What to do in Palm Springs

Everyone in San Francisco asked me why I was going, and everyone in Palm Springs asked me why I hadn’t visited already.

Everywhere you go in Palm Springs is like a moving postcard with palm trees and cacti. Palm Springs is a small desert city in the Coachella Valley, flanked by rocky mountains dusted with snow. Its arts and culture scene is thriving — the city is home to the Palm Springs International Film Festival, which was mostly why I was there. But in between movie watching and celebrity spotting, I found a few reasons why Bay Areans looking for a scenery change should come to the desert.

Explore the Indian Canyons: Palm Springs is on Cahuilla land. The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians owns the Indian Canyons, which you can visit for most of the year. Admission starts at $9 for adults, but if you’d like to learn more about the natural landscape without driving yourself, try the Desert Adventure red jeep tour. The cheapest tour starts at $140 for adults. You’ll get to see rock formations streaked with pale red and brown, hidden waterfalls, and an oasis dense with palm trees. On my three hour-long tour, in between jeep rides, we went on a non-intensive mile-long hike in the Andreas Canyon, where our tour guide taught us about the history and flora of the land. Science (nature) is actually cool!

City of Stars (the other one): Palm Springs has its fair share of Hollywood life. It has its own Walk of Stars that rivals L.A.’s, mostly because at Palm Springs’, you aren’t trying to fight off hundreds of other tourists in order to snap a bad selfie with Frank Sinatra’s name. You can also visit some celebrity homes — Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe’s are in the neighborhood. And, if you come to the city around the right time (like in January, during PSIFF) you might actually see a star themself, in the flesh. 

Modernism: Palm Springs is proud of its modernist architecture — so much so that they have a whole week dedicated to it. A lot of locals recommended touring past some homes reminiscent of the 20th century.

Art!: Art museums are like safe havens for me during trips. They’re air conditioned, quiet, and calm — a welcome break from a long day of touristing. The Palm Springs Art Museum is an open space filled with indigenous art and geometric abstractions. At the center of it all is a mass of blown glass tentacles in tropical fruit colors by Dale Chihuly. Admission starts at $14 for adults, and right next to the museum is the El Rod Sculpture Garden — a quiet space home to blown glass orbs and large cacti. 

Food & Drink

Go to Blackbook and order the Nashville Hot Chicken Sandwich. It’s a gigantic hunk of chicken breast (about half a pound) smothered in tangy comeback sauce and layered between ranch slaw and a buttered bun with the flakiest crust. Even if you’re not looking for a whole meal, the Blackbook bar is stocked with solid drinks, music, and appetizers. I ordered the shisito peppers, which were bursting with olive oil, lime, and tajin, but many recommend the Super Cheesy Nachos.

Another good pick: Wilma and Freida. Named after the founders’ grandmothers, Wilma and Freida borrows from their recipes to serve “comfort food with a twist.” Their Signature Griddled Meatloaf is sweet, thick, and delicious.

The High Bar, located at the top of the Kimpton Rowan Palm Springs hotel, has one of the best ambiences for weekend drinks. It’s a rooftop bar decked with striped orange lounge chairs and a glowing pool in the center. Sip on a Kick Back, Relax — a smoky and sweet drink made up of reposado tequila, del maguey vida mezcal, and grapefruit — while looking at sweeping views of Palm Springs at night. The bar is open to non-guests after 4 p.m., so you might even be able to see the city at sunset if you time it right.

The quiches at L’atelier Cafe stand tall — and they stand on their own. Smooth and bursting with mushrooms and chunks of chicken that feel like they belong in pot pie, the chicken quiche is a must try at this French restaurant. L’atelier also serves great coffee from a Bay Area roaster, Mr. Espresso, and makes their own vanilla syrup, a sweetener that avoids the artificial cloyingness in favor of bringing out the coffee’s own richness.

Additional tips: 1. There isn’t much public transportation in the city, and while the streets are very walkable, you’ll need to drive to get around. Download a rideshare app or rent a car. If you opt for the first choice, keep in mind that Uber Pool wasn’t an option for me when I was there, and I had to ride pricier UberXs. 2. Palm Springs is dry and warm. Bring tissues wherever you go if you’re prone to nosebleeds. 

Grace Li covers arts, culture, and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at gli@sfweekly.com.

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