Just like in the sci-fi rom-com movie that bears its name, time moves differently in Palm Springs. It’s unlikely you’ll get stuck in a technicolour Groundhog Day like Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti’s characters, but there’s a palpable sense that the past and future are indistinguishable from each other here.
Although the Cahuilla Native Americans have lived there for thousands of years, the Californian city as we know it didn’t exist until around 1920 onwards, when Nellie Coffman’s Desert Inn sparked a wave of similar resorts and brought Hollywood’s elite a few hours’ east for some downtime.
Evidence of this is best seen in the Movie Colony neighbourhoods where the likes of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby built homes in the 1930s, but the Palm Springs Walk of Stars shows that everyone from Liberace to Barack Obama have lived there over the years.
Then there’s the El Rancho Vista and Deepwell Estates, Indian Canyons and Twin Palms, where homes built by the likes of Albert Frey, Roy Fey, Donald Wexler, William Krisel and E. Stewart Williams could fit perfectly into 1950s suburban Americana or some sort of Jetsons-style outer space colony.
While I waited for my connecting flight from San Francisco to Palm Springs, I got chatting to an elderly woman who questioned why I’d want to visit over hotspots like LA. With a median age of 51, it’s thought of as a haven for pensioners looking to play golf in Hawaiian shirts.
Not only would I find out just how much more Palm Springs has to offer, though, I’d become enamoured by the very things that make it attractive to retirees, from the leisurely pace of life to how every facet of the place is sprinkled with old-school charm.
Palm Springs, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
The reason for my trip to Palm Springs was first and foremost to attend the city’s twice-yearly Modernism Week.
The 11-day festival in February features more than 350 events, from parties and estate sales to tours of the area’s most famous properties, with October’s ‘mini-Modernism’ event lasting four days and encompassing a curated selection of activities.
The Architectural Bus Tour is a great way to start a design-focused trip to Palm Springs, giving you a feel for the history of the buildings.
The double-decker cruises past a number of the homes synonymous with the Palm Springs aesthetic: Frank Sinatra’s Twin Palms estate, the ‘House of Tomorrow’ where Elvis and Priscilla Presley spent their honeymoon, and the Kaufmann Desert House which played host to the famous Slim Aarons Poolside Gossip photograph.
If you’re a Don’t Worry Darling fan, you can immerse yourself in the world of Haz and Flo with a tour of some of the properties in their street. Much of the film was shot here, and the fictional town of Victory where it was set is said to be a ‘love letter’ to Palm Springs modernism.
One of the highlights for me was the Shag House, decorated in signature style of artist Josh Agle (who works under the moniker Shag). It was as if every wall and piece of furniture came from a dream of what life should look like; a colourful, kitsch heaven.
The homes are artworks in themselves, but there’s loads more to see around the Greater Palm Springs area.
I was lucky enough to spend time with Ruben Gonzalez, an artist, construction contractor and self-described ‘Mexican picker’ who knows the Coachella Valley like the back of his hand.
The majority of residents of this area of Greater Palm Springs are Mexican, and the wealth of street art (much of which is by Ruben and his family) on display reflects this: striking 3D alebrije sculptures carved into trees, a Cesar Chavez memorial, and a 1,000ft wall of murals depicting Chicano history.
My travel companions and I then got the chance to visit Ruben’s Ranch, an art installation cum event venue cum living museum of items collected over the years. Ruben has hosted the likes of Drake and Paris Hilton at Coachella Festival afterparties and Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA filmed two music videos here, and it’s clear to see why. The space is packed with curios and original works – there’s even a couple of peacocks that live there.
Food and drink
If you’re in Coachella, you have to visit Jalisco. This family-run restaurant serves up proper tacos, burritos and tostadas. I recommend the melt-in-your-mouth goat birria with a side of sugar-laden Mexican Coke. An iced Spanish latte from nearby Sixth Street Coffee also goes down a treat in the sweltering weather.
Ace Hotel’s Palm Springs restaurant (a converted Denny’s) does a mean all-American brunch, or you can pick up a Townie Bagel to fuel your day’s sightseeing. Alternatively, enjoy a leisurely breakfast at your hotel: I’m still reminiscing about the lobster frittata from Grapefruit Basil at the Tommy Bahama Miramonte.
Later on, get a touch of old Hollywood at Kaiser Grille, try out the signature date shakes at Shields Date Garden, or head to Kardashian-favourite spot Porta Via for more modern Californian fare. One of the standout meals for me was the tapas at Sol Y Sombra within the Paloma Resort, in particular the moreish charred brussels sprouts and chorizo.
If you’re into drag, RuPaul’s Drag Race alum Trixie Mattel opened Trixie Motel 2002, and it’s well worth a visit whether you’ve watched the ‘making of’ show on Discovery+ or not. Breathtakingly beautiful queen Paige Matthews hosts an intimate weekly show called Three in the Pink in the candy-coloured paradise’s lounge, complete with big tunes, brilliant crowd work and death drops aplenty.
Palm Springs also holds a huge annual Pride parade and festival attracting around 125,000 visitors from around the world. Floats take to the streets for the largest equal rights march and diversity celebration in the region, and it’s free admission to watch acts like Idina Menzel, Pussy Riot, Todrick Hall, Heather Small, and TLC perform.
While exploring around the hotel one afternoon, I came across One Eleven, one of the city’s oldest gay venues, and a truly beautiful interaction left my heart warmer than the desert sun. Upon entering, my friend and I were greeted by a horseshoe bar teeming with older men. We were the only women in there, and although the atmosphere and service were friendly, it was pretty intimidating.
Once we got our cocktails we sat on the terrace outside and were followed a few minutes later by a seasoned regular. I’ll never forget Bob’s warm welcome and reassurance that we were in a safe space for lesbian and queer women as well as gay men. In a world where LGBT+ people can feel isolated even among their peers, it brought home the sense of community that typifies Palm Springs.
It wouldn’t be California without a bit of woo woo, but even the biggest sceptic would struggle not to relax during a Gather Yoga and Wellness sound bath. Lie back and immerse yourself in the meditative waves of gongs, singing bowls and tuning forks and your troubles will drift away.
The Spa at Séc-he is also a must visit for clearing your mind. This massive resort combines high-tech treatments like cryotherapy and acoustic grounding along with those that honour the ancient rituals of Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.
You can chill by the pool and have drinks brought to your cabana, but the Taking of the Waters ceremony is something else. A soak in a private bath filled with mineral-rich spring water that’s spent 12,000 years underground is about as restorative as it gets.
For an extra special experience, Sky Watcher stargazing can bring the cosmos to you. As our guide talked us through the constellations and planets by the pool, giving us a close-up look with an AI-powered telescope, it was so magical I had to hold back tears.
Is the great outdoors more your thing? There’s no shortage of natural beauty here.
A Red Jeep Tour around the San Andreas Fault should whet your appetite for exploration – and it’s far safer than hiking the desert on your own. Wear trainers or boots for this one, as you’ll be climbing through slot canyons and investigating a natural palm oasis where wildlife (including the odd snake) is abundant.
At the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway you’ll still get the gorgeous views, but there’s the added benefit of fewer venomous predators lurking. The world’s largest rotating tram car, it takes travellers over two miles up to the cliffs of Chino Canyon, with a restaurant, observation deck and hiking trails at the top.
After all that, you might want more than memories to mark your time in Palm Springs. Retail therapy is never far away, but it’s the vintage and retro shopping that sets this place apart.
Iconic Atomic is a fashion treasure trove, while Gypsyland is a wonderland for magpies who love nothing more than rummaging away. Even the thrift stores here are amazing thanks to the quality of what the locals donate, so pop into a Goodwill or Revivals (which supports the Desert Aids Project) and you could find a gem or two.
Since landing back in the UK, everything has felt somewhat grey in comparison to the stylish, sun-kissed Palm Springs. Thanks to the few bits I picked up from Destination PSP, my cold London flat has a touch of midcentury flair. When I look at the colourful coasters and prints, though, I can’t help but think they just don’t make things like they used to. The only solution is to head back to Palm Springs and back to the aesthetically-pleasing future it represents.
Where to stay and how to get there:
I stayed in two different hotels while I was in Palm Springs. The first was the newly-opened Tommy Bahama Miramonte in Indian Wells, set over 11 acres of olive groves and citrus trees. As well as beautifully presented rooms and three peaceful pools, little touches like live music by the firepits in the evening and staff who encourage you to pick fruit in the gardens (which they can then make you a cocktail with) give it a distinctive edge.
The second was the Paloma Resort in Cathedral City, which was formerly Elizabeth Arden’s weight loss retreat and then a retirement community. Now, it encompasses 66 bungalows and suites decorated in pink and blue, as well as an Instagram-friendly pool and bar that are Palm Springs personified.
Flights from London to Palm Springs (with a short stopover in Denver, LA or San Francisco) via United Airlines start at £545 return.
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