Palm Springs Surprises With History and Sophistication

Casa Cody’s relaxing pool area
Casa Cody’s relaxing pool area (photo by Lance Gerbert)

When you think Palm Springs, simple lines, Nelson bubble lamps and plenty of white concrete probably come to mind. No destination lays claim to the midcentury modern aesthetic quite like the desert oasis just under two hours east of Los Angeles: Palm Springs has the largest concentration of preserved midcentury modern architecture in the world. But the history is deeper and the architecture more diverse. 

Hollywood pioneers began building homes in Palm Springs in the early 1900s, and many of these jewels remain preserved as luxury boutique hotels and restaurants like the Willows Historic Palm Springs Inn, a romantic Mediterranean villa that hugs the mountainside (and where Albert Einstein, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard were guests), and Carey Grant’s former estate, now Copley’s restaurant. In the shadow of the San Jacinto Mountains, visitors may stumble upon everything from desert Craftsman homes to Spanish Colonial Revival–style cottages. 

Palm Springs continues to evolve with sleek contemporary architecture, like the seven-story Kimpton Rowan Hotel that opened in 2017, and sophisticated retreats with an emphasis on wellness and refined cuisine rather than overserved pool parties.

Here’s where to experience a different side of Palm Springs, olive-topped martinis still included.

Where to Stay

The property where Harriet Cody — cousin of William “Buffalo Bill” Cody — and her husband settled is now Casa Cody (from $189 a night), the oldest operating hotel in Palm Springs. It reopened in April 2021 following a yearlong restoration and renovation project. Accommodations are in four historic hacienda-style cottages and the 1950s Apache Lodge transplanted from the Francis Crocker estate. Interiors are old-world Mediterranean with glazed Moroccan tile, dark wood, coral velvet and Otomi-patterned pillows for contemporary flair. The hotel’s complimentary “Rituals” programming includes Saturday morning yoga, poolside evening tea and citrus picking on the spot’s one-and-a-half lush acres.

Award-winning designer and hotelier Chris Pardo (his other design projects include ARRIVE hotel and the Scandinavian-inspired Sandfish Sushi & Whiskey) designed the Fleur Noire Hôtel (from $185 a night), opening in the city’s Uptown Design District in a month. Twenty-one casitas and suites will showcase Georgia O’Keeffe –reminiscent over-size desert flower murals hand-painted by muralist Louise Jones and accent walls with muted garden flower wallpaper. The focus on botany continues outside, where a common area is beautifully lined with native palo fierro trees.

The Avalon Hotel & Bungalows Palm Springs (from $329) Spanish-style studios, suites and bungalows have been a Hollywood playground since the 1930s, and the current look draws inspiration from the opulent but comfortable Hollywood Regency style that was popular during that period. Accommodations, featuring gas-burning fireplaces and metallic and glass accents, are surrounded by citrus trees, gardens and three secluded pools. Wellness seekers will be pleased with the complimentary yoga and meditation classes on offer, as well as tai chi and Integral Life coaching. Estrella Spa has nervous system–calming massages with CBD-infused oils and oxygen facials. 

While under different ownership, the same globe-trotting couple, Doug and Josie Smith, whose other projects include renovating a horse farm in Portugal and a plantation in New Orleans, are behind two of the chicest and most distinctive hotels in Palm Springs. The adults-only Sparrows Lodge (from $329 a night) is a 1950s motel-turned-rustic-modern retreat. Twenty quiet guest rooms (there are no televisions) have redwood furniture, horse trough bathtubs and hand-poured concrete floors inlaid with pebbles. At the Smith-designed Korakia Pensione (from $359) guests might feel transported to Tangier with Moroccan daybeds and lanterns scattered throughout the property; even Moroccan tea is served each afternoon. Book the Moroccan Villa, Scottish painter Gordon Coutts’ 1920s hideaway, where Rudolph Valentino, Errol Flynn and Winston Churchill hobnobbed, for a truly transportive escape.

Casa Cody bed
Casa Cody (photo by Josh Cho)

Where to Eat

Workshop Kitchen & Bar, a James Beard Award winner for design, masters the chic industrial aesthetic in the 1920s-era El Paseo building with cathedral-height ceilings and brutalist booths. A former University of San Francisco student, chef Michael Beckman offers a market-driven menu with dishes like scarlet runner beans with pork jowl and tomato confit and king salmon with sweet corn. 

Bar Cecil pays homage to 20th-century bon vivant Cecil Beaton. The bar and restaurant have a jewel box of a dining room with English wallpapers, warm woods and brass finishes. The menu offers bistro fare, such as steak frites, and dishes for high rollers such as Thomas Keller’s Regiis Ova caviar service and the Fifty Dollar Martini: Beluga Gold vodka, a deviled egg and pickled onion.

Rooster + the Pig draws a loyal local crowd each evening for flavorful Vietnamese small plates like shrimp and mango rolls and pork belly fried rice.

Closed since March 2020 due to the pandemic, 4 Saints reopened in August atop the Kimpton, Palm Springs’ tallest building, with a new executive chef. Ysaac Ramirez was born in California but refined his skills in the South and has introduced a sophisticated menu including dishes like an aged Flannery New York strip with celery root and garlic blossom and Marsh Hen Mill cornbread with pecans and crispy chicken skin. The restaurant boasts the city’s best mountain and Coachella Valley views and cocktail classics like briny dirty martinis. 

Where to Shop 

At the Uptown Design District, fashion lovers peruse Candice Held for ’70s-style body-skimming slip dresses and floaty maxis made out of imported Italian fabrics and silk scarves. A textile designer, Held designs each print in Palm Springs except the vintage Hermès scarves she uses to fashion the chicest of tunics. 

Inspired by New York, the light-filled Elizabeth & Prince boutique sells sophisticated, edgy attire that works in the desert and the big city, like lacy white frocks and tailored camo pants. 

In the Shops at Thirteen Forty Five, Soukie Modern, co-owned by Pot of Rugs founder Taib Latfi and Los Angeles talent agency owner Kenya Knight, celebrates the similarities between Palm Springs and Marrakech (desert climates and iconic architecture, to name a few). The modern bazaar sells vintage Moroccan rugs and wedding blankets as well as towels, bags and decorative candles.

4 Saints (photo by Laure Joliet)

For a Midcentury Fix

Midcentury modern design in Palm Springs is beloved for a reason. Here’s where to experience the best of the best.

Holiday House, a 28-room adults-only boutique hotel near downtown, opened in 1951. After a renovation, interiors offer refreshed midcentury style with Gio Ponti–inspired tile work, David Hockney and Roy Lichtenstein artworks and a calming blue and white color scheme. 

Margaritaville Resort Palm Springs opened in November 2020 and combines streamlined midcentury style with a laid-back island feel. The hotel’s two cabana-flanked swimming pools with views of the mountains are Palm Springs perfection.

Mr. Lyons is a dark, retro steakhouse with a twist. Order small plates with produce from small farms and ethically raised meats like Creekstone Farms filet mignon. 

The Parker Palm Springs, designed by Jonathan Adler, captures the whimsy of the 1960s with its mix of more earthy and ornate elements like a wall of macramé owls and the sculptural gold stools in the hotel’s Mini Bar. Slip into the dimly lit Counter Reformation wine and tapas bar for plates of melt-in-your-mouth Jamón ibérico. 

Sunnylands, the winter home of the late Walter and Leonore Annenberg in Rancho Mirage, has reopened to the public for historic home tours, self-guided outdoor audio walks of the gardens and birding with advance tickets. Architect A. Quincy Jones designed the midcentury modern masterpiece.