If you’re looking for the perfect place for a weekend escape, look no further than Palm Springs. This little town in the desert a little over 100 miles east of Los Angeles has been a destination since the turn of the 20th century and continued to grow when resorts, golf courses and hotels were built – both owned and visited by some of the most prominent celebrities of the decades. In recent memory, the likes of Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley owned houses there. What makes it unique from other desert communities is it’s modern architecture. There was a big boom in architect designed houses starting in the late 1940s that combined the emerging modern designs (what we now call mid-century modern) with a respect for the natural desert landscapes. This style incorporated open floor plans, walls of windows and exterior details that blend the house into its environment. In modern times the city of Palm Springs has really embraced this style and has become a mecca for vintage and mid-century lovers from all over the globe. Which is exactly why my friend Carlie Dayle of a Cajun in Cali and I set out for a summer weekend getaway in the desert.
Palm Springs Travel Tips
- Because it’s so hot during the summer, the peak season to visit is October to May. We visited at the end of August and it was 100* – be sure to dress accordingly and drink plenty of water.
- Although it’s a lot less crowded, several stores and restaurants are actually closed during off season. However, we found plenty that were open.
- A lot of the famous houses are now owned by other people who don’t want you peeking into their windows, so unfortunately, several are hidden behind tall walls. The best time to see these houses is during Modernism Week.
This article will highlight all the fun things we managed to find during our desert weekend escape.
Weird roadside attractions are all over the country and if you know where to look, you can still find some remnants of bygone eras. Palm Springs has always been a road trip destination, and back in the 1950s and 60s there were all kinds of road stops along the highway that one might stop at before arriving in Palm Springs. One such rest stop was just west of Palm Springs in the city of Cabazon. Cabazon is now mainly known for the huge Indian casino and outlet mall, but a few exits past all that you’ll find the Cabazon Dinosaurs. According to Wikipedia, the dinosaurs originally stood outside a 24-hour diner. That restaurant is now long gone, but you might remember the dinos from their cameo in the classic 80s film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Today they guard the entrance to a creationist museum. I didn’t go in (not willing to pay for that kind of thing) but you can take pictures of the two dinos and go inside the Brontosaurus for free.
Since Palm Springs is a vintage mecca, it would make sense that there are A TON of vintage shops in the city. Actually there are so many that there is a map of them all, as well as those that are in the nearby communities of Cathedral City, Palm Desert, and La Quinta. These shops are definitely vintage and not thrift, so expect higher prices but better quality than Goodwill.
We spent several hours sifting through hundreds of square feet of displays. Walking into the first store I was pretty overwhelmed with the sheer volume of stuff, but it didn’t take long to start finding treasures. The hard part is trying to keep a lock on your wallet. Our first stop was Sunny Dunes Antique Mall which was 6,000 square feet of floor to ceiling collections. The mall has thirty+ sellers selling everything from art to records to comic books to kitchen ware. While browsing some of the vendors would appear and say hello, letting us know about their items. Many of the sections were on sale, in some cases 50% off. I don’t know if that is an every day sale or maybe, an end of the season sale. I found a ton of amazing things that all wanted to come home with me but unfortunately, I couldn’t take everything. One of the coolest things I saw was a Munsters doll collection that was just begging to be played with.
Across the street we found the aptly named Little Shop of Treasures which was indeed filled with some beautiful things. Immediately upon walking in the front door I found the mid-century living room furniture set of my dreams – stunning wood in a simple design. Only $3,000! Joey Tribiani would say, “for an old table [book]? Many years in the future when I have a cushy job and a house to decorate, I know I’ll be heading back here to furnish it.
We stopped in at a few much more curated and higher priced spots back on the strip (the main road – Palm Canyon Drive). Iconic Atomic has a few home goods in the front of the store but is mostly filled with absolutely fabulous vintage clothing for both men and women. This is not the kind of stuff you’d find at Goodwill (unless you were very, very lucky) it’s pretty much straight off the rack at Macy’s circa 1967. It’s also right next door to Bootlegger Tiki Bar which I will come back to later, and around the corner from Jackson Gallery which caught our eye because of the painting of Marlon Brando hanging in the window when we parked in front of it. Worth a peek.
Lastly, we found the mecca of all things Bakelite at Dazzles. The store is hidden from the road, literally tucked behind a dentist’s office. Even before you get inside the door there’s gorgeous patio furniture mingled with palms and plastic flamingos that immediately gets you in the vintage mood. Then you open the door and are confronted with an enormous display of jewelry. The smile keeps getting bigger the more you look around, the collection is so perfect you just want to take it all in. Bakelite is a style of jewelry that was very popular in the 1930s and 40s. It’s bright and bold and made from plastic and somehow I think all of it ended up in this shop.
Famous House Hunting
As I mentioned earlier, Palm Springs is famous for houses built in the iconic mid-century modern style. I don’t know if there is even another city with more of them still in their original condition. Maybe Los Angeles, but it would take you a week to find them all. Anyway, the neighborhoods of Palm Springs are laid out in grids and given enticing names like Old Movie Colony and Historic Tennis Club. It can feel like an episode of House Hunters as you’re driving around wishing you could own every house you see. In fact, one of the websites I found while researching the historic houses here had a very good tip – if you want to see the inside of the houses, check local listings and attend an open house. Smart!
Some of the most famous houses are not easily accessed. Frank Sinatra’s house on East Vía Colusa is encased by a 6 foot cinder block wall and Elvis’ Honeymoon Hideaway on Ladera Circle can be viewed from the street, but only entered with a tour (which I will gladly pay for the next time I’m in town). But don’t worry. There are plenty of beautiful buildings and houses to see up close.
Where to Eat & Drink
First off, there are so many restaurants and bars in such a small town that you could really make an entire post just about that. But in the two days we were in Palm Springs we found a few spots that I can completely vouch for. Another important note to make – I was surprised by how expensive everything was there. I guess I shouldn’t have been because it’s a resort town, but still. So as I’ve said time and time again, if you’re looking to save a few bucks on any trip, buy food and beer at the grocery store to have in your hotel or airbnb (if you book an airbnb you’ll likely have a kitchen so you can actually cook). Splurge on a few meals or drinks. Ok, so here we go.
Since breakfast is the most important meal of the day, start it right with a giant blue plate special at Pinocchio in the Desert. This locals hangout has breakfast and lunch served all day, and basically bottomless mimosas. It’s bottomless champagne you can unlimited add orange juice to for a few bucks more. They’ve got everything you would find at a good home cooking diner served on a plate bigger than your head. We were going to check out Farm, across the street but they had a wait. If the yelp reviews can be trusted, it’s the hottest brunch place in town – over 1,000 reviews! Oh, and if you’re a Starbucks fan, you’ll be surprised to find out there’s a Reserve Store on the main strip.
We hit up Rio Azul, down on the south end of town, after a morning of vintage shopping. A heavy handed jalapeño margarita was definitely needed after sifting through treasures in a hot warehouse. We decided to share a few apps, instead of getting our own entrees. I’d had eye on the combo plate which had several vegetarian options to choose from, chili reyeño and a corn and green salsa tamale, but our apps were equally delicious and far too much for the two of us. We chose shrimp stuffed peppers, nachos and queso flamiado which were all fantastic. Add to that the free chips and salsa and we were full for the rest of the day.
We found dinner at Revel Public House featuring burgers, pizza, and pasta dishes plus beers made by Palm Springs Brewing Co. So happy to find the ‘beyond burger’ vegetarian patty on the happy hour menu – which is served all day at the bar. There are many other items to choose from which is great because the happy hour menu knocks the regular menu down to relatively normal prices. I also loved that they categorized the menu into “I’m not hungry” “I’m a little hungry” and “Now I’m hungry”. That just made me giggle.
Finally, it’s time to get tropical and talk about our awesome tiki bar find. Tiki bars have pretty much been popular since their inception and Palm Springs is the perfect place for one. I’ve long been fascinated with them but, in all honesty, the only one I’ve been to is Trader Sam’s at the Disneyland Hotel. (Which is actually pretty awesome, you should go) So when we stumbled upon it earlier in the day, we definitely made a pact to go back later in the evening. When we arrived late Saturday night (ok, late for us old people, it was, like, 10) we were told the bar was filled to capacity and it would be about a 30 minute wait. I almost called it a night but I’m really glad we decided to stay because Bootlegger Tiki Bar is awesome. The bar is tiny seating about twenty people and they don’t allow anyone in who is not sitting in a seat. That sounds lame when you’re the one outside waiting, but when you’re inside it’s brilliant. They’ve got a great menu of fun drinks with catchy names, and all served beautifully with flowers and other garnishes. Not sure which to get? Ask your bartender – they can help you pick one you’ll like. Or go for the Pina Colossus, this twist on the pina colada is the perfect starting point. Happy hour twice a day, 4-6 and midnight – close. They’ve even got low and non-alcoholic drinks (no one under 21 allowed in the bar, however)
It being so close to Los Angeles, if you’ve never been to Palm Springs it’s worth a quick trip, even if just for the day. If you haven’t been in awhile, you’ll find little has changed; the old spots are still alive and well and the new restaurants and shops are a good addition to the thriving downtown. And while it’s not really close to anything else, it’s in the same general area as Joshua Tree National Park and the desert curiosities of Salvation Mountain and Bombay Beach, both of which make a nice addition to a weekend trip.
Where’s your favorite weekend destination? Let me know in the comments!
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