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Palm Springs: What to Do in This Midcentury Oasis

Annie Gabillet

With streets named after Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope, Palm Springs can feel like a trip back to the mid-20th century. The city at the heart of the Coachella Valley was a getaway for high-profile vacationers like the Rat Pack and Elvis Presley and has the midcentury architecture to match the era. Following its heyday, Palm Springs became popular with retired golf lovers, but today it’s back on the radar of a younger generation looking for a warm-weather getaway about 100 miles east of Los Angeles. Well-designed hotels, accessible hiking trails, and delicious food appeal to this new crowd. If you want to escape during the cooler months, Palm Springs is one of your best bets in the continental US. Start planning your trip with the best things to do in Palm Springs, a midcentury oasis in the California desert.

What to Do in Palm Springs

Immerse Yourself in the Architecture

Courtesy of Unsplash // Erin Hervey

Palm Springs was widely developed during the mid-20th century and it’s packed with homes designed by famous architects of the time. If you want a quick introduction to the period, stop by the free Palm Springs Art Museum located downtown. There are rotating exhibits, and the convenient location and small scale means it doesn’t require a huge time commitment.

To learn more, sign up for a guided architecture tour. Lyle Boatman of MidMod Design Tour has a degree in architecture and a wealth of information about Palm Springs history. He runs intimate tours and will even point out a current celeb home or two (you might just spot Leonardo DiCaprio).

To go all in, visit Palm Springs during Modernism Week, which happens in the Fall and Spring. The week is packed with events for lovers of Midcentury Modern design. Or, stay at a bonafide midcentury hotel, like the Del Marcos Hotel, designed by famous architect William F. Cody.

Take the Aerial Tram

Courtesy of Unsplash // Jess Joyce

Ready to go up 6,000 feet — and down at least 30 degrees in temperature? Hop on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which will take you to the Mt. San Jacinto State Park. Up high you can cool off, enjoy hiking trails, visit the natural history museum, and even eat at one of two restaurants.

Log Lots of Pool Time

Courtesy of Annie Gabillet

Wherever you stay in Palm Springs, it’s practically guaranteed to have a swimming pool. There are 40,000 pools in the city that has 48,000 residents. Much of life in the desert happens around the pool. So pack a good book and at least a few swimsuits and get ready to float into a calm sense of relaxation.

Visit an Oasis

Courtesy of Annie Gabillet

The name Palm Springs is a reference to the natural springs that pop up around the San Andreas Fault that runs through the area. Where there is water, there is life, and Palm Springs has various spots where you can experience a real desert oasis. Check out: Thousand Palms Oasis in the Coachella Valley Preserve, or Indian Canyons and Tahquitz Canyon. The latter two are operated by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, a Native American tribe that lives in the Coachella Valley. Since you’re near water, you’ll experience slightly cooler temperature on the moderate walks. The perfect way to break up your pool time with some exercise.

Hotel Hop

Unsplash // David Everett Strickler

Palm Springs may have come of age in the 1950s and ’60s, but its hotels were made for modern travelers looking for an Instagrammable moment. Choose your favorite to stay and then grab drinks or dinner at the others. Some of the most stylish include: rainbow-painted Saguaro, Jonathan Adler-designed Parker Palm Springs, bougainvillea-covered La Serena Villas, and the retro Ace Hotel.

 Eat and Drink

Courtesy of Unsplash // Ingrid Hofstra

It’s not vacation if you don’t indulge your taste buds. Palm Spring has a mix of old-school comfort food and fresh California cuisine. The fish tacos at Azucar are tasty, as is the pizza at Birba. If you’re looking for air conditioning, sip a martini while you enjoy steak frites at Mr. Lyons Steakhouse. The buzz will have you dreaming of your next trip back to the desert.