10 Best Museums in Palm Springs for Art Lovers, History Buffs and Families
By Marissa Willman
Palm Springs Local Expert
Palm Springs is well known as the ultimate resort destination, ripe with golf courses, swimming pools and enviable weather all year long. As such, the Coachella Valley's collection of museums might surprise you. There's something for everyone to discover and enjoy in Palm Springs' museums, from World War II history and the culture of the native Cahuilla people to contemporary art exhibits and pristine gardens.
The downtown Palm Springs area has a number of museums for you to choose from. The Palm Springs Art Museum houses contemporary and modern art exhibits from some of the finest artists in the world. In recent years, the museum has hosted works by artists like Pablo Picasso and Dale Chihuly. PSAM is also home to artifacts and artwork reflected Cahuilla culture. Nearby, you can see one of the world's largest collection of flyable World War II planes at the Palm Springs Air Museum. Here, you can learn all about the history and impact of World War II from exhibits and the docents, most of whom are combat veterans.
If you have little ones, don't miss the Children's Discovery Museum of the Desert. The exhibits here focus on hands-on learning experiences, making the museum a fun adventure for the entire family. No matter what your interests or schedule, there are plenty of local museums to bring a sense of discovery to your desert vacation. If you need help choosing which museums to visit, this 10Best list highlights the top 10 museums in Palm Springs.
10 General George Patton Memorial Museum
This museum is dedicated to the colorful, courageous World War II general who rescued Americans trapped at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. It also honors veterans of conflicts from the Civil War to the Iraq arena. The museum is on training grounds that were once known as Desert Training Center, where General Patton trained troops during World War II. At the time, this training center was the largest military training ground to date. Today, you can see World War II and Korean War tanks, General Patton memorabilia and a 26-minute video on the history of the general and Desert Training Center. (760-227-3483)
9 McCallum Adobe
Built in 1884, this authentic adobe structure was erected by the first pioneers of Palm Springs and was home to John McCallum, the town's first permanent white settler. The museum is housed within this adobe, which still features its original hardwood floors and frame. The house is filled with antiques that are actually the personal mementos of Pearl McCallum McManus. Pictures and video throughout offer a fascinating glimpse of Palm Springs' early inception and living conditions. You'll also be able to see clothing, tools, books and Native American crafts at this museum. Admission is a $1 suggested donation, and the McCallum Adobe Museum is closed seasonally June through September. (760-323-8297)
8 Coachella Valley History Museum
Once home to the indigenous Cahuilla people, the Coachella Valley evolved over the years to become a major railroad stop, an agricultural center and, more recently, a hotbed for modern design. Today, the desert's evolution is well-preserved at the Coachella Valley History Museum in Indio. Its historic buildings include the Smiley-Taylor House, an adobe home built in 1926, and the Indio Schoolhouse, built in 1909. The grounds are also home to the Date Museum, the Coachella Valley Historical Society's archives, a Blacksmith shop, the Coachella Valley's oldest cork tree and several gardens. The museum is open seasonally from October through May. (760-342-6651)
7 Ruddy's General Store Museum
In 1983, after decades of acquisition, Jim Ruddy decided to display his extensive collection of general store memorabilia, much of it dating back to the 1940s. These days, visitors can step into the past thanks to his re-imagined but authentic general store. Not only does it boast more than 6000 items, but many of them have never been used and are in pristine condition. Among the objects you'll encounter are health and hygience products, packaged foods, clothing, and even medicines, ointments, and creams. While you can't actually buy any of the general store items in this museum, Ruddy's General Store is a fascinating time capsule. (760-327-2156)
6 Agua Caliente Cultural Museum
Long before Palm Springs became a playground for Old Hollywood's stars, the Coachella Valley was home to the Cahuilla Indians. Today, the history of the Cahuilla people is preserved and showcased at the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum in downtown Palm Springs. This fascinating museum traces the history of the Agua Caliente Indians from prehistoric times to the present, displaying everything from unearthed artifacts to photographs. The museum also present exhibits throughout the year at the Spa Resort Casino and Palm Springs City Hall. The museum is located in downtown Palm Springs and is open to the public free of charge. (760-323-0151)
5 Cabot's Pueblo Museum
Who needs mass produced homes and traditional building materials? When homesteader Yerxa Cabot settled in Desert Hot Springs, he used natural materials and a little ingenuity to build a home so unique it remains a preserved museum to this day. While the structure's architecture is a unique sight to behold, there's more to see here than Cabot's Hopi-style pueblo. Inside, the house has been turned into a museum with rooms filled with Indian artifacts, artwork and memorabilia. One artifact you shouldn't miss is Waokiye, a 43-foot sculpture of a Native American head. Waokiye is one of 74 heads in the "Trail of the Whispering Giants" collection and the only on left in California. (760-329-7610, 866-941-7610)
4 Children's Discovery Museum of the Desert
Whether you need a place to set your inner child loose or let your actual children play, the Children's Discovery Museum of the Desert has more than 50 hands-on activities to peak your curiosity and keep the entire family entertained for hours. Exhibits are grouped by theme, such as science, physical activities, how things work, exploration and the desert. Through fun activities like an archaeological dig, an interactive station where you can make their own animations and a pretend grocery store ready for roleplaying, children discover themselves, the world around them and the art of self-expression without realizing they're learning. Other hands-on activities include a miniature rock-climbing area, a magnetic sculpture wall, make-it-and-take-it-apart projects, a rope maze and a family center. (760-321-0602)
Sunnylands is a historic, 200-acre estate in Rancho Mirage. Once the winter home of Ambassadors Walter and Leonore Annenberg, this A. Quincy Jones-designed estate has hosted a number of high-powered retreats for politics, education and the arts. In fact, Sunnylands is nicknamed the "Camp David of the West." In 2012, the estate opened to the public, allowing visitors to tour the historic estate and see where high-level political meetings occur. Tickets to the estate are limited, and tours are only available when retreats are not in session. Even if you can't visit the Sunnylands Estate on your trip, you can always visit the Sunnylands Center and Garden, an educational center open to visitors year-round. Here, you can check out educational kiosks and films, as well as selected pieces from the Sunnylands art collection. (760-328-2829)
2 Palm Springs Air Museum
As the deadliest war in history, WWII forever changed the course of American and international history. Today, visitors can view the largest collection of flyable WWII planes in the world at the Palm Springs Air Museum. Whether or not you're a hardcore military history buff, you won't want to pass up the opportunity to talk with the museum's passionate volunteers. Most of the museum's volunteers served during WWII and are eager to talk about the planes, the war and American history with museum guests. Docents will happily share the stories behind each plane, such as which fighter plane was flown by Ben Affleck's character in "Pearl Harbor." In addition to its impressive plane collection from planes, the museum also has vintage cars, flight simulators, documentary screenings and an onsite café. (760-778-6262)
1 Palm Springs Art Museum
The Palm Springs Art Museum has seen many transformations since its inception in 1938. Originally focused on the desert environment and the native Cahuilla people, the museum is now dedicated to both the region's indigenous culture and contemporary art, having hosted exhibits by the likes of Pablo Picasso and Dale Chihuly. Palm Springs' modern flair is encapsulated in PSAM's building, which is a Modernist structure designed by E. Stewart Williams. More than 24,000 objects and artifacts call PSAM home, including fine art, photography archives and fossils. The museum's onsite performance venue, the Annenberg Theater, hosts various musicals, plays, concerts and other performances throughout the year. In 2012, the museum opened a second location in neighboring Palm Desert. The second location features modern architecture and four exhibit galleries. (760-325-7186)
About Marissa Willman
Marissa Willman moved to the Coachella Valley in 2001 and loves discovering the best that the desert has to offer. As a Palm Springs local, Marissa enjoys sharing her knowledge of this desert destination through her travel writing. In a previous life, she worked as an English teacher in South Korea and spent months traveling throughout Asia. Today, Marissa prefers to explore her backyard in Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley, while occasionally jetsetting as her wanderlust strikes.
Read more about Marissa Willman here.