When Hollywood stars played house in the Forties and Fifties, they did it in style, says Marcus Field. The modernist gems that line the streets of Palm Springs are their legacy

I'm not here on the trail of celebrity stories, though. I'm here to spot stars of a different kind - the houses, hotels and other places built to serve the smart set of the 1940s and 1950s and which turned out to be architectural gems. The result makes Palm Springs one of the most concentrated areas of experimental post-war architecture in the world.

Probably the best way to experience it is to book different nights in several of the iconic buildings that were designed as hotels. I spent my first night at the Movie Colony Hotel, a good place to start since it was designed by Albert Frey, one of the first architects to live and practise in the city. Frey worked under Le Corbusier in Paris before he emigrated to the US and he completed this hotel in 1935. It's designed in what later became the typical Palm Springs form, with a plain façade leading to a pretty inner courtyard, complete with a swimming pool and citrus trees. Although the building has been updated, you can still see the Modern Movement hallmarks in its ocean-liner aesthetic, sun terraces and light rooms.

If you are rich enough, though, you can experience Palm Springs like a real star and rent the home built for Frank Sinatra in 1947 by local architect Stewart Williams. Sinatra commissioned the house, including the pool shaped like a grand piano, to celebrate his first million dollars and lived there for 10 years, during his marriage to Ava Gardner. (It also appears in the 1950 Joan Crawford film The Damned Don't Cry.)

To find the real masterpieces you need to head off into what is known as the Tennis Club area. The best way to plan your route is to buy the map of key buildings produced by the Palm Springs Modern Committee from the visitors' centre, itself a converted petrol station designed by Frey, and then cycle round the cul-de-sacs (most hotels will lend you bikes) and peep over the well-manicured hedges.

I was lucky enough to have a first-rate guide in the form of Steven Lowe, the owner of the Beat Hotel in nearby Desert Hot Springs where I spent my next night. Lowe, a former collaborator with the writer and artist William Burroughs, runs the hotel as a tribute to Beat writers: every room has a typewriter, period furniture and original Beat artwork. The eight-room hotel (built in 1957) has a pool fed by hot springs and what it lacks in design credentials it more than makes up for in hipness.

Lowe's tour is a knowledgeable and entertaining commentary delivered in a John Malkovich-like drawl. ("That's where Liberace lived; and that's his momma's house right next door. And that's the church that Sinatra built to atone for his sins.") We started with two of the most celebrated pieces of Californian desert architecture. The Kaufmann House on Chino Canyon was designed by Richard Neutra in 1946 as a holiday home for the same department store mogul who commissioned Fallingwater from Frank Lloyd Wright. From the street, you get some idea of the partially hidden essay in stone, steel and glass which Neutra described as "a machine in the garden".

Further up the hill, on Panorama Drive, you can glimpse the smaller steel-and-glass house, also from 1946, designed by Frey for Raymond Loewy, the industrial designer most famous for his work on the Coca-Cola bottle. Here the free-form swimming pool dips under the doors to the house to form a stream, a feature that could be hazardous to party guests.

Palm Springs is laid out mostly on a valley bottom surrounded by the dramatic peaks of the San Jacinto mountains. Perched on a ledge is the house Frey designed for himself in 1963. Again, it is a modest steel house with a crinkly aluminium roof and glass walls. The best view of it is from the courtyard of the Orbit In. The little motel, designed in 1957 by Herbert Burns, gives you a taste of picture-postcard California life as you pad around rooms dotted with period furniture and slip out for a midnight dip in the steaming pool.

Another notable house sits like a grounded flying saucer in the hills just south of the city. This is the 1968 Elrod House, designed by John Lautner for the celebrity decorator Arthur Elrod. The 60ft sitting room, with its electronic sliding glass wall and concrete roof vaults, made the perfect setting as the villain's lair for the 1971 James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever. Lautner, who trained under Frank Lloyd Wright, later designed a similar house for Bob Hope, just to the right of the Elrod House. "At least when they come down from Mars they'll know where to go," joked Hope.

The final stop on Lowe's tour is another building by John Lautner - this time one you can try for yourself. Situated up a dusty track, the little Desert Hot Springs Motel was designed by the architect in 1947. The base of the concrete structure hugs the ground, while its orange steel roof beams make zigzagging skylights. Inside, the four rooms are ingeniously designed around private gardens with just the broad blue sky and a bunch of cacti for a view. Lowe now owns the motel and provides an unfussy service, leaving guests alone in the perfect setting for an architectural pilgrimage to the desert.

Marcus Field flew to Los Angeles with Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; airnewzealand.co.uk), which offers flights from £382. A week's car rental with Alamo (0870 400 4596; alamo.co.uk) starts at £118. He stayed as a guest at three hotels: the Movie Colony Hotel (00 1 888 953 5700; moviecolonyhotel. com), which offers b&b in a double from $129 (£69) per night; the Beat Hotel in Desert Hot Springs (00 1 760 288 2280; dhsbeat hotel.com) costs from $150 per night; and the Orbit In (00 1 760 323 3585; orbitin.com) costs from $169 per night. Frank Sinatra's house costs from $2,000 per night through Homes Run Inc (00 1 760 272 6028). Desert Hot Springs Motel (00 1 760 288 2280; lautnermotel. com) offers b&b from $135 per night. For more information go to psmodcom.com, palmsprings USA.com and visitcalifornia.com