3 Days in Palm Springs: The Perfect Palm Springs Itinerary

Discover mid-century glamour, desert adventures, and culinary delights in this sun-soaked oasis. Follow this 3-day Palm Springs itinerary for best results!

West Parker
By
West Parker
July 18, 2024

When my wife Sarah and I told our friends we were planning a trip to Palm Springs, their reactions were... less than enthusiastic. "Isn't that just for retirees?" they asked, eyebrows raised. Boy, were they in for a surprise when we got back!

Palm Springs isn't just golf courses and early bird specials (though there's nothing wrong with either of those things). This desert oasis is a treasure trove of mid-century modern architecture, outdoor adventures, and culinary delights that'll make your taste buds do a happy dance.

So, buckle up, sunscreen fanatics! We're about to embark on a whirlwind tour of Palm Springs that'll have you booking your tickets faster than you can say "pool party." Trust me, three days in Palm Springs is the perfect amount of time to get a taste of everything this quirky city has to offer. And who knows? You might just find yourself planning your retirement here after all. (Just kidding... or am I?)

Before You Go: Palm Springs 101

Before we dive into our 3-day Palm Springs itinerary, let's cover some basics to ensure your trip is smoother than a perfectly mixed martini.

When to Visit Palm Springs

Timing is everything, especially when you're dealing with a desert climate. Here's the scoop:

  • October to April: This is the sweet spot. The weather is positively delightful, with daytime temperatures ranging from the 70s to 80s Fahrenheit. It's perfect for outdoor activities and poolside lounging. Just keep in mind that this is also peak tourist season, so book your accommodations early.
  • May to September: If you can handle the heat, you'll be rewarded with lower prices and fewer crowds. But when I say heat, I mean it. Temperatures can soar well above 100°F. Pack your sunscreen, stay hydrated, and plan your outdoor activities for early morning or late evening.
  • Special Events: If you're a fan of festivals, plan your Palm Springs itinerary around events like the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January or Modernism Week in February. Just be prepared for bigger crowds and higher prices.

What to Pack for Your Palm Springs Trip

Packing for Palm Springs is all about staying cool, comfortable, and stylish. Here's what you'll need for your 3 days in Palm Springs:

  • Sunscreen: This is non-negotiable. The desert sun is no joke.
  • Sunglasses and a hat: Protect those peepers and keep the sun off your face.
  • Light, breathable clothing: Think linen shirts, sundresses, and shorts.
  • Swimwear: You'll want to take advantage of those hotel pools.
  • Comfortable walking shoes: For exploring the city and hiking trails.
  • A light jacket or sweater: Evenings can get chilly, especially in winter.
  • Reusable water bottle: Stay hydrated, people!
  • Camera: Trust me, you'll want to capture the stunning architecture and landscapes.

Where to Stay in Palm Springs

Choosing the right place to stay can make or break your Palm Springs experience. Here are some neighborhoods to consider:

  1. Downtown Palm Springs: This is where the action is. You'll be within walking distance of shops, restaurants, and attractions. It's perfect if you want to be in the heart of things.
  2. Uptown Design District: A haven for architecture and design enthusiasts. It's a bit quieter than downtown but still close to the action.
  3. The Mesa: If you're after stunning mountain views and a more secluded atmosphere, this upscale residential area might be your jam.
  4. Indian Canyons: Perfect for nature lovers, this area borders the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation and offers easy access to hiking trails.

For our trip, Sarah and I chose to stay at The Saguaro Palm Springs. With its vibrant colors and lively pool scene, it perfectly captured the fun, retro vibe we were after. Plus, its central location made it easy to explore the city.

Getting Around Palm Springs

Palm Springs is a pretty compact city, but you'll still need to think about transportation. Here are your options:

  • Rent a car: This is the most convenient option, especially if you plan to explore areas outside the city like Joshua Tree National Park. We rented a car and found it super helpful.
  • Ride-sharing services: Uber and Lyft are readily available in Palm Springs.
  • Public transportation: The SunLine Transit Agency operates buses throughout the Coachella Valley. It's budget-friendly but not as convenient as having your own wheels.
  • Bike rentals: Many hotels offer bike rentals, which is a fun way to explore downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods.

Alright, now that we've got the basics covered, let's dive into our 3-day Palm Springs itinerary. Get ready for a perfect blend of relaxation, adventure, and retro cool!

Day 1: Mid-Century Marvels and Downtown Delights

Good morning, sunshine! It's time to kick off your 3 days in Palm Springs with a mix of natural wonders and architectural marvels. Today, we're going to soak in those mountain views, geek out over some seriously cool buildings, and end with a street party that'll make you feel like a local.

Why start with the Aerial Tramway and architecture tour? Well, the Tramway gives you a bird's eye view of the landscape you'll be exploring over the next three days. And the architecture tour? It's like a crash course in Palm Springs culture. By the end of the day, you'll understand why this city is so much more than just a retirement destination.

Soar Above It All at Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway car ascending Mount San Jacinto with desert views below
Riding the world's largest rotating tram car! The 10-minute trip takes you through 5 different climate zones.

Let's kick things off with a bang (or should I say, a lift?). The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is the world's largest rotating tram car, and it's about to give you views that'll make your Instagram followers green with envy.

As you ascend 8,516 feet to the top of Mount San Jacinto, you'll watch the desert landscape transform before your eyes. It's like taking a road trip from Mexico to Canada in just 10 minutes! The temperature drops about 30 degrees as you climb, so maybe keep that light jacket handy.

Once you reach the top, you've got options. There are over 50 miles of hiking trails if you're feeling adventurous. Or, if you're more in the mood for a leisurely stroll, take the 1.5-mile Desert View Trail for some killer photo ops. Sarah and I opted for a short hike followed by lunch with a view at Peaks Restaurant. Trust me, a sandwich tastes way better at 8,500 feet.

Key Information:

  • Location: 1 Tram Way, Palm Springs, CA 92262
  • Hours: First tram up at 10:00 AM, last tram down at 9:45 PM (hours may vary by season)
  • Admission: $26.95 for adults (as of 2023, check website for current prices)

Why Visit: It's not every day you get to ride in a rotating tram car and experience multiple climate zones in minutes. The views alone are worth the trip.

Insider Tip: Go early to beat the crowds and the heat. The first tram up is usually the least crowded, and you'll have more time to explore at the top.

Dive into Design with a Mid-Century Modern Architecture Tour

Vibrant mid-century modern house in Palm Springs showcasing iconic desert modernism architecture
Spotted this gorgeous example of Palm Springs modernism on our architecture tour. The colors against the desert backdrop are stunning!

After lunch, it's time to come back down to earth and dive into what makes Palm Springs truly unique: its incredible mid-century modern architecture.

Palm Springs has the largest concentration of mid-century modern architecture in the world. It's like stepping onto the set of "Mad Men", but with more cacti and less cigarette smoke. The clean lines, glass walls, and integration with the desert landscape will have you seriously considering a career change to architecture (or at least redecorating your living room).

There are several ways to explore the architectural wonders of Palm Springs. You can join a guided tour, rent a bike, or do a self-guided driving tour. We opted for a guided tour with Palm Springs Mod Squad, and it was worth every penny. Our guide was a fountain of knowledge, peppering us with fun facts and juicy stories about the celebrities who once called these houses home.

Some highlights of the tour include:

  • The Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway: Where the King and Priscilla spent their honeymoon in 1967.
  • The Kaufmann House: A masterpiece by Richard Neutra that'll make you rethink your relationship with windows.
  • The Twin Palms Estate: Frank Sinatra's former home, complete with a piano-shaped pool.

Key Information:

  • Location: Various locations around Palm Springs
  • Hours: Tour times vary, check with your chosen tour company
  • Price: Varies by tour, typically around $85-$120 per person

Why Visit: It's a crash course in mid-century modern design and Palm Springs history, all rolled into one stylish package.

Insider Tip: If you're doing a self-guided tour, download the Palm Springs Mod Squad app. It's like having a knowledgeable (and snarky) architecture buff in your pocket.

Embrace the Local Vibe at VillageFest

Lively scene at VillageFest, Palm Springs' popular Thursday night street fair on Palm Canyon Drive
VillageFest is the place to be on Thursday nights in Palm Springs. Great local art, food, and people-watching!

VillageFest

As the sun sets and the desert air cools (slightly), it's time to hit the streets for a Palm Springs tradition: VillageFest. Every Thursday evening, Palm Canyon Drive transforms into a vibrant street fair that'll give you a taste of local life.

Picture this: The streets are closed to traffic, replaced by a sea of white tents housing local artisans, food vendors, and musicians. The air is filled with the smell of kettle corn and the sound of live music. It's like the whole city has come out to play.

Sarah and I had a blast wandering from booth to booth, sampling local treats (the date shakes are a must-try), and picking up unique souvenirs. We scored some amazing handmade jewelry and a funky cactus-shaped lamp that now has pride of place in our living room.

Don't miss the chance to chat with local artists and makers. They've got some great stories to tell and insider tips to share. And if you're lucky, you might even spot a celebrity or two doing some low-key shopping.

Key Information:

  • Location: Palm Canyon Drive between Baristo and Amado Roads
  • Hours: Every Thursday, 7:00 PM to 10:00 PM (October-May), 6:00 PM to 10:00 PM (June-September)
  • Admission: Free

Why Visit: It's a perfect blend of shopping, dining, and people-watching. Plus, it's a great way to support local businesses.

Insider Tip: Come hungry! The food vendors offer a great opportunity to sample local cuisine. And bring cash – some vendors don't accept cards.

Dinner at Workshop Kitchen + Bar

Sleek interior of Workshop Kitchen + Bar in Palm Springs, showcasing industrial-chic design
Dinner at Workshop Kitchen + Bar. The concrete interior is as cool as the cocktails are inventive!

Workshop Kitchen + Bar

After all that walking and shopping, you've earned a fantastic dinner. Cap off your first day in Palm Springs with a meal at Workshop Kitchen + Bar. This James Beard Award-winning restaurant is housed in a 1926 Spanish Colonial building, but the interior is all sleek, modern concrete – a perfect embodiment of Palm Springs' blend of old and new.

The menu changes seasonally, focusing on farm-to-table California cuisine. I highly recommend the duck fat fries (trust me on this one) and whatever fresh fish is on the menu. Sarah fell in love with their craft cocktails – the Bourbon Sour with a red wine float was a particular favorite.

Key Information:

  • Location: 800 N Palm Canyon Dr, Palm Springs, CA 92262
  • Hours: Wednesday-Sunday, 5:00 PM to 10:00 PM (hours may vary, check website)
  • Price: $$$

Why Visit: It's a culinary experience that perfectly captures the essence of modern Palm Springs.

Insider Tip: Make a reservation well in advance, especially during peak season. And if you can, request a seat at the chef's counter for a front-row view of the kitchen action.

As you head back to your hotel, take a moment to reflect on your first day. From mountain views to mid-century marvels, you've already seen so much of what makes Palm Springs special. And the best part? We're just getting started. Tomorrow, we're trading city streets for desert landscapes. Get some rest, because adventure awaits!

Day 2: Desert Adventures and Pool Party Bliss

Rise and shine, desert explorers! Today we're venturing beyond the city limits to experience the raw beauty of the California desert. Then, we'll cool off with some quality pool time before diving into Palm Springs' trendy food scene. It's the perfect mix of adventure and relaxation.

Why this order? Well, you'll want to hit Joshua Tree early to beat the heat (and the crowds). Plus, after a morning of hiking, that hotel pool is going to feel extra refreshing. And let's be honest, you'll have earned that fancy dinner after all that exercise.

Joshua Tree National Park: Where the Desert Comes Alive

Iconic landscape of Joshua Tree National Park with distinctive trees and boulder formations
Felt like we were on another planet exploring Joshua Tree. Those rock formations are a rock climber's dream!

Joshua Tree National Park

Alright, early birds, it's time to catch the desert worm (or lizard, as the case may be). We're heading to Joshua Tree National Park, a place that looks like it was dreamed up by Dr. Seuss after a peyote-fueled vision quest.

As you drive into the park (about an hour from Palm Springs), you'll be greeted by a landscape that seems almost alien. Twisted Joshua trees stretch their spiky arms towards the sky, while massive rock formations loom in the distance like sleeping giants.

There's so much to see and do in Joshua Tree, but here are a few must-dos:

  1. Hidden Valley Nature Trail: An easy 1-mile loop that gives you a great introduction to the park's flora and fauna. Keep an eye out for rock climbers scaling the nearby cliffs!
  2. Keys View: Drive up to this viewpoint for a panoramic vista of the Coachella Valley. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Mexico.
  3. Cholla Cactus Garden: Walk carefully through this dense patch of "teddy bear" cholla. They may look cuddly, but trust me, you don't want to hug these guys.
  4. Skull Rock: This natural rock formation looks just like a giant skull. It's right off the main park road and makes for a great photo op.

Sarah and I spent about 4 hours exploring the park, but you could easily spend a full day here if you're into hiking or rock climbing. Just remember to bring plenty of water, sunscreen, and snacks. The desert sun is no joke, people!

Key Information:

  • Location: 74485 National Park Dr, Twentynine Palms, CA 92277
  • Hours: Open 24/7, year-round
  • Admission: $30 per vehicle for a 7-day pass

Why Visit: It's a chance to experience the unique beauty of the Mojave Desert up close and personal. Plus, those Joshua trees are seriously photogenic.

Insider Tip: Stop at the visitor center on your way in to pick up a map and get the latest trail conditions. And if you're visiting in spring, check ahead to see if the wildflowers are blooming – it's a spectacular sight!

Cool Off with a Palm Springs Pool Party

Lively pool scene at Ace Hotel & Swim Club in Palm Springs, capturing the city's famous pool party culture
Soaking up the sun at Ace Hotel's pool party. The DJ's spinning great tunes and the mountain views are unbeatable.

After your morning desert adventure, it's time to cool off and experience another Palm Springs must-do: the hotel pool scene.

Now, if you're staying at a hotel with a great pool (like we did at The Saguaro), you're all set. Just grab your suit, slather on some sunscreen, and claim your lounge chair. But if your hotel's pool is more kiddie pool than cool pool, don't worry. Many hotels in Palm Springs offer day passes to their pools.

We spent our afternoon at the Ace Hotel & Swim Club, which has a reputation for throwing some of the best pool parties in town. Picture this: DJ spinning tunes, craft cocktails flowing, and a mix of locals and tourists soaking up the sun. It's like a mini music festival, but with better amenities and no mud.

If you're looking for something a bit more low-key, the Korakia Pensione offers a more zen-like pool experience. Their Mediterranean-style courtyard feels like an oasis of calm in the desert.

Key Information:

  • Location: Varies by hotel
  • Hours: Typically 10:00 AM to sunset
  • Price: Day passes usually range from $30-$50 per person

Why Visit: It's the quintessential Palm Springs experience. Where else can you sip a cocktail in a pool while surrounded by palm trees and mountains?

Insider Tip: Many hotels offer discounted day passes during the week. And if you're visiting during peak season (winter/spring), arrive early to snag a good spot.

Dinner and Drinks at Tac/Quila

Appetizing display of tacos and a margarita at Tac/Quila restaurant's outdoor patio in Palm Springs
These pork belly al pastor tacos at Tac/Quila are to die for! Paired perfectly with their spicy cucumber margarita.

Tac/Quila

After a day of desert exploration and poolside relaxation, you've earned a great meal. Tonight, we're heading to Tac/Quila, a modern Mexican restaurant that's become a local favorite.

Tac/Quila takes traditional Mexican flavors and gives them a contemporary twist. The result? Dishes that are both familiar and excitingly new. Start with the Queso Fundido (because melted cheese is always a good idea) and then move on to their specialty tacos. The Pork Belly Al Pastor tacos are a game-changer.

And let's not forget the drinks. As you might guess from the name, Tac/Quila takes its tequila seriously. Their extensive list of tequilas and mezcals is impressive, and their margaritas are some of the best in town. Sarah fell in love with their Spicy Cucumber Margarita.

The atmosphere is lively and colorful, with a beautiful patio that's perfect for enjoying those warm desert evenings. It's the ideal spot to toast to another fantastic day in Palm Springs.

Key Information:

  • Location: 415 N Palm Canyon Dr, Palm Springs, CA 92262
  • Hours: Sunday-Thursday 11:30 AM - 9:00 PM, Friday-Saturday 11:30 AM - 10:00 PM
  • Price: $$

Why Visit: It's a perfect blend of traditional Mexican flavors and Palm Springs flair. Plus, those margaritas!

Insider Tip: If you're feeling adventurous, ask your server about their "secret menu" items. And don't skip dessert – the Churro Ice Cream Sandwich is worth every calorie.

As you head back to your hotel, take a moment to appreciate the desert night sky. The stars seem to shine brighter here, away from the big city lights. Tomorrow, we'll dive into the art and culture of Palm Springs, so rest up!

Day 3: Art, Culture, and Culinary Delights

Welcome to your final day in Palm Springs! Today, we're going to immerse ourselves in the city's vibrant art scene, explore its natural wonders, and cap it off with a culinary adventure. It's a perfect blend of culture, nature, and gastronomy to round out your Palm Springs experience.

Why end with art and food? Well, by now you've got a feel for the city's vibe and landscape. Today's activities will help you understand the creative spirit that makes Palm Springs so special. Plus, ending with a food tour is a great way to reminisce about your trip and plan your next visit (because trust me, you'll want to come back).

Start Your Day at the Palm Springs Art Museum

Contemporary sculpture exhibit at Palm Springs Art Museum, showcasing the city's vibrant art scene
Stumbled upon this fascinating piece at the Palm Springs Art Museum. Their collection of modern and contemporary art is impressive!

Palm Springs Art Museum

After two days of outdoor adventures, it's time to soak in some culture at the Palm Springs Art Museum. Don't let its relatively small size fool you – this museum packs a serious artistic punch.

The museum's collection is an eclectic mix of contemporary and modern art, with a focus on artists from California and the American West. You'll find works by heavy hitters like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein alongside pieces by local and Indigenous artists.

One of the highlights is the museum's sculpture garden. It's a peaceful oasis where art and nature blend seamlessly. Sarah and I spent a good half hour just sitting in the garden, enjoying the interplay of sculptures and desert plants.

The museum also has a fascinating collection of Native American art and artifacts. It's a great opportunity to learn about the rich cultural history of the region.

Key Information:

  • Location: 101 Museum Dr, Palm Springs, CA 92262
  • Hours: Thursday 12 PM - 8 PM, Friday-Sunday 10 AM - 5 PM (closed Monday-Wednesday)
  • Admission: $14 for adults, free admission on Thursday evenings

Why Visit: It's a world-class art collection in an architecturally stunning building. Plus, it's a great way to beat the midday heat!

Insider Tip: Don't miss the museum's Architecture and Design Center, located in a separate building downtown. It's a must-visit for fans of mid-century modern design.

Hike the Indian Canyons

Scenic view of hikers exploring the lush palm oasis in Indian Canyons, Palm Springs
Hiking through the world's largest California Fan Palm oasis in Indian Canyons. It's hard to believe this is just minutes from downtown!

Indian Canyons

After feeding your soul with art, it's time to reconnect with nature at the Indian Canyons. Owned and operated by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, these canyons offer a glimpse into the area's natural and cultural history.

There are several trails to choose from, but my personal favorite is the Palm Canyon Trail. It leads you through the world's largest California Fan Palm oasis. Walking under the shade of these massive palms, with a bubbling stream nearby, you'll feel like you've discovered a secret desert paradise.

For a shorter hike, check out Andreas Canyon. This easy 1-mile loop takes you past unusual rock formations and another beautiful palm oasis. Keep an eye out for the bedrock mortars used by the Cahuilla people to grind acorns and seeds.

If you're up for a challenge, the Murray Canyon trail leads to the beautiful Seven Sisters Waterfall. Yes, you read that right – a waterfall in the desert! It's about a 4-mile round trip and requires some scrambling over rocks, but the payoff is worth it.

Key Information:

  • Location: 38520 S Palm Canyon Dr, Palm Springs, CA 92264
  • Hours: Open daily 8:00 AM - 5:00 PM (October-July), 8:00 AM - 5:00 PM Friday-Sunday only (July-September)
  • Admission: $12 for adults

Why Visit: It's a chance to experience the unique ecosystem of a desert oasis and learn about the area's Indigenous history.

Insider Tip: Go early in the morning to avoid the heat and crowds. And keep an eye out for bighorn sheep – they sometimes come down to the streams to drink!

Indulge Your Taste Buds with a Food Tour

Food tour participants enjoying a variety of local dishes at an outdoor restaurant in Palm Springs
Sampling Palm Springs' culinary delights on our food tour. The date shake was unexpectedly delicious!

Desert Tasty Tours

What better way to cap off your Palm Springs adventure than with a culinary tour of the city? We joined a tour with Desert Tasty Tours, and it was the perfect way to sample a variety of local flavors.

The tour takes you to several restaurants in downtown Palm Springs, where you'll sample signature dishes and learn about the city's culinary scene. Some highlights from our tour:

  • Mouthwatering date shakes at Great Shakes (dates are a big deal in the Coachella Valley)
  • Gourmet tacos at Bootlegger Tiki
  • Artisanal cheese tasting at Vineyard Touring Company

Between bites, your guide will regale you with stories about Palm Springs history and point out architectural landmarks. It's like a walking tour and a progressive dinner all rolled into one.

Key Information:

  • Location: Tour meets in downtown Palm Springs (exact location provided upon booking)
  • Hours: Tours typically run from 11:00 AM to 2:30 PM
  • Price: Around $85 per person

Why Visit: It's a fun way to sample a variety of local cuisines and learn about Palm Springs culture.

Insider Tip: Come hungry and wear comfortable shoes. And if you have any dietary restrictions, let the tour company know in advance – they're usually great about accommodations.

Alternative Options for Your Last Day

If you're traveling with kids or looking for something different, here are a few alternative options for your third day in Palm Springs:

  1. The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens: This unique zoo focuses on desert animals and plants from around the world. It's a great option for families.
  2. Palm Springs Air Museum: Aviation buffs will love this museum's impressive collection of vintage aircraft, with a focus on World War II planes.
  3. Moorten Botanical Garden: This quirky garden showcases a wide variety of desert plants. Don't miss the "Cactarium"!
  4. Tahquitz Canyon: If you're up for more hiking, this canyon offers a beautiful trail leading to a 60-foot waterfall.

Wrapping Up Your 3 Days in Palm Springs

As the sun sets on your third day in Palm Springs, take a moment to reflect on all you've experienced. From the heights of San Jacinto to the depths of Palm Canyon, from mid-century modern marvels to ancient Native American sites, you've seen a side of Palm Springs that goes way beyond the stereotypes.

Remember how skeptical our friends were when we told them about our trip? Well, Sarah and I couldn't wait to get back and show them our photos. The looks on their faces when we described hiking to a desert waterfall and sipping cocktails by a pool with mountain views? Priceless.

Palm Springs may have started as a playground for Hollywood stars, but it's evolved into so much more. It's a place where nature and design, relaxation and adventure, past and present all come together in a uniquely Californian blend.

Whether you spent your three days in Palm Springs exactly as we did or chose your own adventure, I hope you've fallen in love with this desert gem just like we did. And hey, if you're anything like us, you're already planning your next visit. After all, we still need to try that bike ride down Palm Canyon Drive!

So long, Palm Springs. Stay cool, stay stylish, and keep surprising us. We'll be back soon!

West Parker
West Parker
Article updated:
July 18, 2024 8:12 AM

West Parker, a Cornell University School of Hotel Administration graduate, has spent two decades as the secret weapon of the jet-set elite, crafting bespoke adventures that redefine luxury travel. Now a resident writer for Town & Tourist, this 45-year-old "Architect of Extraordinary Journeys" combines razor-sharp insights with unparalleled industry connections to deliver experiences that even the most discerning globetrotters can't help but rave about. West's expertise spans from exclusive real estate to fine dining, making him the go-to strategist for those who demand nothing but the extraordinary in their travels.

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