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The 12 best things to do in Palm Springs

Quintessential Palm Springs activities like swimming, drinking and shopping top our list of the best things to do in Palm Springs

Michael Juliano
Written by
Michael Juliano
&
Kai Oliver-Kurtin
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Palm Springs sprouted into a resort destination in the early 20th century, with much of Hollywood vacationing here for a quick escape from L.A. Ever since, it’s been beckoning visitors with its arid landscape, golf courses, handsome mid-century vacation homes and excellent restaurant scene. While many will spend their weekend simply lounging by hotel pools, there are plenty of other things to do in Palm Springs. Seasonally, it becomes the epicenter of cool during Coachella, and hosts highlights like the design-focused Modernism Week and the quirky Christmas light display Robolights.

Palm Springs is a popular destination year-round, but especially between December and April when that infamous dry heat is not quite so intense. Regardless, you should pack plenty of water and sunscreen for your trip, and be sure to arrange accommodations with a pool. Plan to do most of your activities in the morning or after sunset to avoid the mid-day heat. And while making your trek to and from the dessert, you'll be well-advised to make stops along the way in Cabazon (visit the dinosaur museum and outlet mall) and Joshua Tree (for hiking and stargazing). 

No matter when you visit Palm Springs, activities can include fun home tours, botanical gardens and one-of-a-kind mountaintop tram rides  just follow our guide to make the most of it. 

Done something on this list and loved it? Share it with the hashtag #TimeOutDoList and tag @TimeOutEverywhere. Find out more about how Time Out selects the very best things to do all over the world.

Best things to do in Palm Springs

Note: Reservations required. Will be closed 9/7/21 thru 10/4/21 for maintenence.

Trek a couple of minutes onto Tramway Road as you roll into Palm Springs and you’ll come across this classic canyon-hugging gondola ride. Board a rotating car inside an angular 1963 station, and after 10 minutes and a double-digit temperature drop, you’ll find yourself facing the entirety of the Coachella Valley below. Linger with a stop at the mountaintop restaurant, café or lounge, or hike deeper into the San Jacinto Mountains.

True to its name, this zoo looks just like a living slice of the Sonoran Desert. Located a couple of miles outside of Palm Springs, the largely outdoor locale is broadly split into North American and African environments. Explore the grounds to find an assortment of wild cats and hoofed mammals, as well as giraffe feedings ($8).

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Note: Advance tickets required.

This mid-size museum houses a collection of contemporary paintings, sculpture and art glass from the likes of Henry Moore, Robert Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler as well as West Coast artists like Sam Francis, Mark di Suvero and Edward Ruscha. Exhibitions often focus on the cultures and themes of the desert: Modernism, Native Americans and the American West. The museum also operates a satellite location in Palm Desert (free) as well as an architecture and design center in downtown Palm Springs ($5).

Flowing water, in the middle of the desert? Indeed, this two-mile loop leads to a 50-foot waterfall tucked into Tahquitz Canyon. The falls are located within the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians reservation, so you’ll need to pay a $12.50 admission fee. On the plus side, the fee keeps the trail impeccably maintained, unlike many of L.A.’s graffiti-filled waterfalls. Ranger-led hikes are also available.

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This air museum showcases primarily World War II as well as Korea- and Vietnam-era combat aircraft. You’ll find more than 40 flyable and static planes across three warehouses, from the B-17 flying fortress to the F-4 fighter jet, as well as a couple of aircraft on the tarmac, like the C-47 and PBY Catalina Flying Boat. The museum also offers a limited number of high-priced flights aboard the C-47 Skytrain and P-51 Mustang.

Even if you don’t need any information from the official Palm Springs welcome center, this distinctive spot is worth a stop to admire its architecture. The Space Age structure opened in 1965 as a gas station. When Albert Frey and Robson Chambers’s retro design was slated for the wrecking ball in the ’90s, it was saved and turned into a visitors' center. If you do need some guidance, you can book a tour of Palm Springs right here

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Though only an acre in size, this botanical garden is packed with prickly varieties of cacti and other desert plants. The family-owned garden dates back to the 1930s and harbors more than 3,000 specimens of desert plants from around the world, grouped by region. There's also a nursery if you want to take some plants back home with you. 

Note: Temporarily closed until September 14, 2021.

Sunnylands, the former winter retreat for the wealthy Annenberg family and a popular summit space for decades of presidents, resides on a 200-acre plot of irrigated desert in Rancho Mirage. Though much of that space is occupied by a nine-hole golf course, 12 acres have been dedicated to public gardens and a visitor center with a rotating selection of artwork from the Annenberg collection. Tours of the mansion are available but regularly sell out months in advance.

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You can barely walk a block along Palm Canyon Drive without stumbling upon an eye-catching gallery, antique or furniture showroom. Palm Springs and mid-century modernism go hand in hand, and you’ll find plenty of galleries (notably a showroom from retro-inspired artist SHAG) and furniture stores dedicated to the jet-setting aesthetic.

Tennis Club neighborhood
Photograph: Courtesy Honeymoon Hideaway

10. Tennis Club neighborhood

Palm Springs is brimming with handsome mid-century modern homes. Keep in mind that most of these are private abodes, so you can’t exactly knock on the front door. But cruise around some notable neighborhoods, from Tennis Club to Araby Cove, and you’ll spot plenty of architectural gems along the way. Highlights include the Del Marcos Hotel, Elvis’s Honeymoon Hideaway and the Edris House.

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Craggy peaks, climbable boulders and those beloved yuccas are barely an hour car ride away. Joshua Tree National Park is a popular destination for overnight campers, but you can explore plenty in a single afternoon, too, from an easygoing hike around Hidden Valley to vistas from 5,000 feet up at Keys View. If you’re coming from Palm Springs, you’ll want to enter from the northwest entrance in Joshua Tree; if you’re staying farther east into the Coachella Valley, you can use the south entrance but it’ll put you—for better or worse—in a more desolate area that’s farther from the park’s main attractions.

More of the best in Palm Springs

  • Restaurants

If you’re not familiar with the little enclave’s restaurant scene, it can be easy to get suckered into dinner or drinks at a tourist trap or sub-par dive. As usual, we're here to help. Check out our list of the best spots for breakfast, lunch and dinner for your next desert adventure. 

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