Palm Springs Destination Guide

Palm Springs was long referred to as the ‘Gay 90s,’ the assumption being that you were either gay or 90 to be in residence. But in recent years this mellow, low-level city of 40,000 in the Californian desert has been attracting new crowds alongside those who have been in-the-know about its charms for years.  Mid-century enthusiasts and hipsters – many of them with children – now throng to Palm Springs, for weekend respite from Los Angeles just 107 miles away, or for mid-winter warmth from further afield. And it’s not hard to see why: chic lodgings, stunning desert scenery, fabulous (largely child-friendly) dining, pools galore, fabulous vintage shopping, year-round sunshine and a light dusting of Hollywood Regency courtesy of the ghosts of Frank and Marilyn, make Palm Springs a hot family destination – either on its own, or as part of a West Coast road trip – with a vibe as cool as a chilled Californian Chardonnay.

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PERSONAL BESTS

  1. Brunch in eclectic Jonathan Adler-designed chic-ery at The Parker (see EAT)
  2. Relax poolside at The Riviera or your very own mid-century rental pad (see STAY)
  3. Stroll the Thursday night art market beneath desert stars (see SEE&DO)
  4. Hike the dry hills and gulches of the Joshua Tree State Desert (see FURTHER AFIELD)
  5. Explore the cool pools and palms of Indian Canyons (see SEE&DO)

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ORIENTATION

Palm Springs is a compact city, with much of the action centred on two main streets:  Palm Canyon Drive, N and S (where you’ll find lots of shops, restaurants, bars and cafes, and Forever Marilyn: see SEE&DO), and the slightly less action-packed  Indian Canyon Drive, N and S, one street parallel to the east.

To the west of S Palm Canyon Drive , you’ll find the Historic Tennis Club neighbourhood, founded in 1937, nestled inside of which are gorgeous, tucked-away Mediterranean-style estates, including the Viceroy Hotel (see EAT), above which are the Las Palmas and Old Las Palmas neighbourhoods, both filled with old-world and glitzy (often celebrity) estates. West again lie the stunning San Jacinto mountains, accessible by way of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway (see SEE&DO) on the northern portion of Palm Canyon Drive.

To the east of S Indian Canyon Drive lie a number of other historic neighbourhoods, including the Movie Colony, where stars like Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope built their homes from the ’30s onwards, and, further south, Tahquitz River Estates, also developed from the ’30s and onward.  All these neighbourhoods contain stunning modernist architectural treasures, viewable by self-guided tour (see SEE&DO).  Beyond them to the east lies the Palm Springs International Airport, an easy hop, skip and jump from the city centre.

SEE & DO

Much of Palm Springs’ charm is in the being rather than the doing: it’s easy to let hot days slip away without straying far from the pool, unless, of course, it’s to grab lunch somewhere sensational. But there are a few things worth forsaking lounger, lotion and water-wings for – even if only for a single active afternoon. Central city life revolves around S. Palm Canyon Drive, where most shops and many restaurants are situated, and S. Indian Canyon Drive, which runs parallel.

Villagefest

On Thursday evenings, from 6pm to 10pm (7pm to 10pm Oct-Apr), stroll S Palm Canyon Drive with PS locals for 200 booths of yummy food, vintage finds, and arts and handicrafts. If your gang is feeling up to it, drop into Palm Springs Art Museum, where entrance is free on Thursday evenings between 4pm and 8pm (along with every second Sunday) – making a quick fly-through before bedtime all the more enticing.

Forever Marilyn

You really can’t miss her: towering 26ft feet tall over S. Palm Canyon Drive in The Seven Year Itch style, artist Seward Johnson’s massive Marilyn Monroe is an obligatory photo stop, if only for your offspring to answer the burning question: just what is she wearing underneath those billowing skirts?

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Palm Springs Aerial Tram

Take a trip up the world’s largest rotating tramcar, which rises 6000ft up Chino Canyon in just 10 minutes. At the top, take in the scenery, take a hike, head out on a free guided nature walk, or – in winter –snow-shoe and snowball fight, before returning to the ever-balmy temperatures below.

Indian Canyons

Easy hikes into beautiful palm-studded oases canyons make a visit to Indian Canyons (just a five minute drive from the town centre) immensely appealing during the cooler months of the year. Start out early, and bring lots of drinking water  – and perhaps a picnic – for along the way. The 3-mile Victor Trail loop is a great one with little ones: minimal climbing rewarding you with excellent views of the city below. Afterwards, recover at the Trading Post with an ice cream whilst watching the hummingbirds raid the sugar-water feeders.

Tahquitz Canyon

Another beautiful hike just minutes from the town centre, Tahquitz Canyon offers a 2-mile round hike to a pretty (if chilly) pool and waterfall. A lovely way to begin a winter morning, or follow-up a morning poolside.

College of the Desert Street Fair

Held on Saturdays and Sundays year-round, this farmers’-market-come-arts-fair, held in the parking lots of the College of the Desert campus, is a fabulous way to make like a PS local. Arrive early (it opens at 7am) to beat the heat.

Palm Springs Air Museum

Keen young aviators will likely love a whiz around one of the world’s largest collections of still-flyable Second World War planes. The best part? The planes aren’t roped off, so you can get right up close and personal, and there are flight simulators to try your own hand at flying.

Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway

If your children (or you) happen to be big fans of The King, contemplate a quirky-but-kind-of-cool visit to this modernist masterpiece, in which Elvis and Priscilla spent their honeymoon in 1967. You’ll be greeted by a costumed actor (usually Priscilla) to show you around; tours last about an hour, and children are welcome but must be accompanied at all times.

Knott’s Soak City

A few minutes by car from the city centre, on S. Gene Autry Trail, you’ll find all the chutes and splashes your hearts desire, at this expansive water park equipped with slides to suit all ages and fear-levels, and cabañas for those who need respite from hoards of other people’s children. Book online in advance for decent savings on tickets for over-12s.

Mid-Century Architecture Tour

Likely not top on your list with small children in tow or in the blistering heat of high summer, fans of mid-century modern might nevertheless consider strapping little people into air-con car seats and swinging by the stunning mid-century marvels scattered throughout the city. A fab self-guided tour app,  from the Palm Springs Modern Committee features over 80 mid-century landmarks, plus architect profiles and narration by architectural historians. You can also pick up a paper map from the Palm Springs Visitor Center ,  itself designed in the ’60s as a  Jetsons-esque gas station.

Modernism Week

On another mid-century note, if you happen to be hitting Palm Springs in February, keep an eye out for Modernism Week activities, which include tours, talks, movies, and even a Modernist yard sale.

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STAY

Note – with a heavy sigh – that many of Tripadvisor’s top-ranked Palm Springs hotels don’t accept children. Also be aware that many PS hotels hit you for a daily “resort fee” in addition to room rates, which can drive up your final bill quite a bit. It’s worth negotiating a deal to ditch it if you’re booking last-minute outside peak winter weekends.

The Saguaro  A candy-coloured confection comprising an old revamped multi-storey motel, The Saguaro has decent, well-decorated, relatively roomy rooms, many with two Queen beds, and some sweet two-bedroom suites. The pool is large, the atmosphere laid-back, and children welcome – only beware the Saturday pool parties (see SKIP below) unless you’re happy to be bobbing about with drinking, partying twenty-somethings.

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Ace Hotel  Hipster Central, the Ace, whose Kings Highway diner was once a mid-century Denny’s, is a great choice for a laid-back family stay – though again, the weekend pool parties can be loud, hot and long. Vinyl record players in the rooms, cruiser bikes to borrow, great décor, and a relaxed, inclusive attitude to children make a stay in sometimes small, sometimes hot rooms far more appealing. Drop into the lobby to have your family picture taken in the retro photo booth.

The Parker  At the tippy-top end of Palm Springs accommodation offerings, The Parker has it all: lush gardens replete with croquet lawns, pools, a lemonade stand and hidden corners enough to bring out the Secret Garden in anyone; luxe, airy child-friendly lodgings, two fantastic restaurants (see EAT) and Jonathan Adler style galore. If you’re feeling flush, splash out on a villa; if not, it’s still well worth cramming into a room, particularly if you score an off-season discount. The only downside is that one of its two pools (the ‘Gene Autry’) is adults-only.

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The Riviera   A huge old-school hotel dating back to the city’s ’50s heyday with slick, nicely redesigned rooms ranged in blocks around several large pools, The Riviera offers a stylish stay away from much of the Palm Springs party madness and a relaxed, but still stylish, charm that makes it a personal favourite of ours. Be sure to see your room (or a couple of them) before plumping for one; some families may prefer ground floor rooms due to low-walled balconies on upper levels.

Spin and Margie’s Desert Hide-a-way True, it’s not in Palm Springs, but at the west entrance to the Joshua Tree National Park, a 30 minute drive away. True, it doesn’t have a pool. But Spin and Margie’s has character, and we mean, character in italics. Arty, boutiquey, extremely cool and entirely singular, its four suites and cabin are all super cute and comfy. Stay here to rejuvenate the desert way: no mid-century madness, just good, old fashioned relaxing, outdoorsy fun.

Airbnb and VRBO  Both treasure-troves of mid-century marvels for rent throughout Palm Springs, a vacation-rental-by-owner may be just the thing if you’re sticking around for a week or so, if you’re after more space and privacy – particularly pool-wise – or if you’re just not in a hotel frame of mind. Keep an eye out for extra charges such as pool heating, cleaning, and taxes, which can push your total up far higher than the published per-night rate.

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EAT

All these options serve up terrific cocktails for thirsty parents (we love the ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ at King’s Highway) and all welcome children.

Norma’s  You can’t go wrong with a booth or a patio table for breakfast or lunch at The Parker hotel’s Norma’s. Fabulous service makes your family feel welcome – not simply tolerated. Portions are huge, and the menu is comfort food rethought: peanut butter and chocolate waffles, scrummy potato pancakes, and, for the truly gourmet minor, the ‘Zillion Dollar Lobster Fritatta’ served with Sevruga caviar. Go for a wander in the glorious gardens while you wait.

Native Foods Our own little vegans’ favourite for can’t-go-wrong deliciousness, this place might lack location (situated at the back of the Smoke Tree Village Shopping Center on E. Canyon Drive) but it gives back plenty in taste. Go for the classic deli Reuben (homemade sauerkraut, Russian dressing, horseradish ‘cheese’) if you’re craving something super substantial, and don’t skip the cupcakes for dessert. Children can also opt for a separate menu, which includes ‘chicken’ nuggets and quinoa mac and ‘cheese,’ all veganised fabulously. Take-out packs up well for dinner on your hotel room patio – you can call or order online in advance.

Birba  Delicious pizzas (parents’  favourite: braised greens, serrano chile, green olives and smoked mozzarella; children’s pick: Margharita, followed by butterscotch pudding) for dinner at open-air Birba, where children are thoroughly welcomed. The salads are great, too (try the rainbow beets with homemade ricotta), and everything can be ordered takeaway for those hotel-room-with-a-movie evenings.

Cheeky’s The only thing you won’t like about this super-popular breakfast and lunch joint are the queues for a table; make sure, if you’re with hungry young breakfasters, to arrive a few minutes before the 8am opening. Perennially yummy menus change weekly; check the latest online.

Kings Highway  Cool art, colouring books and easygoing staff make Kings Highway  – a one-time Denny’s – at the Ace Hotel a breeze with little people all day long. Tofu breakfast scrambles are great for vegans; milk and cookies for dessert are the perfect bribe for good table manners.

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Citron   Situated at the chic all-white Viceroy Hotel, Citron is a particularly dreamy place for an al fresco Sunday brunch. Skip the dull-as-dishwater kids’ menu, and share a plate of blueberry pancakes and soy chorizo chilaquiles with the little ones instead. We got crayons and colouring sheets too!

Palm Greens Café An excellent place to take your little vegetarians, Palm Greens – tucked into an unpromising-looking mini-mall on S. Palm Canyon Drive is a fresh-and-healthy goldmine of great breakfasts and lunches. Tuck into a fresh corn tamale with eggs or tofu, chilli verde, black beans, avocado and green onion, or a range of veggie ‘BLTs’, burritos and scrambles. There’s also chicken, turkey and salmon on offer, if tempeh’s not your thing. “Hours of Cooperation” are 7am-9pm Tues-Sun, and 7am-3pm Mon.

Las Casuelas A Palm Springs institution, these family-owned Mexican restaurants, with two locations (the little timewarp “Original,” going strong since 1958, and the louder, livelier “Terazza” further south…do we scent a family feud?) on Palm Canyon Drive both serve up fresh, tasty burritos, enchiladas and all the old favourites in generous portions; the “fiesta guacamole,” with big chunks of tomato, at the “Original” is our children’s personal favourite.

Eddie’s Frozen Yogurt  (300 E Arenas Rd; 11am-midnight) Sea salt caramel pretzel flavour. Chocolate milkshake flavour. Cake batter flavour. That’s all we need to say about that.

Sherman’s Deli  If you’re seeking good old-fashioned hot corned beef, French Dip or chopped liver sandwiches, this is the spot. Dine here during Passover for gefilte fish, tzimmes, matzo ball soup, and kugel just like your Bubeleh used to make.

Bill’s Pizza  Huge, tasty award-winning pizzas at this homely, no-frills place; perfect for take-away.

Koffi  The very best coffee in PS to fuel fun-filled parental mornings (opening at 5.30am for those caffeine emergencies), with two locations in town.

CALL THE BABYSITTER

Most of Palm Springs’s hotels have in-room babysitting on offer, usually with 24 hours notice. Take advantage and head out for an adult dinner at upscale-casual Copley’s Restaurant  – once part of Cary Grant’s estate – or Melvyn’s (complete with piano bar and Oysters Rockefeller) for truly old-school glamour . Alternatively, go fancy at French-Californian Le Vallauris,  or head on down to Mister Parker’s  at the Parker – our own personal favourite – for sultry, quirky cool.

SHOP

Lovers of vintage and mid-century furnishings should take a trip up and down central S. Palm Canyon Drive, where a couple of cute toy shops mingle in amongst the sunburst chandeliers and teak credenzas. Smoke Tree Commons on E. Palm Avenue makes a convenient stop for groceries, toiletries and the like. Twenty minutes west out of town, you’ll find Desert Hills Premium Outlets, the mall to head to if you’re looking for labels.

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SKIP

Pool parties on Saturday afternoons. We did it, but it was slightly surreal…Two hundred hipster twenty-year-olds equipped with ironic high-waisted jean shorts, floppy sunhats and oversized sunglasses…and us. If your hotel has a pool party organised (and many of them do), it might be fun to soak up the vibe for a little while, before heading off to do something a little less frenetic. Alternatively, opt for a place that has more than one pool (such as the Riviera), where you can hop from DJ-fuelled madness to limpid, splash-aboutable waters, and back again.

TIPS FOR BABIES & TODDLERS

  • Beware the desert heat! As always when travelling with tinies, bring hats and sunscreen in abundance, and keep an eye out that they are drinking enough fluids. Happily, there are few mosquitos here, so you don’t need to worry about smothering peachy skin in repellent.
  • Most hotels have baby beds on offer, but check there isn’t a nightly charge: if there is, it might be worth bringing a portable version from home.
  • Smoke Tree Commons on E. Canyon Blvd has a Walgreens drug store (chemists) for powdered milk (formula), nappies (diapers), wipes and other supplies. There’s also a sports store selling life jackets (life vests) and swimming costumes (bathing suits) for little ones, as does T J Maxx, just a couple of doors away.
  • Further up E. Canyon Blvd, on the left hand side, you’ll find a great Trader Joe’s and a vast Target – the former perfect for picnic provisions, the latter, for any item – clothes, shoes, or toiletries – that you happen to have left behind.

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OUT OF TOWN

Also see our Joshua Tree Destination Guide for more on nearby Joshua Tree National Park, along with Outsider Art, an inland sea, and an International Banana Museum.

Children’s Discovery Museum

Some 20 minutes by car out of town at Rancho Mirage, this sweet, happy museum gets great reviews from families with young children for its manifold hands-on exhibits. A great respite when the weather gets too hot, most of the museum is in air-conditioned indoor bliss. Great regular activities include such things as “Little Chefs” cooking programs, and “Discovery Tots” drop-ins for toddlers.

The Living Desert

A zoo in a desert, you say? How so? Well, an afternoon will prove there’s definitely more Living in the Desert than meets the eye. Meercats, giraffes, zebra and cheetahs are just some of the residents of the African portion, while native North American coyotes, wolves, jaguars and mountain lions populate other parts of this beautifully landscaped 1200-acre park. Situated in Palm Desert, around 30 minutes drive from central Palm Springs.

Joshua Tree National Park

Nowhere is the Californian desert more stunning than at Joshua Tree, a 50 minute drive from Palm Springs. Tackle a nature trail with smaller children or, for something more strenuous, the three-mile-return Ryan Mountain peak trail, with stunning views out to the surrounding mountains. Be sure to note national park warnings; most hikes and walks are only recommended during the cooler months of the year.

Idyllwild

High up in the San Jacinto mountains, this sweet little pine-scented village of artists and craftsmen makes quite a change from the hot modernism of Palm Springs in the valley below. Hike a forest trail (but beware poison oak!), and stop off for a Peasant Lunch at idiosyncratic Café Aroma. It’s about a 45-minute drive from PS.

Coachella

If you’re planning on visiting the area in April, don’t miss scooping up tickets to this fabulous music festival – which takes place in Indio, 20 miles from Palm Springs – well in advance. You can camp onsite, bus or drive in from PS, to experience a happy festival vibe and a line-up which, in 2013, included the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Stone Roses, Blur, and the Postal Service. Under-5s are free.

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WHEN TO GO

Palm Springs fills up during the winter months, hitting its peaks at Christmas, New Year, and again in March during US Spring Break. Off season, in summer (June-August) prices are lower but it’s hot, hot, hot – so plan on spending lots of time poolside and relaxing in the shade, and note that not all businesses stay open. Year round, the best accommodation prices are to be had mid-week, when you’ll also escape the partying teens, restaurant queues, and bachelorette gaggles in from LA.

TRANSPORT

Palm Springs is easiest navigated by car, since streets are long, hot and wide, and parking is plentiful and free. But if you’re here during cooler months, biking is a great way to get about. BIKE Palm Springs  offers the city’s best range of family-friendly bikes, including cool tandem cruisers, children’s bikes, child seats and tow-along children carriers.

Public transport in the city is green and clean and comes in the form of the SunBus. Trips are cheap ($1 for adults, 85¢ for children, free for under-5s) and the website contains a good route map.

PLAYLIST

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