As you drive east out of Los Angeles, the temperature quickly starts to climb, the Californian desert stretches far ahead, and the enormity of the mountain range begins to loom even larger. But there, in the distance is a queer haven packed with as much rich history and culture as there are glistening palm trees.
Palm Springs is just over two hours drive from LAX, detached from the frantic streets of Hollywood and sitting as a tranquil oasis of bars, restaurants, shops and movie-like mid-century homes. There’s a good reason that it feels far enough away from La La Land, but actually very accessible. The movie stars of cinema’s golden era were contractually obliged to not travel more than 100 miles away from the studio just in case they needed to be called back at short notice. Palm Springs falls just within that range, but offered sanctuary from the media glare and movieland gossip. Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Munroe are just a handful who set up home in the city during the mid 20th century, in search of privacy and peace. That privacy was especially important for the LGBTQ+ stars of the time who were not publicly out. Palm Springs became somewhere they could live more openly with their lovers and embrace who they were, without fear of being outed. Towards the latter decades of the 1900s, as the HIV/AIDS epidemic devastated gay communities, victims flocked to Palm Springs when considering where they wanted to spend the rest of their days. With idyllic scenery and an inclusive local community, it was one of the more obvious, safest destinations.
These days, when it comes to LGBTQ+ visibility and inclusivity, Palm Springs is flying the flag higher than ever. The city is staunchly (and rightly) proud of its welcoming, inclusive community. Just two years ago, Lisa Middleton was elected the Mayor of Palm Springs and became the first openly trans person to be elected in California for a non-judicial position. Before her, Christy Holstege became the first openly bisexual female Mayor of Palm Springs, and before that Geoff Kors was the fourth openly gay mayor of the city. The role in 2022 is currently held by Grace Elena Garner who, last December, became the first Latina Mayor of Palm Springs. You can tread the streets of this historic and heavenly city safe in the knowledge that its community not only supports, but celebrates leaders who represent all walks of life.
Greater Palm Springs – where I spent the entirety of my trip – isn’t as big as you might expect. It has a population just shy of 45,000, but welcomes millions of visitors every year. It’s immediately clear why it is popular. Not only does it have good weather for a large portion of the year, the sheer majestic backdrop of the mountains that tower over the city can be seen wherever you are. They are so hypnotic that you never truly believe they are real. Add to that some of the finest modernism design in the world laid out perfectly along its sun-soaked streets, at times there is a movie-set quality to the surroundings – and we’re not just saying that because it recently served as the backdrop to Florence Pugh and Harry Styles-led blockbuster Don’t Worry Darling.
A hub of creativity, culture, cuisine and community, it’s simply one of the most divine destinations for LGBTQ+ travellers.
Palm Springs: What are the best things to do there?
From the natural to the man-made, Palm Springs isn’t short of spectacular sights. But let’s start with the obvious: that huge mountain range. While there are three mountain ranges that surround Palm Springs, the closest to Greater Palm Springs is the San Jacinto. Head over to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and within a 10-minute, 2.5-mile trip on the world’s largest rotating tram car, you are 8,516 feet up in the Mt. San Jacinto National Park with jaw-dropping views of the valley. The temperature noticeably dips when you’re that high up too, compared to the heat of the desert below. If you’re traveling in winter there is a high chance that you can enjoy the snow-capped peaks of the mountain with its crisp air, and warmer temperatures below for some winter sun, offering the best of both seasons.
At the foot of the mountain you will find the beautifully modernist Palm Springs Visitors Center, where you can book a tour to look at some of the most enchanting manmade sights of the city: the homes. Modernism Week and Palm Springs Architecture Tours have teamed up for a special experience that traverses the city to view some of the most stylish architecture in all of the United States. The more than two-hour trip is hosted by experts who give an in-depth tour of the history of Palm Springs and how it became the modernist capital of the world. With homes that once belonged to Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley to name but a few, it’s a fascinating guide to a city that sprung up out of the desert and attracted some of the most distinguished architects and designers in the world to create these beautiful abodes. Every February a good number of these homes are opened up for visitors during Palm Springs’ world-famous 11-day festival Modernism Week, allowing guests to view the interiors of these 20th century marvels.
The reason the inside of these homes look so captivating? Palm Springs has some of the best furniture stores out there. A trip to the 40,000 square foot Market Market showed some of the best the destination has to offer, with gorgeously designed furniture, eye-catching art, and some unique apparel collections, it’s a shoppers’ dream. Expertly curated, the store includes vintage and repurposed items that you won’t find anywhere else, perfectly capturing the historic and creative charm of Palm Springs.
Throughout the city there are plenty of boutiques offering a distinctive and enjoyable shopping experience. The Uptown Design District is home to locally-owned businesses selling jewelry, clothing, homewares and souvenirs. There’s also The Webster Palm Springs for those who have a keen interest in luxury clothing brands. From Celine to Saint Laurent, the boutique store has a sublimely curated collection of fashion for all expressions. On Thursday evenings there’s the Palm Springs Village Fest in the heart of downtown Palm Springs, with stalls upon stalls of art, shopping, entertainment and street food.
If you’re in the mood to get creative and repurpose some of your own clothing, that’s possible too. A hybrid art gallery, boutique and design lab, Superbloom gives guests the opportunity to express their individuality while also discovering the colours that speak to them best. Through accessible painting techniques and in an environment that encourages experimentation, you can bring along clothing or accessories to give a makeover by using splatters of paint. Superbloom focuses on 10 colours total, each having their own meaning. Co-founded by Alexis Palomino and Chris Ramirez, it’s a creative activity that can bring new life to an old pair of sunglasses, while giving space to a moment of self-discovery.
The diversity of art in Palm Springs can’t be overstated either. One example is The Gaia Hypothesis at The Elemental: A Contemporary Center for The Arts. Curated by Christopher Yggdre, the exhibition focuses on the intersection of art and the environment, bringing together works by 14 international artists that represent the fundamental elements of earth, wind, fire and water. Works range from the 1970s to the present day, but all of them look squarely towards the future and comment on the ongoing climate crisis in various ways. Amongst the many other galleries, the Palm Springs Art Museum is a must-visit. With over 12,000 objects of modern and contemporary works across three floors, there’s plenty to be inspired by.
If you want to experience the unique history of Palm Springs but also treat yourself to rest and relaxation, then the newly opened Spa at Séc-he is the one. This sprawling facility (over 73,000 square feet) offers a vast array of treatments and experiences to refresh and revitalise. The mineral baths pumped with sacred waters from the ancient hot springs soothes the muscles and skin. There are two float pod suites that will relax your body beyond belief, and a grounding room offers a sensation like no other. Treatments range from full-body massages and cryotherapy, to mud wraps, salt scrubs and collagen facials. You will be leaving the spa absolutely glowing.
Palm Springs: Where are the best places to stay, eat and drink?
Palm Springs has a hotel problem… there’s so many boutique properties offering bespoke experiences that it’s pretty damn hard to choose where you want to stay. It’s a good problem to have. Take the intimate setting of Villa Royale, with its flowing fountain waters, luscious plants, and its rustic yet ornate design. It’s Californian chic that echoes the romance of the mid-20th century in all the right ways. It feels intimate, but not too cramped. Grab a seat in its restaurant Del Rey for delicious cocktails and pick from a menu crammed with sharing plates from Spanish mussels and grilled artichokes, to tender flat iron steaks and fried eggplant. The pool is one of the prettiest of them all, with the entire grounds glimmering with charm and comfort.
Recently-opened Drift Palm Springs gives modern desert chic, with its stylish neutral tones and minimal approach. A centrally-located pool with beds and cabanas is surrounded by 36 rooms in this boutique hotel that spans 43,000 square feet. The rooms are relaxing with a hammock just outside for those chilled dusky evenings. Maleza is the on-site bar serving food and drink, offering deliciously sharp margaritas with a kick.
Boutique hotels don’t get more gay than Trixie Motel; a pink paradise created by Drag Race royalty Trixie Mattel. The capital of kitsch, this intricately designed hotel has seven rooms all designed completely different from each other, giving guests a unique experience. The bar has frames upon frames of Trixie and her famous friends across the wall (including Elvis himself), and prides itself on being a true safe space for all members of the LGBTQ+ community who visit.
Elsewhere, from the perfectly coiffed lawns and spacious rooms of Avalon Hotel and Bungalows, to the Art Deco glamour of romantic Americana at the Colony Palms Hotel and Bungalows (the pool is idyllic), Palm Springs’ eclectic selection of properties can cater to all tastes.
The same can be said about the local cuisine too. FARM Palm Springs serves up French cuisine in a rustic setting, perfect for breakfast and brunch in its warm surroundings. A tasty menu of omelets, crepes and salads go down even nicely while surrounded by greenery, making you feel like you’ve taken a trip to the countryside.
The iconic Lulu California Bistro is a local favourite and is always bustling, serving up brunch and an all-day menu packed with salads, burgers, pasta dishes and BBQ ribs. You truly cannot go wrong with anything you pick. For quick bites and lunch, Juniper Table in the Kimpton Rowan has a healthy selection of salads and sandwiches centred on Mediterranean flavours. Mr Lyons Steakhouse in the evenings evokes old Hollywood chic, with delicious steak dishes serving up a fine dining experience.
Palm Springs: Why is it so great for LGBTQ+ visitors?
Simply put, Palm Springs is a queer oasis for LGBTQ+ travelers looking for a truly inclusive destination. There is an incredibly visible LGBTQ+ scene in the city, and you can’t go a few buildings before seeing Pride and trans flags flying proudly. The community in Palm Springs felt alive and thriving, ready to welcome queer tourists. You will often see queer couples walking the streets holding hands and the local community feels solid in their approach to creating a safe destination for all LGBTQ+ visitors.
Arenas is the centre of it all, brimming with LGBTQ+ venues and queer-owned businesses. We popped into Blackbook to try their specially-brewed Blackbook Hibiscus Blond (gorgeous!) and Palm Springs Styles Nachos (gorgeous again!). The venue was a hub of LGBTQ+ community that was welcoming and uplifting. From Hunters Nightclub to Palm Springs’ OG queer venue Streetbar, there are plenty of places to unwind and have fun.
As for queer-owned businesses, they range from barbershops to bike rentals to Bear Wear. There’s also health centers, community centers, and plenty of gay hotels, resorts and inns to visit and stay. The LGBTQ+ community very much appears to be the bedrock of the city. You’ll find regular cabaret and drag shows, with our second evening spent playing Fabulous Bingo with Bella Da Ball at the King’s Highway restaurant at the Ace Hotel.
You can only imagine how much the city lights up for its annual Greater Palm Springs Pride in November; an outlier in the Pride calendar so the queer community can march during a more suitable temperature. With special programming, big name performances and plenty of marching in solidarity, it’s a great opportunity to jump back into the Pride spirit outside of the congested June celebrations elsewhere.
Across the six days I spent during my first trip to Palm Springs I was genuinely taken by how effortlessly inclusive and idyllic the city is as a destination for LGBTQ+ travelers. Culture, community, cuisine and creativity has built this city into a must-visit destination for queer people wanting to escape the everyday and have a taste of paradise.