Swell. Groovy. Hip. The lingo may have changed over the decades in Palm Springs, but the city's style hasn't. Two hours east of Los Angeles, Palm Springs is as cool as it gets in the middle of a desert.

From the 1940s to the 1960s, this was not only a favourite haunt for the likes of Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe, but also a canvas for experimental architect-designers whose legacy are the modernist masterpieces - elegant homes and civic structures - that define the city. Thanks to Palm Springs' restored hotels, modernist houses and vintage shops, this is the place for retro fun. Here are 10 ways to make the most of a visit to this unlikely oasis of style.

Hit the Palm Springs Visitor Centre

Palm Springs Visitor Centre. Image by Kate Armstrong / Lonely Planet.

A funky first stop for design and information, as well as details of upcoming events, the Palm Springs Visitor Centre (www.VisitPalmSprings.com) is housed in the former Tramway Gas Station, 2.5 miles north of town. The building's cutting-edge design with its angled roofline (known as a 'soaring roof') was designed in 1965 by Robson Chambers and Albert Frey. (Hint: while here, check out the photo of how the centre used to look with gas pumps out the front.)

Do a mid-century modern design tour

Whether you're a design aficionado or a newcomer to the scene, the absolute must-do activity in this town (okay, after one tipple by the pool) is an architectural tour with Robert Imber of Palm Springs Modern Tours (www.palmspringsmoderntours.com). Imber is a walking encyclopaedia of design and as quirky as the town's architectural features. He not only points out the work of visionary 20th-century architects such as William Cody, Donald Wexler and Michael Black , but also superbly recreates the glamour and sophistication of the era.

Walk through the canyons and oases

Hiking in Andreas Canyon. Image by Kate Armstrong / Lonely Planet.

The dry, rocky desert starts where Palm Springs' houses and green lawns end. Keen hikers should take a walk through history via the maze of trails in the mountainous desert canyons nearby - the Palm, Andreas and Murray Canyons. This is where ancestors of the Agua Caliente Cahuilla Indians settled (centuries before pioneers, railroad workers and Hollywood starlets came to the area), attracted by the region's hot springs. Another highlight here is the region's California Fan Palm (Washingtonia filifera), the only palm native to the Western US.

Hit the scene: The Purple Room and Melvyn's

A favourite of Frank Sinatra and his famous Rat Pack, The Purple Room (purpleroompalmsprings.com), is one of the city's only surviving supper clubs. Soak up the atmosphere over a martini at a ringside seat at the bar or at a stage-side table. These days, the partying may be slightly less raucous, performers don't sport black ties, and there's no swirling cigarette smoke (smoking is banned), but you may spot the odd fur coat. And you never know who might swing by.

Next stop is Melvyn's (www.inglesideinn.com/melvyns_restaurant.html), a cosy lounge bar-cum-restaurant attached to the Ingleside Inn (built in the 1920s), and a star-studded blast from the past. Since 1975, Melvyn's has mixed cocktails, meals and music for everyone from Greta Garbo to John Travolta. If you're lucky, owner Mel might spill the beans on some past Hollywood high jinx.

Don't miss the Art Museum

The entrance to the Palm Springs Art Museum. Image by Kate Armstrong / Lonely Planet.

There's more to Palm Springs than martinis. One of the country's best galleries, the Palm Springs Art Museum (www.psmuseum.org), is not only a superb building (it was designed by E Stewart Williams in 1974), but also houses an extraordinary art collection. It contains works by Andy Warhol, Henry Moore, Marc Chagall and Pablo Picasso, plus it owns the historic Frey House II, designed by Albert Frey.

Retro shop 'til you drop

Palm Springs 'Uptown' - along North Palm Canyon Drive - is choc-a-block with stores selling everything from antiques and collectibles to upmarket mid-century modern furniture. This is the place to pick up pieces by designers Paul McCobb and Florence Knoll, or Danish designer Kodof-Larsen. Fashionistas can find pre-loved, vintage clothing at Deja\' Vu (664 North Palm Canyon Drive) or, for a melange of 'Happy-Days-meets-Racquet-Club' styles, head to Wil Stiles (www.wilstiles.com). Also on this strip, Route 66 West (www.route66west.com) is dedicated entirely to pieces made from bakelite, an early (and very collectible) plastic.

Rub shoulders with the rich, famous (and very influential) at Sunnylands Center & Gardens

Queen Elizabeth, former British PM Margaret Thatcher and eight US presidents, along with countless world leaders, are former (and future) guests here. Designed by A. Quincy Jones, this stunning 25,000-sq ft, 1960s-style house, garden and golf course was the winter estate of the Annenbergs, American entrepreneurs and philanthropists (sunnylands.org/page/2/center-and-gardens). You can ponder signed photos of famous leaders, see where guests sleep...and wish you were a fly on the wall.

Stay in a hip hotel

The glitzy interior of the Riviera. Image by Kate Armstrong / Lonely Planet.

Staying in modernist boutique-style hotels - designed by the likes of Donald Wexler, William Cody and Herbert Burns - is the best way to help tap into your inner Lucille Ball. Our favourites include Del Marcos Hotel (www.delmarcoshotel.com), which has light and airy rooms, some with the original kitchenette, and simple forties-style decor. Nearby, Orbit In (www.orbitin.com) pays homage to designers such as Charles and Ray Eames and Harry Bertoia, complete with the designers' signature furniture. If you like the bustle of a larger hotel, the 398-room Riviera (www.psriviera.com) offers a contemporary take on Hollywood glitz, complete with chandeliers and crystal trimmings.

Eat modern

Cuisine has come a long way since devilled eggs, clam dip, and baked Alaska; the local chefs of today are what designers were to the forties, fifties and sixties, creating some cutting-edge cuisine. For a fabulous feed don't miss Workshop Kitchen + Bar (www.workshoppalmsprings.com). The eatery's design - including a massive communal concrete table and miniature Edison light bulbs - reflect Palm Springs' nod to contemporary design, while the eating booths pay homage to the past. Farm-to-plate dishes include white yam soup, beet and quinoa salad and chocolate terrine with quince ice-cream.

Plan ahead for Modernism Week

If you're not an expert on mid-century modernism when you arrive, you will be by the time you leave. True aficionados can time a pilgrimage to coincide with Palm Springs' annual Modernism Week (www.modernismweek.com). Head off on architectural tours to private and celebrities' homes. Attend lectures. Or frock up for a private party... and kick up your vintage-style heels.

Kate Armstrong began her travelling life as a six-year-old in search of the Faraway Tree. Despite scouring Europe, Mexico, South America, and East Africa, she's still looking for it. Follow her tweets @nomaditis.

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