a few neighborhoods to check out the architecture, and we hiked in the mountains. It’s a great walking town, at least in the winter, when the weather is nice.
Our first adventure was walking downtown from the campground. It’s about a twenty-minute walk to the southern end of the downtown strip on South Palm Canyon Drive, and we walked probably another twenty minutes north past cute shops and got a taste of some exciting architecture. You’ll probably want to drive into downtown from the campground, though, to really be able to spend time exploring on foot. Or bike!
Over the next couple days, we followed this walking tour of downtown to get an overview of the glamorous history of Palm Springs. One place we wish we’d stopped into along the way was the Architecture and Design Center. Next time!
Keep an eye out for the numerous public art displays around town, especially near the Palm Springs Art Museum. Bugsy’s favorite was the giant Marilyn Monroe, and ours was the car parked on its nose out front. Even the benches along Palm Canyon Drive are works of art.
In addition to walking around downtown, we chose a couple neighborhoods to stroll through: Tennis Club and Deepwell Estates were quiet and cute; and we tried Araby Cove but it’s not really walkable, with narrow, sidewalk-less streets. We really enjoyed drooling over the dreamy mid-century houses!
To see some of the more famous Palm Springs houses, we did this driving tour, and we recommend it as an easy way to hit some highlights around town.
As you’re wandering around town, if it’s Saturday morning, check out the Palm Springs Farmers’ Market just outside downtown. They had some nice produce and good-looking prepared food; note that dogs are not allowed.
Finally, after drooling over the architecture, the coolest thing you can do in Palm Springs is take a ride on the aerial tramway to the top of the cliffs overlooking Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley. It’s the coolest as in it’s neato, but also as in it’s usually thirty degrees cooler at the top of the canyon than on the floor. The tram cars rotate as they travel 2.5 miles up up up; the views are great and the engineering is mind-boggling.
At the top there’s a state park with hiking trails (more on that later) and some food and drink options. Tickets ($30) are sold for specific time slots, and they can sell out, so best to buy in advance. No dogs are allowed on the tram.
We had three restaurants on our wishlist, and we made it to all three. Here they are, ranked by our experience:
Dinner at Workshop was phenomenal: the food, the drinks, the service were all perfect. If you’re looking for a elevated dining experience in Palm Springs, you can’t go wrong at Workshop. Truss & Twine, the fancy cocktail bar next door and Workshop’s sister, is on our list for next time.
We liked our grilled avocado salad so much at Tac/Quila that we went back later to get a carryout salad for our travel day. The fish taco and margarita flight also made us happy.
Sandfish Sushi and Whiskey
The menu item I was most excited about at Sandfish, cauliflower bao, was not available; nor was my #2, squash blossoms. So that was a bummer, but the hand roll we ordered was incredible. It was a slow and expensive outing, but everything we ate was fab.
J did his usual boatload of brewery research, identifying five breweries within a half-hour drive, and choosing one to visit: Coachella Valley Brewing Co. The beer list was to our liking, with a few hazy IPAs and a sour (although the beers themselves didn’t wow us), but the dog-friendly beer garden was kind of icky, with cigarette butts everywhere. The brewery is about twenty minutes from downtown Palm Springs.
When in Palm Springs, you have to get a drink at one of the glamorous old-Palm Springs-style lounges, right? We chose two iconic spots, The Tropicale and The Colony Palms.
The Tropicale‘s Coral Seas Lounge was busy and buzzy when we stopped in for a pre-dinner drink on the back patio. The drinks and guac were just ok, but the scene was fun because everyone was having such a good time.
The Colony Club at Colony Palms was a much quieter stop for a cocktail at the poolside bar. The Colony Palms hotel looked like a sophisticated place to stay and the bar-pool-courtyard area was lovely.
Our super server at Workshop recommended Bootlegger Tiki for a nightcap, and we lucked into a couple bar seats at this very popular place. If you like tiki drinks, you’ll love Bootlegger.
A different Workshop waiter (Workshop was so cool we were happy to get recos from all the people there) suggested Blackbook for a cocktail. Their website describes them as a low-key cocktail bar but it was a party place when we stopped by! We weren’t really looking for a party, but it was fun to watch the revelry for a bit.
Koffi is a local coffeeshop chain and the largest coffee roaster in the Coachella Valley. We grabbed caffeine from a location close to the campground, hoping for local feel, but it was kind of stale and corporate, and they messed up J’s matcha.
Palm Springs has several trails that start in town and climb up into the hillsides over the city. So convenient!
On our first full day in Palm Springs, we got up early and hiked South Lykken Trail–going early is important to beat the crowds and the heat. There’s no shade at all. Bugsy stayed home; dogs aren’t allowed due to the resident bighorn sheep. It’s an eight-mile out-and-back, and while it’s a pleasant and convenient hike, your views are mostly of the city below.
Hike #2 was more of an adventure: we took a wild ride on the aerial tram up to Mount San Jacinto State Park and hiked this five-mile loop from the top. The tram does all the work for you–once you’re up there, the hiking is flat. And like I said before, it’s much cooler at that elevation than it is in town. We passed a bunch of people hiking to San Jacinto Peak and wished we’d had time for the longer hike, but we had to get back to Bugsy (remember, no dogs are allowed on the tram, and that’s the only way up to the state park).
And of course you could pop over to Joshua Tree National Park, an hour east. It’s so special!
We had a blast in Palm Springs and would be happy to return if we’re ever in southern California again.