In the golden age of Hollywood, Palm Springs was the weekend destination of choice for celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, the Gabor sisters, and Cary Grant. The endless sunshine and arid climate also made the area attractive to retirees, but Palm Springs has been upping its cool factor thanks to an influx of boutique hotels (hello, Ace Hotel) and music festivals including Coachella and Joshua Tree. Leonardo DiCaprio recently purchased the Dinah Shore estate here. Beyond the festivals, this desert retreat makes an ideal weekend escape, especially for architecture buffs who come to appreciate the area's stunning examples of midcentury modern architecture. And thanks to a new, direct flight from JFK on JetBlue, getting to this desert oasis is easier than ever.
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Unpack your sunglasses and check into the Kelly Wearstler–designed Avalon Hotel, which was formerly The Viceroy. The look is Hollywood Regency with a playful edge. Guestrooms are whitewashed with small pops of color. A large inflatable swan floats around the pool, which is lined by canary yellow sun loungers. If you need fuel, tuck into that California staple of avocado toast at the in-house Chi Chi restaurant.
Take an Uber or hop on the free trolley, the BUZZ, to explore downtown Palm Springs. Start at the Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center, an exhibition space that’s also home to a high-end store, selling locally made jewelry and homewares. Walk north to explore the Design District. If you need a sugar boost, pop into Great Shakes; the Coachella Valley is the date capital of the world, so slurping on a date shake is a must. For fun gifts and souvenirs, head to Destination Palm Springs. Architecture nerds will appreciate a tissue box shaped like a modernist home or an “archi-deck-ture” of cards, featuring the city’s most iconic buildings. For housewares with a unique Palm Springs style and humor, stop by Michael Weems. This former designer for Gucci and Tiffany now creates coasters emblazoned with slogans such as “Betty Ford Was Here” and trays printed with sketches of modern buildings. Next door, his Autoerotica shop sells photos of vintage Americana imprinted on pieces of vintage cars (he’s patented the process).
Stop by the iconic Melvyn’s for a pre-dinner martini. Frank Sinatra was a regular, and Melvyn’s has a gloriously stuck-in-time quality, with waiters in dark suits and an older clientele whose sartorial choices lean toward white blazers and cravats. Order a dirty martini at the bar—it will be placed on a Frank Sinatra napkin.
Head to the celeb-favorite Parker Hotel to eat at its formal Mister Parker’s. The vibe is dark and sexy, and unlike many places in town, the service is top notch. The bartender will whip up cocktails made to order (there’s no menu) as you tuck into small plates of grilled octopus, mini lobster tacos, and pan-roasted duck breast.
Pop by the always-hip Ace Hotel for breakfast at the King’s Highway, which was formerly a Denny’s. The vibe is laid-back cool. Kick off with an almond milk date shake. If you’re sick of avocado toast, try the Moroccan Scramble, a dish of spicy eggs and chickpeas served on top of grilled sourdough.
Drive out to the Annenberg Estate at Sunnylands (pictured), but reservations are essential to tour the main house. Sunnylands was once the home of former ambassador and media magnate Walter Annenberg and his wife Leonore. Today the estate is used as a retreat; President Obama met with Chinese President Xi Jinping here. The 25,000 square-foot home was designed by architect A. Quincy Jones in classic midcentury style, and the interior décor is fabulous and fastidious—guest rooms are fully color coordinated down to a bowl of matching jelly beans. One of the many highlights is the Room of Memories, filled with handwritten notes and photographs of bold-faced visitors ranging from Ronald Reagan to the Queen Mother.
Break for a quick lunch at the casual Babes BBQ & Brewhouse. Order the St. Louis ribs along with a baked yam smothered in honey butter, and sip on one of their award-winning beers like the Blackfin Lager or Belgian Vanilla Blonde Ale.
No visit to Palm Springs is complete without a visit to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. The rotating cars offer 360-degree mountain views, and the 2.5-mile ride through Chino Canyon takes about 10 minutes. Bring your own snowshoes or sleds to make the most of the summit snow, or just soak up the scenery from the cocktail bar at the Lookout Lounge.
The Saguaro Palm Springs is one of the most popular places to stay during Coachella, thanks to its rainbow display of colors and fun vibe. Another reason to go? The menu at the in-house El Jefe, which is inspired by Mexican street food. Sip on a mojito or a fresh fruit margarita, and share plates of grilled skirt steak tacos, or a taco topped with mahi mahi and pickled red cabbage.
Enjoy a lazy brunch at the cozy Norma’s, where the focus is on high-calorie comfort food. Standouts include a sugary doughnut filled with lemon and blueberry crème, as well as huevos rancheros.
For an insider's look at Palm Spring’s architecture, take The Modern Tour. Helmed by Michael Stern, this is the official tour of the Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Museum. Visitors will learn about the history of midcentury architecture in town, but Stern also arranges peeks inside private homes. Highlights include the 700 square-foot home of architect Albert Frey (pictured), a drive past Liberace’s home, and a stop at the Frederick Loewe estate.
Before hopping on your flight home, unwind at the Two Bunch Palms Spas, which is a favorite of celebrities. Purchase a day pass to soak in the mineral springs–fed “grotto,” which is heated to a toasty 99 degrees. You’d be tempted to soak there all day, but book a massage if you can. Be warned that the changing facilities are Spartan at best and also communal; the facilities are decidedly no frills. Have a healthy lunch at the light-filled Essence. Try the papaya chicken salad and finish off with the dark chocolate and fruit plate.