Greater Palm Springs: Art, Architecture, and Family Fun

Downtown Palm Springs, California
Downtown Palm Springs. Stephen Hartshorne photos

There's a Lot to Like About Palm Springs, California

By Stephen Hartshorne

Palm Springs, California, is one of the most glamorous and popular destinations in the world.

'What Does the Nose Know?' by Ron Summer, sculpture on El Paseo in Palm Desert, California
'What Does the Nose Know?' by Ron Summer - Sculpture on El Paseo in Palm Desert

Movie stars, rock legends, presidents -- even the crowned heads of Europe -- all come to sunny Palm Springs.

They come to enjoy the scenery, the hot springs, the nightlife, the shopping, the famous mid-century architecture, and a host of cultural attractions from museums, zoos, theaters, films, and concerts to sporting events, expos, outdoor activities and festivals of all kinds.

The Greater Palm Springs area is located in the Coachella Valley and is made up of nine sister cities: Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, La Quinta, Indio, and Coachella.

The Two-Hour Rule

Because Hollywood moviemakers have a 'two-hour rule' that requires actors to stay near the studios in case they're needed on short notice, Palm Springs, about 100 miles from Los Angeles, has been the favored retreat of movie stars since the days of Rudolph Valentino.

Statue of Marilyn Monroe in downtown Palm Springs, California
Statue of Marilyn Monroe in downtown Palm Springs, California

They're drawn by the sunny weather (it hardly ever rains), the spas that have grown up around the hot springs, and the magnificent desert scenery.

The Coachella Valley is surrounded by mountain ranges from five to seven thousand feet high. Thermal belts in the foothills keep it warmer in winter and cooler in summer.

Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby -- the list goes on and on. And of course, the stars all built beautiful homes, which made Greater Palm Springs a showcase of mid-century architecture.

"Sunnylands," the famous retreat founded by businessman and statesman Walter Annenberg and his wife Leonore, also draws US presidents and leaders from all over the world who come to discuss world problems in a relaxed atmosphere with the beauty of nature all around them.

The retreat also has a beautifully laid-out visitor's center with a great variety of desert plants.

Family Fun

'Freewheeling' by Gary Lee Price -- one of the many engaging sculptures on El Paseo
'Freewheeling' by Gary Lee Price -- one of the many engaging sculptures on El Paseo

This influx of the rich and famous -- and the fans who come to catch a glimpse of them -- has brought many luxury hotels and resorts, high-end restaurants, and an upscale shopping district, El Paseo, that has been compared to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.

But the area also has plenty of accommodations for the average family, and the list of things to do is practically endless, and  families can find bargains if they visit during the week or in the summer.

The best place to start is the Greater Palm Springs Convention and Visitors' Bureau website.

Rotating Tramway

Probably the primary attraction is the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, the largest rotating aerial tramway in the world, which climbs to 8,516 feet up the sheer cliffs of Chino Canyon, giving a spectacular view of the San Jacinto Mountains. At the top there are fifty miles of hiking trails, restaurants, theaters, and a museum.

Another popular activity is a jeep tour of the rock foundations around the famous San Andreas Fault. These tours take you through the canyons and rock formations around the fault and provide an opportunity to learn about the Cahuilla Indians who made their home there. There are also jeep tours through the famous Joshua Tree National Park.

Camel rides at The Living Zoo in Palms Deseert, California
Camel rides at The Living Zoo in Palm Desert

Camel Rides

My favorite family fun attraction was the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens with hundreds of animals that live in deserts around the world -- giraffes, camels, cheetahs, bobcats, warthogs, zebras, ostriches and lots more, with signage and exhibits that teach kids about desert ecology.

They offer camel rides and a chance to feed the giraffes from a specially constructed platform.

Kids can also learn about the desert at the Children's Discovery Museum, with lots of hands-on activities and workshops.

The Shields Date Garden was founded in 1924 by Floyd Shields, a pioneer of the date palm industry in the Coachella Valley, who is famous for his short film "Romance and Sex Life of the Date."

Shields developed many hybrids of the date palm including both 'blond' and 'brunette'. He also invented date sugar crystals, which are used to make Palm Springs' signature 'date shakes.

The grounds at Sunnylands, the Annenberg Retreat
The grounds at Sunnylands, the Annenberg Retreat

And, Of Course, Golf

With its wide open flat space, Greater Palm Springs lends itself to the creation of golf courses. The first 18-hole course was built at the Thunderbird Country Club in 1951.

By the 70s there were 40, and now there are more than 100. Both Bob Hope and Dinah Shore established famous celebrity golf tournaments that made the area a mecca of the golf world.

You might want to check out the fledgling sport of 'footgolf' where players kick soccer balls into 21-inch holes. Several courses in Palm Springs offer footgolf,  and the sport was recently featured on Samantha Brown's PBS show "Places to Love."

Any list of family activities would have to include the vintage WWII aircraft at the Palm Springs Air Museum, the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum, and the Sunnylands Center and Gardens.

'Isabelle' bu Julian Voss Andreae, one of many works of art in downtown Palm Springs
'Isabelle' bu Julian Voss Andreae, one of many works of art in downtown Palm Springs

Art Everywhere

What struck me most about Palm Springs was the art, especially the public art; it's everywhere.

Bronze statues of Sonny Bono and Lucille Ball greet you while you're walking down the sidewalk, and sculpture, murals, and other works of art are tucked into courtyards and alleyways.

The center strip of El Paseo is decorated with innovative sculptures, and of course, there's plenty of engaging art on display in the boutiques and galleries.

The Palm Springs Art Museum, besides its main location, has an architecture and design center and a second location in Palm Desert.

And one of the biggest events of the year is Modernism Week. Mid-century Modern is a design movement that includes architecture, graphic design, furniture, and even urban design.

At the annual Modernism Show & Sale at the Palm Springs Convention Center, 85 dealers displayed furniture, decor, and fine arts representing design movements of the 20th century -- in layman's terms that means a lot of cool stuff.

Palm Springs has lots of architectural walking tours and bus tours all year round, but during Modernism Week some homes are open that are usually closed, and there are specially curated tours.

Trying out the furniture at the Modernism Show and Sale at the Palm Springs Convention Center
Trying out the furniture at the Modernism Show and Sale at the Palm Springs Convention Center

From February to May, Palm Springs hosts Desert X, an exhibition of 19 contemporary art installations set up at various locations around the area.

A Lot to Like

I found a lot to like about Palm Springs. For one thing, they have free parking downtown. For another, when you're there, you're there. The airport is less than a mile from the downtown area.

For yet another, it's all pretty much centered on one main drag, Route 111, and the street signs are large and well-placed, so even a near-sighted senior citizen can find his way around.

I found a lot to like about the Hotel Paseo, where I stayed: great location, friendly staff, sumptuous rooms, and lots of little touches like the putting green by the pool and the concerts in the courtyard.

We all found a lot to like about the Lulu California Bistro (known as Lulu's) in downtown Palm Springs. It's one of the best restaurants in the world. Don't miss the Meatloaf Arturo!

Vera of TravelEatsFashion enjoys dessert at Lulu's in downtown Palm Springs
Vera of TravelEatsFashion enjoys dessert at Lulu's in downtown Palm Springs

Tourism Strategies

So if you have a destination so glamorous that Elvis picks it for his honeymoon, how do you improve on it?

I spoke with Joyce Kiehl of the Greater Palm Springs Convention and Visitors' Bureau, and she outlined a few of the bureau's strategies to achieve their goal of increasing the number of visitors from 13 million to 16 million a year.

The Meatloaf Arturo at Lulu's in Palm Springs, California
The Meatloaf Arturo at Lulu's

One is to develop partnerships and cooperative marketing with airlines to increase non-stop air service.

In the past year, they have formed partnerships with seven different airlines and added non-stop service from Calgary, Atlanta, Edmonton, Chicago, Portland, Newark, and Boston, and this has increased air service by ten percent.

I had the opportunity to take the inaugural non-stop flight from Boston on Jet Blue, and boy was I grateful for the extra leg room they're famous for. It makes all the difference in the world.

Other strategies include creating awareness of the area's outdoor adventure activities, adding sporting events like the Iron Man, and improving signage and listings of hiking and biking trails.

Another goal is boosting health and wellness tourism with events like the Wanderlust 'Wellspring' expo and attracting events and conferences to promote medical tourism.

Whatever your reason for going, you're sure to find a lot to like in Palm Springs.

Read Ingrid Hart's story about hiking in Palm Springs' Indian Canyon.