A Hedonistic Guide To Palm Springs – America’s Rule-Breaking Desert Town

A Hedonistic Guide To Palm Springs – America’s Rule-Breaking Desert Town

In Palm Springs, rules are optional. Kate Guest visits the shapeshifting Californian town to trace its rebellious resurgence

cocktail hour at the Ace Hotel
in Palm Springs, and a steady stream of picantes is snaking its way
from the kitchen to the packed-out booths as the crowd settles in
for Monday Night Bingo. Nobody seems bothered that it’s a Monday
night. Nobody has work tomorrow and even if they did, they wouldn’t
care. This is Palm Springs, where hedonism rules and rules are

OK, that’s not entirely true. There are definitely rules to
bingo, which the host, drag performer Bella da Ball, is explaining
to a rapt audience of twentysomething girls on their first road
trip, retirees in baseball caps, actors on the lam from LA and
black-clad New York ad execs, all of whom will later whoop and
cheer with the frenzied enthusiasm of lottery winners when someone
scoops the prize of a bottle of shampoo.

“It’s Palm Springs, we go both ways!” da Ball sings, holding up
a bingo board and explaining how to flip its switches. At 1.9m in
flats, and considerably taller in her signature stilettos and pink
beehive wig, the host and her rapid-fire bon mots have become an
unmistakable mascot for this Californian desert city built on good
times, good looks and good people.

Liberalism is baked into Palm Springs, just as solidly as its
reputation as the world’s mid-century modern design capital. In
2017, city residents elected the US’s first all-LGBT city council,
and its world-class Pride Festival is California’s largest outside
San Francisco.

Downtown Palm Springs, USA
House, Palm Springs, USA

But Palm Springs is a shapeshifter that has lived many lives.
The Cahuilla people were the first to inhabit the area, living both
on the valley floor and higher up in the cooler enclaves of Chino
Canyon in summer, when temperatures are often north of 45ºC. In the
centuries since, the region has been a health resort, a mobster
hideout, a Rat Pack nest, a golfing capital and the weekend getaway
of choice for Hollywood studio moguls and screen stars alike. There
was its “gay and grey” era, the tumbleweed early Nineties, and then
its rebirth as a favoured set for movies and magazine shoots,
driven by its unrivalled collection of mid-century modern houses
ringed by the starkly beautiful San Jacinto mountains. The latter’s
towering immediacy and sharp outline against an almost permanently
cerulean sky create a Truman Show-like backdrop to life here.
Which, to be fair, can feel like living in a bubble far removed
from the rest of the US.

As Palm Springs marks 85 years since it was incorporated as a
city, it is well and truly into its next golden age. Improved
airport connections, the ever-expanding offer of boutique hotels
(80 and counting), a new luxury spa, packed events calendar,
thriving arts scene and the upcoming opening of the Palm Springs
Surf Club are all factors in its popularity. But there’s also
something unquantifiable, an intangible magnetism in the air that
makes people return here time and again, or even pack in their
lives elsewhere and move.

Palm Canyon Drive
Architecture and Design Center, Palm Springs

Photo credit (r): Jake Holt Photography

Residents these days include the vanguard of sun-chasing
creatives and design lovers who had early insight into the city’s
mid-century bargains. There’s also a growing number of retired
business types discovering second careers as boutique hoteliers or

Opening hours are still somewhat slanted towards retirees but
“early to bed and early to rise” makes sense in the desert anyway.
Tables are busy by 7am, sun loungers occupied by 9am. If you’re
smart, you’ll do your sightseeing in the morning, have a leisurely
lunch and then retire for a nap or a few hours by the pool before
cocktails at 6pm and dinner shortly after. There’s a clutch of
seductive late-night bars and speakeasies, and more on the way, but
don’t expect a raging 24/7 nightlife. This is the Coachella Valley,
not Coachella. The mood is more sunrise hikes followed by breakfast

As for those long-necked palms, they may not offer much shade,
but they sure look good outlined against the soaring, searing sky.
Thankfully, the rest of the place balances style with function.
Buildings are icily air-conditioned, mist blasts over the
sidewalks, and there seems to be a swimming pool every few steps.
It’s so well set up for desert living that I genuinely didn’t
notice that it was 39ºC degrees at 9.30am until my phone told me.
And by then, it was time for another mimosa.

Where to eat, stay and play in Palm Springs

Where to stay

Pool, Drift Palm Springs
Art, Drift Palm Springs


This newish entry on Palm Springs’ busy hotel scene has an
impeccable downtown location within walking distance of dozens of
cafés and restaurants, and you can borrow a bike to explore
further. However, Drift’s own chic lobby bar and restaurant,
Maleza, has fast become a destination in its own right. (The
oysters with jalapeño mignonette and the tacos – all of them – are
our picks.) Accommodation ranges from roomy studios to four-bedroom
suites, each subtly decorated in sandy desert hues and natural
materials, with views of either the jagged San Jacinto ridge or
Slim Aarons-esque swimming pool.

284 S Indian Canyon Dr, CA 92262
+1 888 976 4487

Villa Royale

This adults-only hotel in well-manicured Deepwell, one of Palm
Springs’ oldest neighbourhoods, has hosted a galaxy of stars during
its 70-plus-year history. Built in the Mission Revival style, its
spacious rooms and suites are discreetly tucked between courtyards,
fountains, swimming pools and towering palm trees. Each is
individually furnished with mid-century pieces, record players and
a generous stock of local spirits and hard seltzers so you can kick
off cocktail hour in swinging style, before wandering over to the
poolside Del Rey restaurant for dinner.

1620 S Indian Trail, CA 92264
+1 760 327 2314

Pool, Trixie Motel, Palm Springs
Lounge, Trixie Motel, Palm Springs

Trixie Motel

Before there was the Barbie marketing machine, there was Trixie
Motel. This pink confection by Trixie Mattel, season three winner
of RuPaul’s Drag Race, has just seven individually themed but
equally unforgettable rooms. If you can’t nab one, then come for a
retro cocktail in the bar, which, with its heart-shaped banquettes,
arcade game, velvet loungers and pastel-pink everything resembles
the fever dream of a swooning Sixties teenager. But the biggest
drawcard is not the Insta opportunities but the attitude – staff
are fiercely protective of the no-judgement vibe. If you’ve ever
felt self-conscious on a sun lounger, this is the haven for

210 W Stevens Rd, CA 92262
+1 760 808 0014

Where to eat

Table, Farm, Palm Springs
Food, Farm, Palm Springs


Tucked off a side street in downtown Palm Springs, this homely
indoor/outdoor café has a French-inspired menu of crepes and croque
madames, balanced by Cali standards such as salads and avocado
toast. Taking a seat in the pretty garden is a peaceful way to
start the day, or to refuel after an early-morning hike.

6 La Plaza, CA 92262
+1 760 322 2724


Locals call the block around Blackbook the gay district, and
there’s no denying that this open-air bar feels like the great big
heart of the LGBTQ+ community. The name was inspired by the Nevada
Gaming Commisson’s “Black Book” of excluded persons, and is an
acknowledgment that everyone has felt the sting of exclusion at
some point. But as owner Dean Lavine says: “Not here. Not ever.
Blackbook is an inclusion bar.” Craft cocktails and whiskeys are
the highlight, but the food menu is no slouch either.
Appropriately, it’s heavy on comfort classics. Bring an empty
stomach because portions are huge, even by US standards.

315 E Arenas Rd, CA 92262
+1 760 832 8497

Chi Chi at Avalon Hotel & Bungalows, Palm Springs

Chi Chi at Avalon Hotel & Bungalows

The best Palm Springs breakfasts combine health and indulgence,
and few are better than a bloody mary and a giant serving of
avocado toast at Chi Chi. This poolside all-day restaurant is
hidden behind the walls of the Spanish-style Avalon Hotel.
Afterwards, shift to a sun lounger by one of the three pools for
the day, then come back for dinner.

415 South Belardo Rd, CA 92262
+1 760 318 3012

Lulu California Bistro

If you can’t find it on Lulu’s menu, it probably doesn’t exist.
The portions are equally expansive, and if you come for the
three-course weekend brunch, you’ll be set for the day. With its
step-back-in-time styling, vintage movie star photos and central
location at the heart of downtown Palm Springs, always-busy Lulu’s
feels like it’s been around a lot longer than 12 years.

200 S Palm Canyon Dr, CA 92262
+1 760 327 5858

Restaurant, Pool, The Colony Club at The Colony Palms Hotel, Palm Springs
Pool, The Colony Club at The Colony Palms Hotel, Palm Springs

The Colony Club at The Colony Palms Hotel & Bungalows

In past lives, it was a playground for the innocent (Shirley
Temple, Marilyn Monroe) and not-so-innocent (Frank Sinatra and
various mobsters) alike, but since being reborn as The Colony Club,
this downtown hotel has become a haven of calm where decibels
rarely breach the levels of the delicate hummingbirds that buzz
around its gardens. The look was inspired by Hollywood’s legendary
Beverly Hills Hotel, meaning palm prints and green stripes, and is
best appreciated from the poolside restaurant, whose green Italian
marble bar and hand-painted de Gournay wallpaper make for a
luxurious backdrop.

572 N Indian Canyon Dr, CA 92262
+1 760 969 1800


One: there are dogs. Boozehounds was started by three dog lovers
who wanted somewhere they could bring their actual hounds, and this
is the result – albeit in certain sections only. Two: it has Palm
Springs’ best bathroom selfie opportunity (starring nostalgic
wallpaper and a neon sign reading “bad bitches”). And three: the
Asian-inspired menu is one of the region’s finest. Highlights
include three different types of crudo, char siu pork belly with
celery root purée and cold pickled apple, and a mixed green salad
topped with tuna seared in tamari garlic butter, with a creamy
sesame dressing.

2080 N Palm Canyon Dr, CA 92262
+1 760 656 0067

Dining Room, Mr Lyons, Palm Springs
Napkin, Mr Lyons, Palm Springs, USA

Mr. Lyons

This low-lit steakhouse has been a bastion of old-school glamour
since 1945. The menu is equal parts kitsch (shrimp cocktail) and
modern Cali (superfood salad), but really it’s all about the steak.
Dress up, order a martini and a tomahawk ribeye, and don’t sleep on
the sides – the kimchi fried rice and crispy brussel sprouts are
especially memorable.

233 E Palm Canyon Dr, CA 92264
+1 760 327 1551

What to do

Bingo with Bella da Ball, Palms Springs
Ace Hotel, Palm Springs

Bingo with Bella da Ball

Drag queen, performer, tour guide and the beating heart of Palm
Springs, Bella da Ball hosts bingo in the Ace Hotel’s diner every
Monday from 7pm, followed by trivia in the back bar from 9pm. The
cocktails (and date milkshakes) flow, the shishito peppers sizzle,
and your rowdy competition is everyone, from everywhere, all at
once. It’s loud, it’s proud and nothing sums up Palm Springs’
“anything goes, all welcome” spirit better.

701 E Palm Canyon Dr, CA 92264
+1 760 325 9900

The Spa at Séc-he

If you wondered just where the springs in Palm Springs are, the
answer is at this brand-new spa. Owned and operated by the Agua
Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians – “séc-he” roughly translates to
“boiling waters” – this 6,782 sq m luxury spa complex deserves at
least half a day to make the most of its services and treatments,
which range from ancient to cutting-edge. The main attraction, of
course, is the springs themselves, drawn from an aquifer deep below
the earth and last seen land-side some 12,000 years ago. Soak up
the relaxing benefits of their magnesium, calcium and sodium in one
of the pools, or book a private mineral bath (hold your nose – your
aches and pains will thank you). The heated quartz bed and water
cupping massages, zero-gravity room and sound therapy chairs are
also highlights.

200 E Tahquitz Canyon Way, CA 92262
+1 866 777 3243

Paint cans, Superbloom, Palm Springs
Superbloom, Palm Springs


Superbloom is an art studio and retail space offering colour
therapy of the messy, fun kind. Bring your own item to decorate or
opt for one of theirs, such as a tote bag, then don your smock,
take your pick from the 10 signature colours in the Superbloom
palette and get to work throwing paint at the wall. It’s both
creative and cathartic, and best of all, you’ll have a
one-of-a-kind souvenir of your own design to take home.

1414 N Palm Canyon Dr, CA 92262
+1 760 285 3397

What to see

Modernist Architecture, Palm Springs
Mid-century house, Palm Springs

Tour Palm Springs’ incredible homes

Palm Springs is a living museum of mid-century modernism, with
more original examples of the architectural style than anywhere
else on Earth. Tours are available year-round, or visit during the
city’s Modernism Week (October and February) for talks,
parties and a peek inside otherwise off-limits homes. You can tour
the starry Las Palmas neighbourhood, whose erstwhile residents
include Elizabeth Taylor and Cary Grant, and visit (or even stay
at) Twin
, the sprawling home that Frank Sinatra commissioned from
architect E. Stewart Williams in 1947.

Catch the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

If the heat is biting (or even if it’s not), take the world’s
largest rotating
4km up rugged Chino Canyon to Mount San Jacinto State
Park, where the pine-scented air is usually 15ºC cooler than in the
city. The 10-minute journey lands you at Mountain Station, which
offers incredible views of the Coachella Valley. The forest behind
the station is criss-crossed by some 80km of hiking trails and in
winter you can rent snowshoes and cross-country skis on which to
explore them. (Yes, it snows!)

Palm Springs Art Museum, California, USA
Gallery, Palm Springs Art Museum, California, USA

Palm Springs Art Museum

Explore the art scene

Palm Springs has more than 60 public works of art, including
vivid murals, installations and sculptures of Lucille Ball,
ex-mayor Sonny Bono and, most famously, a 7.9m statue of former
regular Marilyn Monroe in her most famous pose, by Seward Johnson.
Download the artsGPS app to explore it all easily. Directly
behind Marilyn is the Palm Springs Art Museum. There’s a busy calendar of
exhibitions throughout the year, with the core collection dedicated
to modern and contemporary art from some of the world’s best
artists. Make time for smaller galleries, too, such as The Elemental,
which focuses on multidisciplinary exhibitions that explore the
interaction between art and the environment.

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