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Best Things To Do in Palm Springs

AOL PICK from our Editors

Palm Springs is first and foremost a sunshine escape—so relaxing by the pool is mandatory. But when you’re ready to toss in the tanning towel for a little action, Palm Springs’ best things to do are myriad. Depending on your interests you’ll find self-guided and organized tours, ranging from outdoor hiking and exploring, to Hollywood celebrity home tours, and mid-century modern architectural tours. Culture abounds at museums and high-end galleries that double as art museums. Family fun with the kids is a perfect fit for outdoor activities and kid-friendly inter-active attractions.

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

Neighborhood: Uptown

This is a must-do, especially for first-timers. It’s probably the steepest tram car you’ll ever ride as it ascends 5,873 feet up a cliff—you can almost touch the rock in places—to the top of Mount San Jacinto, 8,516 feet above sea level. These are the world’s largest rotating tram cars, so there’s no need to jostle for views with the other 80 passengers. The tram cars also are handicap-accessible. From the top, the views are incredible, as Palm Springs and the entire Coachella Valley spread beneath you. It’s a great way to get the lay of the land. There are lots of activities up here in the 14,000-acre Mount San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness Area. Take a guided nature hike, explore on your own the 54 miles of hiking trails, camp overnight, and eat lunch or dinner in the view-filled Peaks Restaurant or the cafeteria-style Pines Café. In winter, snow covers the mountain top and visitors rent skis for cross-country skiing, and snowshoes and sleds for family fun.

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Golf

Neighborhood: Palm Desert

Championship courses are everywhere. It’s the main reason many visitors come to the desert. While private ones like PGA West in La Quinta get all the press, you’ll have no trouble teeing off on excellent public courses—at affordable rates. One of the best deals is the Classic Club in Palm Desert. Its championship course was designed by Arnold Palmer to be the home of the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, which was played there for a few years. Off-season rates can go as low as $50, including the cart. The Golf Resort at Indian Wells is another find, with 36 championship holes. The views are as unbelievable as the challenges at the public Desert Willow Golf Resort in Palm Desert, constructed on a hill across the desert and mountains. In Palm Springs, the 18-hole Nicklaus Design course at the Escena Golf Club is a nice play. The 36-hole Indian Canyons Golf Resort is another comfortable course meandering through Palm Springs’ stylish Canyon Estates neighborhood under the shadow of the mountains. The clubhouses all are architectural stunning for après-game relaxation.

Palm Springs Celebrity Tours

Neighborhood: Downtown

Sure it’s touristy. But hey, don’t you want to see where the rich and famous lived? This Palm Springs tour has been entertaining people for 47 years. For two hours you’ll be regaled with stories about everyone from the Rat Pack to Tammy Fay Baker. Sitting high in a motorcoach, the better to see over walls, you’ll tour through the original Movie Colony neighborhood, passing Frank Sinatra’s famous first party house, with its piano-shaped pool; then ritzy Las Palmas, for the Elvis Honeymoon House and homes once owned by Liberace, Liz Taylor and dozens more. You’ll see an air-conditioned doghouse, and learn why Frank Sinatra and Sonny Bono couldn’t be buried in Palm Springs. The info is true for the most part, and always memorable.

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Palm Springs Village Fest

Neighborhood: Downtown

Since 1991, Palm Canyon Drive has turned into a market on Thursday nights, when the street closes to traffic from Amado to Baristo roads, and nearly 200 vendors sell everything from fine art to fresh flowers and all those handmade pottery-soap-jewelry-lampshade tchotchkes you see at every outdoor fair. But it’s fun. There are live bands and gourmet food booths. Get advice at Ask-The-Rabbi, a fixture since the festival’s beginning; have your aura photographed and explained, give your dog a pedicure, buy a flute carved like a frog or an expensive cowboy hat. There’s plenty for kids to enjoy, too, including pony rides, a rock-climbing wall and live puppet shows.

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Fabulous Palm Springs Follies

Neighborhood: Downtown

They sing, they dance, they wear sexy costumes—they’re in their 80s. Now in its 20th year, the Fabulous Palm Springs Follies is a Broadway-quality variety show, starring a chorus line of guys and gals in their 60s to 80s. The action is impressive—and the costumes get more and more revealing—no surprise, since the cast is all former Broadway, TV and movie dancers. It’s a tribute to the music of the 1940s to the ‘60s—a long tribute, nearly three hours with an intermission. The special holiday show is excellent, with great slapstick humor.

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Palm Springs Air Museum

Neighborhood: Airport

Bo-ring, you may say, unless you’re a history or air buff. But, you know, this isn’t your average air museum. Its huge hangar-size exhibit rooms plunge you into the enormity of the air battles of the Second World War, and what’s even more fantastic, you can crawl inside and sit in many of these legendary aircraft—which makes it fun for kids—and thought-provoking for adults, given that most of the WWII pilots were much younger than you are now. If any of your family members flew in WWII, their aircraft is likely here, from single-engine Grumman TBF Avengers to the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. The aircraft are flown regularly in demo flights. Documentaries on WWII are shown daily, and there is always a stream of special programs and events. You can even take to the air yourself. Dedicated Helicopters Inc. offers 5-minute to one-hour heli tours from the museum.

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Indian Canyons

Neighborhood: South Palm Springs

Take a hike. Some of Palm Springs’s best hiking trails go back to the Agua Caliente Indians who colonized the oases and deep canyons of the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa Mountains. There are hiking trails throughout the desert, but locals say these are the most beautiful, because they wind 15 miles along streams through palm-shaded oases, narrow fern-encrusted grottoes and sun-bleached gorges. The Indian Canyons include three canyons on the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation, and are open daily to the public from October-July, but weekends only in July-September. A paved path at the beginning leads to picnic tables near the stream. Most people go only part way; Andreas Canyon, for instance, is only a mile-long loop. You’ll find hiking maps, refreshments and Indian art and artifacts at the Trading Post. If you’re lucky, you may catch a glimpse of the desert’s beloved and endangered Peninsula Big Horn Sheep, mule deer or other wild animals on the high ground above the canyons. A word to the wise: This is raw desert—always hike with a friend, and always, always bring water.

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Palm Springs Art Museum

Neighborhood: Downtown

Established in 1938 as a museum about the desert, nearly 30 years ago the Palm Springs Art Museum decided to focus on modern art. This, combined with a recent renovation to its huge space, has added new life to this old landmark. Upon entering, a gigantic glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly instantly commands attention. Other highlights include works by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and classic Western American art by Charles Russell and Frederic Remington. The museum itself is an artwork, designed by renowned California mid-century modern architect E. Steward Williams, and its architecture holdings include the Albert Frey Archive and Frey House II, the E. Stewart Williams Architecture Archive, and a drawing collection, including works by prominent architects Richard Neutra and Frank Gehry. The museum also is home to the 433-seat Annenberg Theater, which offers a full schedule of entertainment from comedy and A-list performers to Broadway reviews, jazz and opera.

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Palm Springs Modern Tours

Neighborhood: Downtown

If you love mid-century architecture—the sleek modernist structures built between the 1940s and mid-‘60s—this tour is your ticket to Paradise. Robert Imber began driving his friends on tours of Palm Springs’ architectural gems, and it mushroomed into a business. Palm Springs is acknowledged to have the largest collection of mid-century modern buildings in the country, and with Imber, who is as colorful as he is knowledgeable, you’ll see the best. He points out designs by modernism’s legendary architects, including Albert Frey, Donald Wexler, Richard Neutra and E. Stewart Williams. Call way ahead for reservations. He’s the only such tour in town.

Desert Adventures

Neighborhood: Palm Desert

When you want to get out in the desert and learn a bit about what you’re seeing, Desert Adventures Jeep Tours offers a great lineup of daily eco-tours in open-air jeeps, led by naturalist guides. Offerings include the San Andreas Fault Line Adventure—riding atop Southern California’s most notorious earthquake fault; tours into scenic Joshua Tree National Park; the Mystery Canyon Adventure, and the Twilight Adventure. There are plenty of stops along the way, hiking and vivid scenery on these great half-day excursions.

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The Living Desert

Neighborhood: Palm Desert

Founded in 1970 as a preserve to protect native flora being threatened by development, The Living Desert has grown into an 1,800-acre zoo and garden, showcasing the plants and endangered animals of the world’s deserts. Free shuttles and walking paths connect the exhibits, which feature local critters from mountain lions to endangered Mexican wolves; African crowd-pleasers including leopards, giraffes and Sahara Desert wild cats (from which house cats are descended), and desert gardens. An African-themed village offers shops and eateries. In November and December, the Wildlights Holiday Festival turns the park into an after-dark fairyland of more than 750,000 twinkling lights.

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