In Harlem you will experience the cultural diversity of New York and discover the roots of a community in a neighborhood away from the skyscrapers. If you also complete the 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 is my favorite one:
The best way to immerse yourself in the culture of Harlem is to take a tour of the neighborhood and attend a live Gospel Mass at a local Harlem church. For this I recommend this Harlem Gospel Mass tour, which will take you to the heart of an authentic Gospel congregation where you will experience first hand their culture.
On this 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. Afterwards, you will visit a local church and experience the gospel live.
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 as one of the locals.
What you will 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 an entire 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 depicting the lifestyle of late 18th century 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 Jumel mansion, with two rows of identical houses and a cobblestone asphalt.
4. Cotton Club
The Cotton Club was one of the main gathering spots in New York nightlife 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, it has been home to famous African American celebrities throughout the 20th century. 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 the African-American culture. You can visit its library and attend lectures and exhibitions 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 to your tour of Harlem with a pleasant walk.
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 off the beaten tourist track in New York.
There are hundreds of churches offering Gospel Mass services in New York, and therefore, 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 in 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 Harlem Gospel Mass that will help you if you want to live this experience.
Tips to attend a Gospel Mass in Harlem
1. Take care of your attire
Remember that there is a dress code for attending a Gospel Mass 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 service.
2. Take into account the length of the Mass
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
Note that if you do not go to the service 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 service. So 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 give 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 lower level, 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 you prepare about $10 for when the time comes.
Harlem Beyond a Gospel Mass
In the 1960s, underground clubs and violence in the streets made Harlem a place to avoid. However, in recent years Harlem has experienced a second renaissance to become a very attractive place for people visiting 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's somewhat troubled.
In any case, if you don't want to miss anything, I recommend this post about 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.
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 the gastronomy of Harlem 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 Gospel Mass Tour
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 each side, is one of the neighborhoods that bring more identity to the city of New York. 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 getting 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 corners off the beaten track. You can read my experience with this tour here: Upper and Lower Manhattan Tour.
Frequently asked questions
What time do Harlem churches open to start the Gospel?
The time the gospel begins varies depending on the church, but it is usually best to attend one of these masses in the morning.
What should I know before attending a gospel mass?
Remember that gospel choirs are part of a religious sermon and not musical performances, so it is a good idea to show some restraint and respect at all times. Also, keep in mind that photography and videos are usually not allowed.
Is it possible to take pictures during the Gospel Mass?
It is not recommended. Keep in mind that this is not a tourist attraction but a religious and private celebration where privacy and respect are valued. There is no official rule, but it is possible that if you take out your camera, you will be called to attention.
What can you do in Harlem?
Sample Levain Bakery's iconic chocolate chip cookies, dine on authentic Southern-style fare at Sylvia's Restaurant, listen to jazz at an evening at Bill's Place, visit Marcus Gravey Park, and admire artwork by African descendants at the Studio Museum.