Planning a road trip through Southern California? Be sure to leave plenty of time to enjoy the best things to do in Palm Springs, CA! In recent times, the California desert city has become as renowned for its culture and shopping as its beautiful scenery.
Just two hours from Los Angeles, the top tourist attractions in Palm Springs provide hours of entertainment. In the morning, wake up to a spectacular desert sunrise before venturing into vast canyons and through desert oases. When it gets too hot, go shopping or experience the town’s amazing art scene. Later, end the day downtown enjoying a community event or sipping a cold drink as the sun goes down.
Not sure what to do on your vacation? Start planning your ultimate trip with this guide to the best places to visit in Palm Springs, CA!
Must-see places to visit
Palm Springs Art Museum
Since the 1930s, the Palm Springs Art Museum has been a big part of life in the Southern California desert. It features a varied array of genres, ensuring the museum will appeal to a wide audience. The rich diversity of art is a far cry from the museum’s humble beginnings, focused largely on the local scenery.
Today, travelers can expect to find work revolving around natural history and the performing arts, along with a beautiful section on Native American work. The latter is complete with original craftwork and relics from eras past.
The natural history section also features animal sculptures and fossils. You can also expect a great selection of temporary exhibitions. It all combines to make the art museum one of the most popular places to visit in Palm Springs.
Joshua Tree National Park
A scenic drive east of Palm Springs is Joshua Tree National Park, home to one of the most unique landscapes in the United States. One of the most popular day trips from Palm Springs, the park sits at the convergence of the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert and presents hikers, bikers, and road trippers with otherworldly scenery.
The endless desert lays flat in all directions, interrupted only by the sight of giant boulders rising like mountains out of the orange dirt. The limited vegetation only serves to heighten the beauty of Joshua Tree, such as a rather odd yucca that paints shadows across the desert floor.
Hiking in the early hours and around dusk is the way to explore Joshua Tree National Park. But if you’re on two or four wheels, a thrilling scenic road also cuts through the center of the park.
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
One of the most popular things to do in Palm Springs is to ride the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. The towering San Jacinto Mountains provide a rare change of pace in what is otherwise a beautifully arid desert landscape. The tram whisks you up and places you 8,500 feet above town, bringing a rapid and delightful change in temperature to complement the breathtaking view.
After jumping off the tram, running since the 1960s, look down at the vast valley to see the world as a mere smattering of green, orange, brown, and blue.
After admiring the scenery, kick back at one of the two restaurants before embarking on a number of local hiking trails, including one to the summit of Mount San Jacinto.
Coachella Valley Preserve
East of town, Coachella Valley Preserve is one of the most interesting places to see in Palm Springs. Covering around 20,000 acres of fascinating landscapes, the preserve lets visitors experience a true example of a desert oasis.
The sanctuary features large sections of classic desert environments. You can also experience mountains rising out of the valley and vast wetlands and lush plant life on the other side. It’s enough to ensure those on the hiking trails are surprised and awed around every corner.
Increasingly, Coachella Valley Preserve is becoming more vital to rare and endangered species, including the fringe-toed lizard. This is a popular animal to spot for visitors and can sometimes be seen on the sand dunes in the Indio Hills.
Palm Springs Air Museum
Featuring a wonderful collection of aircraft from throughout the 20th century, the Palm Springs Air Museum is one of the top Palm Springs attractions. History buffs and aircraft enthusiasts will have no shortage of eras, with planes representing the Second World War, the Korean War, and Vietnam War.
The tour guides are an aspect of the experience that helps separate it from other air museums. The guides are mostly veterans from past wars, providing guests with invaluable insight into the planes and the stories and major events they were involved in. Most of the planes are in the air-conditioned hangars, and some are even open to explore firsthand.
Long before travelers rushed to Joshua Tree National Park or experienced the Aerial Tramway, Native Americans lived and thrived in the Indian Canyons. Today, you can explore the trio of beautiful canyons via hiking trails, learning more about local history and the heritage of the region’s tribes.
Indian Canyons is a gorgeous place to visit in the early and late hours before the sun gets too intense. One trail takes you through Palm Canyon, where you’ll find creeks, waterfalls, and an enormous grove of California Pines. Afterward, stop by the trading post to see authentic Native American artwork and pottery.
Moorten Botanical Garden
Just outside of downtown Palm Springs, the Moorten Botanical Garden brings all the beauty of the desert into one convenient location. The ideal time to visit the botanical garden is from fall until spring when guided tours take you through the spellbinding array of flora in cooler temperatures.
Spring is particularly stunning as the plant life blooms, creating a full spectrum of color for visitors. As you wander around Moorten Botanical Garden, you’ll come across over 3,000 plants from as close as the Palm Springs Desert to as far as Guatemala.
From the cacti to palm trees, the change in size and color will help you appreciate the vibrant life in an otherwise cruel landscape.
Living Desert Zoo and Gardens
As more and more people descended upon Palm Springs to live or enjoy a vacation, the town boomed. To help protect the land that was quickly getting swallowed by development, the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens was created in the nearby town of Palm Desert.
Now, more than 50 years on, Living Desert Zoo and Gardens has become one of the most interesting things to see in Palm Springs. If the botanical gardens are the appetizer, the zoo is the main course. Here, travelers can experience a vast range of desert flora and fauna, together with recreations of deserts from around the world.
Arrive early to see the zoo’s resident animals at their most active. These include camels, mountain lions, and giraffes!
Tahquitz Canyon is one of the three canyons found in Indian Canyons. Palm Canyon is a worthy adventure, but Tahquitz offers spectacular scenery and plenty of Native American history. Just two miles from downtown, the canyon features a memorable 60-foot waterfall that can be seen from a hike along the Tahquitz Canyon Trail.
On your hike, you’ll spot petroglyphs from hundreds of years ago on the striking canyon walls. At the height of day, head inside to the Tahquitz Canyon Visitor Center to learn more about the human and natural history of the area along with the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum.
North Palm Canyon Drive
For all the outdoor adventures and human history around Palm Springs, visitors should still leave plenty of time to explore the town itself. You can do just that along North Palm Canyon Drive. The desert town’s main thoroughfare is complete with everything we love about small-town life.
As there are many restaurants, galleries, and indoor attractions, there’s never a bad time to visit North Palm Canyon Drive, and it’s the perfect respite from the searing sun. Walk along the drag to find cultural and art museums and some of the tastiest eateries in town, from Cheeky’s to Tonga Hut.
Another fun part of life on North Palm Canyon Drive is the VillageFest. If you’re wondering what to do in Palm Springs on a Thursday night, wonder no more. All year, the street becomes pedestrian-only as over 180 vendors set up shop on North Palm Canyon Drive.
The vibrant festival runs for a quarter-mile. VillageFest brings together the community for a night of arts & crafts, artisan treats, and plenty of street food. As you wander up and down, the tunes of musicians float through the air providing a fun, carnival atmosphere.
Cabot’s Pueblo Museum
Using anything and everything around the Coachella Valley, Cabot Yerxa has spent years creating what is now the impressive Cabot’s Pueblo Museum. He pillaged abandoned cabins and recycled as much material as possible to create his four-story, 35-room adobe.
Cabot’s Pueblo Museum is found in modern-day Desert Hot Springs, and it’s become one of the top tourist attractions in Palm Springs. The building is striking and immediately draws you in.
It’s amazing what Cabot Yerxa has achieved with just reclaimed items. Inside is just as memorable and boasts relics from his travels and a wonderful art collection.
Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve
Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve is found within the Coachella Valley and is free for visitors. It’s a great place to explore a veritable oasis by yourself, with your partner, or with family.
Start by visiting the Palm House, a rustic visitors’ center that divulges all you need to know about the natural and human history of Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve.
From there, experience some of the park’s 25 miles of hiking trails through lush vegetation fed by groundwater created by the San Andreas Fault. Beyond the palms are desert wash, towering dunes, and, after rain, vast meadows of yellow blooms.
Elvis’ Honeymoon Hideaway
On his honeymoon with Priscilla and between 1966 and 1967, Elvis Presley lived at the Alexander Estate. The beautiful home and surrounding grounds, now known as Elvis’ Honeymoon Hideaway, are just outside downtown Palm Springs and wholly dedicated to the King.
With the nickname the House of Tomorrow, the estate boasts some outstanding mid-century architecture. The home has three circular floors that combine to give the house a cylindrical look.
Guests can explore themselves or join a guided tour around the home, featuring an Art déco interior, plenty of 1960s decor, and beautiful valley views from the floor-to-ceiling windows. (NOTE: Tours are not currently running.)
San Andreas Fault
From the Salton Sea, the San Andreas Fault runs for 800 miles northwest until it reaches the Pacific Ocean. Along the fault is where the North American and Pacific tectonic plates converge. You can see the southern section of this mighty fault line, just minutes from Palm Springs.
Many examples of the fault include the desert oases found in the Coachella Valley, especially at 1000 Palms Canyon. The cracks lead to underground waterways, which also create hot mineral springs.
You can see these for yourself around Desert Hot Springs. While you can explore it all yourself, you might want to check out the San Andreas Fault Bones of the Earth Jeep Tour
North Palm Canyon Drive may have galleries, restaurants, and VillageFest, but if you love to shop, then El Paseo is the place for you. Palm Springs’ take on the famous Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, El Paseo gives you access to an envious series of shopping complexes lined by rich green palms.
There are two sections to El Paseo: The Shops and The Gardens. The former features high-end brands such as Burberry, Gucci, and Ralph Lauren. Among them are lively brunch spots and restaurants for when you need a break.
After exploring The Shops, continue on to The Gardens, where you’ll find a greater mix of local boutiques and national brands among the more upscale shops.
Chef Tanya’s Kitchen
If we had to pick just one place to eat in Palm Springs, it would be Chef Tanya’s Kitchen. After opening in 2017, it quickly garnered a fabulous reputation thanks to its mouthwatering vegan menu. But this isn’t some high-end restaurant that prices out many travelers. No, it’s a deli and marketplace that slings incredible sandwiches.
At Chef Tanya’s Kitchen, travelers can load up on filling but healthy cuisine with ample doses of avocado, vegan cheese, and tofu bacon. Popular sandwiches include barbecue rib and Cubans.
At night, the restaurant changes course to serve delicious soups, lasagnas, and veggie bowls. All the good stuff will prepare you for another day of adventure in Palm Springs.
Where to stay
For most travelers, the top choices for where to stay in Palm Springs are found around the city center. The areas and neighborhoods around Downtown Palm Springs—including Old Las Palmas and The Movie Colony—are home to the city’s top-rated hotels and accommodations options.
Located in the heart of the historic Tennis Club area, the Old Ranch Inn charms with an Old West style set among a lovely landscaped estate with lush gardens. The luxurious suites at this adults-only hotel feature ensuite bathrooms, kitchenettes, fireplaces, and your own private patio. After a long day of sightseeing, relax under the shade of palm trees at the outdoor pool.
Add Middle Eastern flair to your Palm Springs vacation with a night at this charming inn. Perfect for a couples getaway, the villas feature stylish rooms with elegant four-poster beds, rich wood floors, and antique furnishings. Enjoy activities like yoga, bocce, and swimming in the outdoor pool.
Located steps from downtown, this adults-only hotel shines with beautiful views of the majestic San Jacinto Mountains. Chill out in the rustic-chic villas, decorated with elegant furnishings and including kitchen and shaded terraces with hot tubs. End the evening with swim in the heated swimming pool under the stars.
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