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Things to do on your trip to Palm Springs, California

Patrons sit poolside at Sparrows Lodge in Palm

Patrons sit poolside at Sparrows Lodge in Palm Springs, California.  Credit: For The Washington Post/Jenna Schoenefeld

Nestled in the shadow of the San Jacinto Mountains, Palm Springs, California, has long been the desert-resort darling of Los Angeles, just a two-hour drive away, notorious traffic willing. Serviced by an international airport, and less than an hour's drive from Joshua Tree National Park and Coachella, Palm Springs also draws far-off fans of the region's endless outdoor activities, rich history and architectural marvels. Droves descend for the city's annual international film festival, Tour de Palm Springs cycling event and especially its celebration of all things mid-century modern during Modernism Week, among other yearly festivals. Travelers coming this year and next will be able to enjoy a Native American cultural museum, bathhouse and spa complex, and a 10,000-seat live-entertainment/ice hockey arena, both under construction by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, the modern-day descendants of the first residents of the region.

The Agua Caliente Band's ancestors named the region Sec-he, or "boiling water," and made good use of its hot springs and canyon oases in tempering the extremes of the local climate. After the 1877 completion of the Southern Pacific railroad, the area saw a gradual influx of white settlers, explorers and health-seekers drawn by the city's 300 days a year of sun and its dry desert air - the perfect curative for upper-respiratory ills.

Hollywood caught wind of Palm Springs' charms as early as 1919. The town provided an ideal playground for Tinseltown actors who wanted a luxurious getaway but needed to remain within two hours of Los Angeles, according to their studio contracts, just in case they were called back for last-minute shoots. Adding to the area's allure, pesky reporters of the past only received reimbursements for travel within a 100-mile radius of Los Angeles, so celebrities could bask in relative peace and quiet 107 miles outside the city. Palm Springs soon earned a reputation for both openness and discretion, and it retains its LGBT-inclusive attitude to this day.


Local favorites

You're welcome to rotisserie yourself all day by the side of your hotel pool. But if you want to make like a local, you'll go for a hike. The Long Valley Discovery Trail is more a stroll than a full-on clamber through the woods, but it makes an easy introduction to Palm Springs' miles of trails. Located a tramway ride away (more on that later) inside Mount San Jacinto State Park, the trail is a scenic three-quarter-mile loop suitable for walkers of all ages and experience levels. The walk is ideal from March or April onward (check the weather forecast for the summit on the Palm Springs Tramway website, or give them a call, as temperatures at the top are far cooler than in the desert city) when you are likely to catch a wildflower bloom, and the trail is a welcome respite from the desert heat in the summer and fall. Winter hikers - come equipped for traipsing in the snow, or perhaps skip the tramway trails for the gorgeous oases inside the nearby Indian and Tahquitz canyons.

Palm Springs' proximity to Los Angeles makes it a magnet for cultural activities and the performing arts. One hub is the Annenberg Theater, a 430-seat gem that showcases international acts and community performances alike. This year brings art and architecture lectures, an evening with raconteur David Sedaris, a big-band performance, and offerings from the Palm Springs International Dance Festival and the Palm Springs Gay Men's Chorus. Tip for advance planners: The Annenberg's beloved Cabaret 88 series is already sold out for the season - reserve far ahead of time if you want to attend one of these intimate concerts where audience members are seated onstage with a roster of top-notch Broadway performers.

Guidebook musts

The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway - the largest rotating tram in the world - floats through two complete turns on its 2 1/2-mile trip over the cliffs of Chino Canyon, affording soaring views from all around. The trip takes passengers from the Sonoran Desert to an alpine forest in a little over 10 minutes, and to a climate easily 30 degrees cooler than the valley floor. Go during the day to enjoy the 54 miles of surrounding trails, camping (permit only), guided nature walks in the summer and snow sports in the winter. Or wait until sunset, and do a slow twirl over the valley as the sun puts on a spectacular show. At the mountain station, elevation 8,516 feet, travelers can enjoy a meal at a cafeteria or two full-service restaurants (Peaks Restaurant is closed through May 2020), or cozy up to the Lookout Lounge cocktail bar. The mountain station also features documentaries and displays about the tramway's history and the surrounding Mount San Jacinto State Park. As I walked out of the mountain station, I marveled at the thick-falling snow, as did the man standing next to me. "Is that snow?" he asked. "We've never seen snow before, we're from Hawaii!" Cross-country ski and snowshoe equipment is available for rental when the Winter Adventure Center at the top is open. Consider buying tram tickets online in advance during holiday or special-event periods in Palm Springs to cut down on long waits.

What better way to delve into the area's fascinating history than on a Palm Springs Historical Society Tour with an expert guide? The mid-century modern architecture for which Palm Springs is famed is also known for being "discreet to the street" - which suited the city's many celebrity residents just fine. Amble along with one of the Historical Society's guides, though, and experience that history unlocked - tales and tidbits about the city's founding, architectural and even landscaping details, Hollywood stars' lives, and photos of stunning interiors and pools, pools, pools (a Palm Springs passion) hidden by demure facades. Our tour group got especially lucky - as we were standing outside the late Kirk Douglas' former home, the brother of the new owner emerged and invited us in to gawk at the house mid-renovation, including a guest casita papered over from wall to ceiling with vintage Kirk Douglas movie posters, a K-shape pool and an immaculate tennis court. The Historical Society offers 11 walking tours centered on different themes and neighborhoods, from the Uptown Design District, to an exploration of "Rat Pack Playground" history. Tours take place in the morning before the sun reaches full broil and last just under three hours. Other Historical Society alternatives include a biking tour, private jaunts with a guide and special tours during Modernism Week.


Local favorites

At Peninsula Pastries Palm Springs, you can smell the butter even before you bite into one of this strip-mall bakery's croissants. Oftentimes, there's a queue outside the doors even before opening, and for good reason. The pastries and breads are made with imported French flour and butter - the baguettes have a peerless crust, the croissants are curls of countless flaky layers. Check out the daily bread specials, including a divine roasted-sesame loaf, toasty with seeds inside and out.

Sure, you could get the titular burger. My Tyler's Burgers server admitted to eating a slider nearly every day, sometimes topped with chili. But consider the salads, none of them made with any fussy greens. We're talking brawny and super fresh tuna salad, egg salad or chicken salad sandwiches, served with a side of - yes - potato salad that's just the right amount of creamy and comforting. Hours and seating are limited, so the outdoor covered patio is often heaving with diners. Try to come during off hours or expect a wait.

Guidebook musts

You wouldn't be dining in Palm Springs if you didn't hit at least one steakhouse. The velvet-boothed, marble-floored setting at Mr. Lyons is as plush as it is retro, but the menu is far from outdated. This is the rare steakhouse where even a vegetarian could dine delighted. Of course the steaks are impeccable, but a vegetarian Wellington? A vegan chopped salad? All just as decadent as their meaty counterparts. For a more casual evening, dine in the lounge and feast on the burger - impeccable char on the outside, napkin-sopping juicy on the inside. Come early for a drink at Seymour's, a speakeasy-style shrine to vintage decor and craft cocktails, tucked inside the steakhouse; save room at the end of your evening for an order of melty beignets served with a trio of sweet sauces.

Bright red banquettes, elaborately tiled floors, handblown glass lanterns - welcome to a vision of mid-century modern . . . Mexico. Tac/Quila's decor is dedicated to the 1950s-era art and cultural scene of our neighbor to the south, and its food is just as vibrant. The short-rib taco is succulent, and the irresistible Mexican corn comes sizzling in a skillet. It's the street-food snack of elote, or roasted corn on the cob slathered in mayonnaise, crema, chili powder, lime and cotija cheese, but stripped down to the kernels, resulting in far less mess than usual. Tac/Quila is walk-in only, so come early or come late; if you have to wait, sidle up to the bar and enjoy something off the restaurant's formidable list of tequilas, mescals or expertly crafted cocktails.


Local favorites

Locals love On the Mark Palm Springs, a gourmet food market and deli just off the city's main drag on Palm Canyon Drive. A well-rounded cheese selection and charcuterie display are perfect for putting together a picnic. Condiments and ingredients - from Kelly's Taco Tuesday Cheezy Parm to Plantin Dried Morels - make wonderful gifts for the gourmet in your life. The store is tricked out with sampling stations galore - try to step away from the bacon jam long enough to order up a sandwich at the deli. They're delicious and plenty big enough for sharing. (The BEEF, with a healthy schmear of horseradish aioli instead of the usual garlic, is great for those looking for extra zing.) On the Mark Palm Springs also hosts regular wine tastings and Champagne and caviar nights.

Look good and do good all in one go at Revivals Palm Springs, a thrift store where 100% of the proceeds go to the Desert AIDS Project. The huge store is well-organized and stocked with gently used furniture, home goods and clothing, among many other essentials. The men's selection is particularly choice - one friend reported a Revivals haul of 14 pairs of mint-condition Ferragamo loafers for $8 a pop. The store even offers new furniture under the local brand Mode at Revivals, much of it in Palm Springs' signature mid-century modern style.

Guidebook musts

The Shops at Thirteen Forty Five, set in a 1955 modernist building designed by pioneering desert architect E. Stewart Williams, have vintage and modern furniture, clothing chic and boho, housewares and art. Check out H20 Closet for an expertly curated selection of candles and hard-to-find skin care, and Soukie Modern for vibrant vintage and new Moroccan rugs, blankets and one-of-a-kind handbags.

The irresistible, candy-colored Shag the Store is dedicated to the art of Shag, a.k.a. Southern California artist Josh Agle. Influenced by commercial illustration, Shag's style is kinetic and vivid - his subjects cavort about and down martinis at Palm Springs pool parties or on L.A.'s Sunset Strip. It's not all fun and games, though. The kitsch-retro feel of his work still manages to reveal a bit of the alienation or loneliness inside even the liveliest of his tableaux. Agle also has a soft spot for monsters and sci-fi characters, depicting them sitting with their pets, perhaps, or joyriding through the desert in their convertibles. The store also offers Shag-emblazoned merchandise such as throw pillows, beach towels and women's socks featuring the artist's distinctive depictions of cats, wide-faced and effortlessly aloof.


Local favorite

If you've had enough of the town's love affair with mid-century modern architecture, come stay at Sparrows Lodge. Even though it was built in 1952, the lodge exemplifies rustic chic, with 20 rooms built around a serene pool and garden compound made all the quieter for the adults-over-21-only policy. Phone- and TV-free, the rooms are done up in russet walls, polished concrete floors and rock inlay. A beautiful barn is open for lunch daily, and for family-style roast-chicken dinners on Wednesday, and steak Saturdays.

Guidebook must

The 144-room Parker Palm Springs splashes out over 14 acres, every bit of it bold and cheeky in the style of designer Jonathan Adler. A wall collection of macramé owls, for example, flanking a massive round firepit in the middle of the lobby sitting room. The hotel also boasts three pools, two tennis courts, and pétanque and croquet options, along with a luxurious spa with 15 private-treatment rooms. Need to refuel from all that pampering and playing? Take your pick of three dining venues, including "the world's smallest restaurant" for two, and drink away at the hotel's three bars or even a lemonade stand; the Counter Reformation wine bar also serves small plates.


Local favorites

Little Tuscany sits right at the foot of Mount San Jacinto, and the wild and rocky backdrop provides an ideal setting for the architecturally significant homes dotted throughout the neighborhood. Located on the northwestern edge of town, just above West Vista Chino and North Palm Canyon Drive, it is well worth a leisurely drive. At 470 West Vista Chino lies one of the world's most significant mid-century modern structures. The Kaufmann Desert House or "the machine in the desert," was designed by architect Richard Neutra and built in 1946. Barry Manilow's former home is only partially visible from the street, but modernist madmen will consider it well worth the glimpse. The historic Edris House, designed by Williams, looks like a craggy hillside built a beautiful home out of its own rock. Once you get your fill of architecture, head up to the northern trailhead of the North Lykken Trail. Not for the tender of heart (or ankles), it provides a scenic scramble up the side of the mountain.

Guidebook must

Known as the "Beverly Hills of Palm Springs," beautifully manicured Old Las Palmas is chock-full of former and current celebrity homes. The streets are wide, flat and softly curved - well-suited for a stroll or exploration on bike. Countless celebrities owned or own houses within the neighborhood, which is dominated by mid-century modern homes and more ornate Spanish Colonial Revival villas and compounds. Cary Grant, Lena Horne and author Sidney Sheldon all lived here; Leonardo DiCaprio owns a home that formerly belonged to Dinah Shore. Cruise by cowboy singer and actor Gene Autry's former estate at 328 W. Mountain View Pl. and peer through the gates. On the lawn you'll see a horse statute - an homage to Autry's on-screen companion, Champion the Wonder Horse. According to our Historical Society tour guide, Autry had the remains of all the horses that played Champion cremated and then placed their ashes in the statue.

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