17 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Palm Springs, CA
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Palm Springs is a vacation destination set in the Sonoran Desert surrounded by four different mountain ranges. The resort city is just a three-hour drive from San Diego and a two-hour drive from Los Angeles, making it popular for weekend getaways.
Known for mid-century modern style, its plethora of championship golf courses, warm weather, and a fun and welcoming vibe, the city, along with several surrounding communities known collectively as the Coachella Valley, is a popular winter destination. Beyond the golf resorts and swimming pools there are still plenty of tourist attractions, things to do, and places to visit. You can take your pick from a wide range of activities downtown like shopping; dining; touring museums; or exploring the surrounding desert, mountains, and canyons.
When it's cold in most other parts of North America (approximately November through March), that's the high season for Palm Springs, and the population swells with visitors and snowbirds. The city is home to a serious lineup of Hollywood celebrities each January during the annual Palm Springs Film Festival, and draws architecture and design fans from around the world during February's Modernism Week. The city is also crowded in April during the Coachella and Stagecoach music festivals, held in Indio about 30 minutes from downtown.
For sightseeing ideas, see our list of the top attractions and things to do in Palm Springs.
1. Ride the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
Escape the heat of the desert with a quick ride into the mountains on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. Standing on the edge of Palm Springs, Mount San Jacinto rises more than 10,000 feet above the desert floor and can be easily accessed with a ride on the scenic tramway.
The tramway, which opened in 1963, has the world's largest rotating aerial tram cars. The cars are suspended from cables, like a ski lift, and the cables are strung atop metal towers installed on the mountainside. From the top, the view out over the desert is fantastic, and on hot days, the cool air (sometimes 30 to 40 degrees lower than that at the desert floor) can be a refreshing treat. During the winter, there is snow at the top.
In less than 10 minutes, the tram will take you up Chino Canyon to an elevation of 8,500 feet. At the top, called the Mountain Station, there are observation decks, two restaurants, historical displays, and videos on the construction of the tram. From here, 50 miles of hiking trails run through the pine forests of the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, including a trail to the summit of Mount San Jacinto (11 miles round trip). You can also camp in the park.
It's fun to go swimming in Palm Springs in the heat of the desert, then drive to the tram, take it up the mountain and play in the snow, all within an hour.
Address: One Tram Way, Palm Springs, California
Official site: pstramway.com
2. Visit the Palm Springs Air Museum
The Palm Springs Air Museum has a large collection of military aircraft, many of which still fly. Planes from World War II along with the Korean and Vietnam Wars are represented. It's a fascinating place to visit as most of the docents who provide tours are veterans themselves, with personal connections to the types of aircraft they talk about.
The aircraft are shown in static displays, and you can also get inside and tour some of them, including a massive B-17 bomber. Much of the collection is displayed inside air-conditioned hangars, so it's a great place to visit if you're looking for an escape from the city's extreme summer heat.
The Palm Springs Air Museum is located at the Palm Springs International Airport, about 10 minutes from downtown Palm Springs. For those wanting to get up into the sky, the air museum offers flights on some of their rare warbirds.
Address: 745 North Gene Autry Trail, Palm Springs, California
Official site: palmspringsairmuseum.org
3. Take a Canyon Hike to a Waterfall
The Indian Canyons, located at the south end of Palm Springs, is a popular protected nature sanctuary comprised of three unique canyon environments. The area is part of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians reservation and is a great place for hiking and exploring some beautiful desert scenery.
Be sure to start with one of the main areas, Palm Canyon. This 15-mile long canyon, complete with a creek and waterfalls, is lined with large palm trees. In fact, the canyon is home to the world's largest grove of California fan palms. The canyon is home to a range of hiking trails of varying lengths and difficulties. The Indian Canyons park has a trading post selling souvenirs, Indian art, and other tribal-related items.
Andreas Canyon, another canyon area within the Indian Canyons park, is also worth checking out and is known as a good place to see birds. In the same vicinity is Murray Canyon, with a less frequented hiking trail and better opportunities for spotting deer and other wildlife. There are many hiking trails in the park, and many of those trails take you into multiple canyons.
Tahquitz Canyon is another protected canyon area, also tribal land, located near but not within the Indian Canyons space. This canyon has lots of hiking trails and is home to a 60-foot-tall waterfall. There is a visitor's center with artifact displays, hiking information, and a small theater showing a documentary about the canyon.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Palm Springs
4. Play Golf
Palm Springs and nearby cities like La Quinta, Indian Wells, Rancho Mirage, and Palm Desert have over 100 championship-level golf courses. Many of the city's best courses are public and accessible to anyone (waiting lists are long during popular periods). The city is a very popular golf destination, as the weather is great for golf (an average of over 300 days of sunshine a year), especially during the winter months. Summer temperatures are extreme, making early morning games the only option.
Aside from the well-groomed and challenging courses, you also get the benefit of the beautiful scenery and desert backdrops. As you play, you're treated to a changing desert landscape with the area's different mountain ranges always visible in the distance.
Popular golf courses playable by the public in the area include PGA West (home to the American Express Desert Classic, formerly the Bob Hope Classic), the Indian Wells Golf Resort (home to the Renaissance Indian Wells, the Hyatt Regency Indian Wells, and the Indian Wells Resort Hotel), Marriott's Shadow Ridge, and the Indian Canyons Golf Resort.
Read More: Best Resorts in Indian Wells
5. Visit the Palm Springs Art Museum
The Palm Springs Art Museum features a combination of fine art, natural history, and performing arts. The museum has been in existence since the late 1930s and formerly focused almost exclusively on desert subjects and artists, but over the years, the direction has shifted to a well-curated collection of modern and contemporary art, including Native American art.
In addition to fine art, the museum has a large collection of Native American craftwork and artifacts. There is also a natural science collection of animals and fossils on display, making the museum a great place to visit for kids and families.
Also on site are two outdoor sculpture gardens. The museum's permanent collections include paintings, photography, glass, pottery, and architecture and design with a focus on American Western art and artists. There are also touring and changing temporary exhibitions and shows.
Providing a wide selection of year-round programming, the museum's large Annenberg Theater hosts an extensive series of music, dance, and theater productions and performances.
Address: 101 Museum Drive, Palm Springs, California
Official site: psmuseum.org
6. Explore the Coachella Valley Preserve
This large, protected outdoor space covers over 13,000 acres of raw desert and mountain landscapes. It's a partnership between federal, state, and private land-owners, allowing management and preservation of the natural environment.
Located east of Palm Springs, the Coachella Valley Preserve is home to a variety of wildlife. It's made up of three different preserve areas. The best one to visit is the Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve area, near Palm Desert. There are 30 miles of hiking trails along with multiple oases.
Guided hikes led by volunteer docents are a great way to see the preserve and offer an excellent overview of the area.
Official site: coachellavalleypreserve.org
7. Moorten Botanical Gardens and Cactarium
The Moorten Botanical Gardens and Cactarium is located just past downtown Palm Springs on the south end of Palm Canyon Drive. The unique nature space offers an incredible display of cacti and desert plants that range from full grown trees to plants just taking root. In the spring, when the desert is coming into bloom, and trees are starting to turn green again, the gardens are at their best.
Moorten is open year-round, but during the cooler months, from fall until spring, you can take a guided tour of the facility offered free with admission.
The gardens are also a commercial nursery, so in addition to being a botanical garden, you can purchase some of the plants to take home with you.
Address: 1701 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs, California
Official site: moortenbotanicalgarden.com
8. The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens
What started 50 years ago as an idea to preserve some raw desert land as the surrounding area developed into a resort has become a world-class zoo. The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in nearby Palm Desert offers a chance to see the flora and fauna of the desert and gain some insight into ecosystems from deserts around the globe.
The compact zoo also features a variety of animals from North America and Africa, including camels, coyotes, wolves, foxes, badgers, mountain lions, raptors, zebras, giraffes, hyenas, leopards, gazelle, and many other species.
The morning is generally the best time to visit, when the animals are still active before the heat sets in. Check the zoo's daily schedule to find out about guided nature walks, wildlife shows, and animal feeding times.
A highlight is to participate in the daily giraffe feeding. Guests can feed their herd of giraffes from a tower. It's done in the mornings during the summer and all day during the other months. You can also interact with the zoo's camels, working with keepers on feeding, grooming, or training them.
Address: 47900 Portola Avenue, Palm Desert, California
Official site: livingdesert.org
9. Check Out the VillageFest Weekly Street Party
On Thursday evenings year-round, downtown Palm Springs turns into a giant street party, with more than 180 vendors set up along the city's main street for VillageFest. A quarter-mile stretch of Palm Canyon Drive is closed to traffic, and booths are set up along both sides of the street.
This is a fun evening out, where you can shop for arts, crafts, jewelry, and other interesting trinkets and also try some tasty snacks from local restaurants and artisinal providers. As you shop, musical performers, buskers, and other street artists provide additional entertainment.
The night market event starts early in the evening, around 6 or 7pm, depending on the season, and runs until 10pm.
Official site: villagefest.org
10. Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center
Palm Springs is home to the world's largest collection of intact mid-century modern buildings in the world. The city celebrates the design movement each February with Modernism Week. Design and architecture fans come from all over the world, and there are many events, including open houses, film screenings, and home tours of architecturally significant structures.
The Palm Springs Art Museum's Architecture and Design Center is a unique and free attraction that is worth a stop, particularly if you are interested in architecture or design. Located in a preserved 1960 mid-century modern bank building, similar in style to many other buildings in Palm Springs that still remain from this period, the structure itself is a protected historic site.
The Architecture and Design Center holds the architecture collections of the Palm Springs Art Museum and features temporary exhibitions, as well as a rotating display of material from the permanent collection.
The art museum also operates the Frey House II, an important modernist home in the mountains designed by iconic architect Albert Frey for his own family. The home can be visited on docent-led tours.
Address: 300 South Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs, California
Official site: psmuseum.org/architecture-design-center
11. Discover the City's History at the Palm Springs Historical Society
The city's historical society has a small but comprehensive museum in the heart of the downtown area right on Palm Canyon Drive. It's housed in two preserved 19th-century buildings and has a free museum and other exhibits.
The society is also known for their many excellent walking (and biking) tours of the city, available with different themes. You can take a walking tour that explores the city's architecture, its Native American history, its many connections with the Rat Pack, or its many celebrity residents.
Address: 221 South Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs, California
Official site: pshistoricalsociety.org
12. Visit the Windmills
Just outside of Palm Springs, the San Gorgonio Pass is one of the most windy places on Earth, which is why it's filled with windmills (well actually wind turbines). The pass, located on either side of the I-10 freeway as it enters the Coachella Valley, not only has extreme wind, it has constant wind, which is essential for power generation. Acres of wind turbines dot the desert and the hillsides, silently generating electrical power for the region.
You can view the wind turbines by pulling off the I-10 freeway at the Indian Canyon exit or by taking a tour. Palm Springs Windmill Tours has the only official tour that takes you "behind the fence" to get up close and personal with these giant machines.
Address: 62950 20th Street, Palm Springs, California
Official site: windmilltours.com
13. Discover Sunnylands
This incredible, mid-century modern estate was the home of billionaire businessman (and founder of TV Guide) Walter Annenberg and his wife. The vast estate has hosted many presidents and summit meetings, serving as a West Coast Camp David for several presidents, including President Obama. The estate and its incredible art collection, along with its gardens, can be visited. Sunnylands is in Rancho Mirage, about 25 minutes from downtown Palm Springs.
Visiting the park-like grounds is free. Tickets can be purchased for docent-led tours of the house and art collection.
Address: 37977 Bob Hope Drive, Rancho Mirage, California
Official site: sunnylands.org
14. Visit a Date Farm
Palm Springs and the entire Coachella Valley has a rich agricultural history. One of the key crops is dates, and the area produces more than 90 percent of the dates grown in the U.S. This Middle Eastern fruit was first planted in the desert in the early 20th century, one of the few crops that can be grown year-round in the area's extreme weather.
The Shields Date Garden is in Indio, about 30 minutes from downtown Palm Springs. The almost-20 acre date farm has a café, a guided tour of the date groves, and even a theater showing a kitschy 1940s movie about date farming. They also serve date shakes, a must-drink date milkshake-like smoothie every Palm Springs visitor should try.
Address: 80225 US Hwy 111, Indio, California
Official site: shieldsdategarden.com
15. Take a Jeep Tour of the Desert
What better way to explore and experience the desert landscape than in the back of an open Jeep. Most Jeep tours are two to three hours long (a six-hour Joshua Tree adventure is available). The off-road tours explore the local desert landscape and the nearby San Andreas Fault.
Some of the Jeep tours depart from downtown Palm Springs; others start at a ranch in Indio, about 30 minutes east of Palm Springs. The naturalist-guided tours include bottled water and granola bar snacks.
One fun option is the San Andreas Fault Jeep Tour from Palm Desert. On this three hour tour you can learn about the Cahuilla people, the geology of the area, and see a desert oasis.
16. Ride a Horse through a Canyon
Another fun way to explore the local desert around Palm Springs in on horseback. Smoke Tree Stables has been operating since 1927 and offers trail rides into the local canyons. These are gentle, guided trail rides suitable for all ages and all levels of experience (including first-timers).
You can do a one-hour group trail ride, which starts at the stables and takes you through the desert along the base of the Santa Rosa Mountains. Another option is a two-hour group ride through Indian Canyons. The ride goes from Andreas Canyon to Murray Canyon and back, along streams and through palm tree groves.
Official site: smoketreestables.com
17. Fly in a Vintage Biplane
Palm Springs Biplanes, a company based at the Palm Springs airport, offers rides in a vintage 1940 Stearman biplane aircraft. The three-seat planes mean the passengers sit next to each other (behind the pilot). The open-top biplanes allow you to see all around, and you wear a cool vintage aviator cap and goggles.
The basic 15-minute flight is only $249 for two people and offers a lot more excitement and memories than a fancy dinner, which costs about the same price. A 30-minute flight takes you across the Coachella Valley and over the Santa Rosa Mountains and the hour-long flight covers the entire region.
Official site: psbiplanes.com
Where to Stay in Palm Springs for Sightseeing
- Located just a block from the heart of downtown, but worlds away, the Ingleside Inn has a private feel akin to staying at a friend's country estate rather than a hotel. With the San Jacinto Mountains as a backdrop, it is a posh adults-only hideaway with stylish rooms. Amenities include a restaurant, swimming pool, hot tub, and bike rental.
- Inspired by the desert surrounding it, Kimpton Rowan Palm Springs Hotel is located downtown and offers 153 stylish rooms and suites. The hotel is inside a seven-story building and boasts the only rooftop pool and restaurant in town. The property is very dog friendly with no nightly charges for your pet. If you are traveling with kids, it is also a family-friendly resort.
- Colony Palms Hotel has been around since the 1930s and has hosted its share of celebrities over the years including Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, and Frank Sinatra. Today the 4-star luxury property is a boutique hotel with lots of flair to its rooms and suites. These come with colored mosaic tiles and bright fabrics and many also feature claw-foot bath tubs and fireplaces. Amenities include a saltwater swimming pool, hot tub, restaurant, and a spa. Unlike many Palm Springs hotels, the Colony Palms is family friendly.
- Desert Riviera Hotel is a top mid-range choice. The vintage property has been recently renovated and features retro decor in its spacious rooms and suites. The adults-only property has a pool, hot tub, and bikes available for guests. A free breakfast is also served.
- Like many Palm Springs properties, Little Paradise Hotel is also adults-only. The luxe boutique hotel features plush rooms with comfy beds, 4K curved TVs, jet showers, and full kitchens. There is also a heated saltwater pool with sun-loungers.
- One of the few mid-range hotels that accepts kids, Palm Springs Tennis Club is within walking distance of the historic downtown. It has spacious, modern rooms and suites. Amenities include three swimming pools, tennis courts, and an on-site restaurant.
- For a family-friendly hotel that is also easy on the budget, check out the Vagabond Motor Hotel. On the outskirts of downtown, it offers tidy and modern rooms. There is a free breakfast offered and parking is also free. If you're traveling with a dog, the hotel allows pets.
- Days Inn by Wyndham Palm Springs is another budget choice near downtown. It offers spacious rooms with balconies and welcomes families. There is a kid's wading pool, as well as an Olympic-size swimming pool on-site. Other amenities include a hot tub, workout room, restaurant, and free parking.
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Less than an hour's drive from Palm Springs is Joshua Tree National Park, one of the most interesting and beautiful parks in the Southwest. If you have time for only one side trip, this is the place to come. This park has some amazing sites, along with great walks and hiking trails. It also offers outstanding campgrounds, where you can park your RV or pitch your tent next to huge Joshua trees and giant rock formations.
If you are traveling around California and looking for new ideas, be sure to check out our articles on California desert tourist attractions and our list of great off-the-beaten-path attractions in California. For a more general overview of what to see throughout the state, see our article on the top tourist attractions in California.