In Harlem you will experience the cultural diversity of New York and discover the roots of a community in a neighborhood far from the skyscrapers. If you complete your visit with a gospel mass, you will stop being a tourist for a while and become a neighbor. There are different options both to visit the neighborhood and to attend a gospel mass, depending on your time availability. Here's my favorite:
Walk through Harlem as a neighbor
Perfect if you want to enjoy a walk through the Harlem neighborhood and also enjoy an authentic gospel mass. The tour is only available on Sundays.
The best way to immerse yourself in Harlem culture is to take a tour of the neighborhood and attend a live gospel mass at a local Harlem church. For that, I recommend this Harlem Sunday Gospel Mass tour, which will take you to the heart of an authentic gospel congregation where you will experience first-hand its culture.
On this Harlem Sunday Gospel Mass tour you will visit Harlem landmarks such as the Apollo Theater, the Morris-Jumel Mansion, the oldest house in Manhattan, Sylvan Terrace, a quirky street of identical houses, and the Cotton Club, a nightclub that has hosted historic concerts. At the end, you'll visit a local church and experience the gospel live. And if the day doesn't suit you, you can opt for the Wednesday Gospel Mass tour of Harlem.
Why I like this tour: taking a guided tour of the area will help you understand the customs of the locals and enjoy the experience that much more.
Recommended if... you feel like spending a different day during your trip to New York immersing yourself in the local culture like a local.
This is what gospel masses are like in Harlem
Visiting a local church and experiencing a live gospel mass in Harlem is an experience that, despite its popularity, still retains a certain halo of alternative activity and remains off the beaten tourist track in New York.
There are hundreds of churches offering gospel mass services in New York City and, as such, the tours do not take visitors to a fixed church in order to preserve the community and local character of the congregations, and to ensure a genuine experience. You may visit a church in Harlem or even the Bronx, but they will always be churches where an authentic Mass is offered and not a commercial show. The mass consists of a combination of singing and preaching (the sermon delivered with the energy of a gospel mass).
Here is an article about the best churches to go to a gospel mass in Harlem that will help you if you want to live this experience.
Sunday Gospel Mass Tour
The Sunday gospel mass tour is very interesting because it will allow you to walk with a specialized guide through the Harlem neighborhood on the busiest day of the week. In addition, you will attend an original gospel mass that will make you feel like a real Harlem citizen and, in addition, if you want your experience to be as complete as possible you can enjoy a brunch in an African-American restaurant.
A tour in which you will learn all the history of the Harlem neighborhood and walk along the most emblematic buildings such as the Apollo Theater, the favorite stage for the artists of Harlem; the Morris-Jumel Mansion, the oldest house in Manhattan, totally different from the current buildings; the Cotton Club, one of the most famous restaurants and nightclubs worldwide, or Sylvan Terrace, the nineteenth century street that maintains its wooden houses, something striking in the center of Manhattan.
An ideal proposal to learn everything that happened during the 70's and 80's, when Harlem was the capital of culture and politics of black New York.
Wednesday Gospel Mass Tour
The Wednesday gospel mass tour is the same experience as on Sunday. For about 4 hours you will get to know the Harlem neighborhood in depth by walking through its streets on a Wednesday morning to get to know the neighborhood in its daily rhythm of everyday life.
You will learn from an expert guide the stories of this neighborhood full of culture, you will know its most emblematic points and you will live an unforgettable experience, attending a gospel mass. In addition, you can choose to add lunch to your tour and taste in a restaurant the traditional African-American food from the south of the United States, "soul food".
Tips for attending a gospel mass in Harlem
1. Take care of your attire
Remember that there is a dress code for attending a gospel service in New York: avoid shorts and tank tops. After all, you are visiting a gathering place of a spiritual congregation. Because of this, you probably won't be able to take pictures and you will be asked for a donation during the mass.
2. Keep in mind the duration
A gospel mass in New York usually lasts around two hours, but the program is not set and the duration always depends on the participation of the congregation. In any case, the tour only takes you to the gospel mass for one hour.
3. Be on time
Keep in mind that if you don't go to the mass as part of a tour, you will have to wait in line to get in, which may result in you not getting to see the mass. Because of this, if you decide to go on your own, be sure to arrive at the church early. This post on gospel mass sched ules will help you.
4. Avoid inauthentic "commercial" masses
Also, something that has become a growing problem in recent years is that there are congregations that put on shows in which they recreate gospel masses for tourists, but there is nothing authentic about them. The tours I recommend will take you to see genuine gospel masses in either Harlem or the Bronx, but if you decide to visit Harlem on your own beware of falling into a tourist trap.
5. Respect the space allotted to the congregation
You will enter the church moments before it begins and will usually be seated in an upper box from which to watch it unfold. The main congregation usually sits on the first floor, but you may also have parishioners sitting next to you in the box.
6. Prepare a donation
You will be asked to make a donation during the Mass. Although it is optional, I recommend that you prepare about $10 (about $9) for when the time comes.
Harlem beyond a gospel service
In the 1960s, underground clubs and violence in the streets made Harlem a place to avoid. In recent years, however, Harlem has undergone a second renaissance to become a very attractive place for visitors to New York.
In West Harlem there are several places frequented mostly by locals. One of them is Riverside Park, where you will find the monument to General Grant and beautiful views of the Hudson River. If you don't want to go too far away, you can take a walk through Marcus Garvey Park, which despite not being too special can give you a break from walking on asphalt. East Harlem, also known as "El Barrio", is an area that most New Yorkers will tell you to avoid because it is somewhat conflictive.
In any case, if you don't want to miss anything, I recommend this post on what to see and do in Harlem.
Taking a guided tour is the best way to discover and understand Harlem, the lifestyle of its neighbors and the history of its district.
What to see on a gospel tour of Harlem
On the Harlem gospel tour, you will take a complete tour of authentic Harlem and soak up its history. Harlem tours usually last around 4 hours. This includes the tour of the neighborhood's most significant points of interest and the gospel mass, Most Harlem tours depart from the Times Square area. Here is what you will see during most of these guided tours:
1. Apollo Theater
The Apollo Theater was the birthplace of jazz, R&B, gospel and soul since 1934 when it began hosting musical contests and generating a whole community of artists around it. African-American music icons such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, James Brown and Lauryn Hill gave their first concerts from the Apollo stage.
2. Morris Jumel Mansion
The Morris Jumel Mansion is the oldest house in Manhattan and today houses a museum that shows the lifestyle of the late eighteenth century in New York. In addition, there are a number of legends and ghost stories about the place.
3. Sylvan Terrace
Sylvan Terrace is a charming little street located very close to the Morris-Jumell Mansion, with two rows of identical houses and cobblestone asphalt.
4. Cotton Club
The Cotton Club was one of New York's premier nightlife gathering spots during the 1920s and 1930s, and still hosts jazz shows and concerts today.
5. Strivers' Row
A residential neighborhood filled with characteristic brown cement houses that throughout the 20th century was home to famous African Americans. Today it is visited for its unique architectural style.
6. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
A research center where you can discover the history of the various elements that make up African-American culture. You can visit its library and attend lectures and exhibits on slavery, hip-hop, or jazz.
7. Sugar Hill
An elegant neighborhood where writers, artists, politicians and prominent personalities used to live, where you can put the icing on the cake of your Harlem tour with a pleasant stroll.
Where to eat in Harlem after the gospel mass tour
The typical gastronomy of Harlem is called 'soul food' and is composed of dishes such as the famous fried chicken on a waffle, macaroni and cheese, peach cobbler (peach cobbler) and fried fish, among others. It is a type of food that originated in the southern United States during the times of slavery, and has evolved to become an indispensable element of Harlem's African-American culture.
Since Harlem cuisine is such an important part of the neighborhood, here is an article on where to eat in Harlem that you will find very interesting.
Tours similar to the Harlem tour and gospel Mass
Harlem is not the only New York City neighborhood you should visit on your trip. Brooklyn, with its streets of brick apartments with trees on either side, is one of the neighborhoods that bring the most identity to New York City. Manhattan, the Bronx or Queens are the other boroughs that also have a lot to discover, and the contrasts tour is a guided tour of the best of each. I tell you all about it here: New York Contrasts Tour.
If you like the idea of going off the beaten tourist track, I also recommend the Upper and Lower Manhattan tour, because, although it focuses on the borough of Manhattan, it shows you the most interesting places off the beaten track. You can read my experience with this tour here: Upper and Lower Manhattan Tour.