With its mid-century charm, scenic vistas, and connections to old Hollywood, Palm Springs is a dream destination. Beyond the city’s cutting-edge restaurants, chic boutiques, and reputation for luxury and high-end living, there are many free and budget activities to choose from.
Whether you’re exploring the area’s hiking trails, taking a self-guided architecture tour, or attending an outdoor rock concert, you can have a low-cost experience in Palm Springs.
Visit the Palm Springs Art Museum
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the Palm Springs Art Museum is a Coachella Valley institution, and it is the only major art museum between Los Angeles and Phoenix. Founded in 1938, it hosts compelling art exhibitions and is home to the 433-seat Annenberg Theater. The museum’s permanent art collection features modern and contemporary art, architecture and design. On Thursday evenings between 5 and 7pm the museum is free to visitors, but you must reserve your spot online.
While you’re at the museum, be sure to stop by Persimmon Bistro & Wine Bar, which has partnered with Nickerson-Rossi Dance to present Drink, Dance, and Dine, a weekly dance program. Relax with a glass of wine in Meyerman Sculpture Garden, and enjoy different genres of free professional performances.
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Explore the hiking trails
The 4-mile Araby Trail hike achieves a dual purpose — it gets your blood pumping and also takes you on a mini celebrity home tour. Ascend a trail through steep, rocky terrain that is often dotted with wildflowers after it rains. You’ll soon be able to spot Bob Hope’s flying saucer-shaped home and Steve McQueen’s mid-century modern creation. The Elrod House, featured in the James Bond film Diamonds are Forever (1971), can also be spied here. Because there is little to no shade overhead, it is best to hit the trail in the early morning. To reach the trailhead, park in the unpaved lot at Rim Road.
For an altogether different hiking experience, join the Friends of the Desert Mountains for their occasional guided night hikes. The Monument Night Adventures take off from the Art Smith trailhead in Palm Desert, where you’ll venture through the basin looking for scorpions and other nocturnal desert creatures with black lights. Full moon hikes are also offered, as are interpretive day hikes. An optional tax-deductible donation of $5 is requested.
Tour outdoor public art
From visionary murals to awe-inspiring sculptures, Palm Springs has no shortage of outdoor art. Whether it’s the infamous Forever Marilyn statue, the Rainmaker Fountain at Frances Stevens Park, or the Woman in Glasses mural on North Palm Canyon Drive, they each provide an opportunity to learn more about local history and culture.
The city of Coachella has commissioned several murals as part of its Coachella Walls project, which strives to celebrate the local population and honor the farming community. One of the highlights is Los Cosecha del Futuro, which commemorates the Mexican–American labor leader and civil rights activist, Cesar Chavez. You can also take a journey through Indio’s history with a couple of picturesque murals on Miles Avenue. While you’re there, see if the food vendors at Indio Food Park are selling anything that takes your fancy.
Take a self-guided architecture tour
Architecture buffs can indulge their love of all things mid-century modern by taking a self-guided architecture tour that was put together by Visit Greater Palm Springs. Starting at the Palm Springs Visitor Center on North Palm Canyon Drive, browse the architecture books and other gifts before heading to Racquet Club Estates where you’ll find Alexander Steel houses and Krisel-designed homes. The Kaufmann House is in the Chino Canyon neighborhood, but you’ll only be able to catch a glimpse of this Neutra-designed home from the sidewalk.
Other notable homes on this tour include the Dinah Shore estate in the Old Las Palmas neighborhood, which was purchased by Leonardo DiCaprio in 2014. In the aptly-named Movie Colony, you’ll find Twin Palms, which was designed by E. Stewart Williams and also known as the Frank Sinatra Estate. Sinatra used to signal his guests that it was time for cocktail hour by hoisting a Jack Daniels flag between the property’s two signature trees, summoning his celebrity neighbors like Bing Crosby, Cary Grant, and Jack Benny.
Attend a Rock Yard concert at Fantasy Springs Casino
In the mood for some rock ‘n’ roll? The Rock Yard at Fantasy Springs Casino in Indio hosts free live music concerts from spring through fall on its outdoor concert stage. The lineup includes tribute bands from various music genres every Friday and Saturday. Spice it up with Noche de Fuego on Wednesday and Sunday evenings, when featured bands play a variety of styles including Tejano, merengue, cumbia, and salsa.
Window-shop at Uptown Design District
If you’re aiming not to spend any money, you may have to use all of your restraint when you land in the Uptown Design District, an area that has become synonymous with vintage clothing boutiques, mid-century modern furniture shops, art galleries, and trendy restaurants. Begin at Shag Store, which sells original art and other swag by the artist Shag, aka Josh Agle. Then make your way over to Trina Turk, a boutique that pays homage to “California Chic” with clothing, swimsuits, and housewares.
Browse mid-century modern furnishings at Modern Way, which sells tables, seating, cabinets, and lighting among other treasures. Treat yourself to a wood-fired pizza at Workshop Kitchen + Bar afterwards, which is situated inside a 1920s El Paseo building. The industrial modern design of the interior is juxtaposed with the large outdoor patio that is shaded with olive trees.
Soak in the sights on the Palm to Pines Scenic Byway
The Palm to Pines Scenic Byway is considered one of the most beautiful driving routes in California, and for good reason — this trip winds through the San Bernardino National Forest on serpentine roads, from the sandy desert floor to lush mountain forests. Starting at Highway 74 in Palm Desert and ending at the Banning Pass on Highway 243, you can opt to hike and explore some of the towns along the way or stop only at the scenic overlooks. Some of the highlights include Lake Hemet and the charming town of Idyllwild.
Designated a National Forest Scenic Byway in 1993, this 67-mile trip is best traveled during daylight hours when the weather is dry and clear. Snow in the winter can cause road closures.
It’s also a good idea to allow more time than you think you will need. The byway can be driven in a little under two hours with no stops, but allow at least four hours for detours in some of the towns along the way. Dress in layers especially if you intend to hike.
Visit Shields Date Garden
Shields Date Garden in nearby Indio is not just a shop and restaurant, it is a total date experience. Towering over the parking lot off Highway 111 is the gigantic sign of a knight that directs you inside. If you’ve never tried a date shake, this is your chance, and you can also stock up on every type of date imaginable. While you’re there, check out the free movie The Romance and Sex Life of the Date, which is filled with interesting facts and history.
Walk through the outdoor patio and you’ll encounter a walking trail that weaves through 17 acres of date groves with a pond at its center. You might be surprised to come across a series of biblical statues that are dispersed among the aloe plants and olive trees inside the garden – they were donated over a decade ago by a couple who were regular visitors to Shields. From the outside you would never guess that this hidden oasis existed.
Watch a polo match
Every Sunday between January and March the Empire Polo Club in Indio hosts polo matches, which are free on Sundays. At intermission join the other guests and stomp the divots in the field, then enjoy a champagne toast. This is a great family outing, so bring the kids. The polo club is also home to the Coachella Valley Arts & Music Festival and Stagecoach Festival. Sprawling over 500 acres, it has seventeen polo fields and stables for more than 700 horses. Plan to tailgate with your own food and drink, or make your way over to Tack Room Tavern for a hearty meal after the match.
Attend a free festival
You have your pick of festivals here, the most well-known being Greater Palm Springs Pride. This free festival celebrates the strength and determination of the LGBTIQ+ community with a parade, performances, and a vendor marketplace. VillageFest is a free street fair that occurs every Thursday evening in downtown Palm Springs and features arts, crafts, food and entertainment. The street is closed to vehicular traffic during VillageFest, and neighboring businesses stay open late during this event.
The city of Indio hosts the International Tamale Festival every December, kicking off the holiday season. More than 300 vendors are featured, plus five stages of live entertainment and wine and beer gardens. Attendees can sample a variety of tamales, from traditional to vegan and vegetarian options. If you’re feeling especially adventurous, you can participate in the tamale-eating contest.