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10 Things to Do in Harlem NYC

Every city has one of those neighborhoods that you would want to live in, neighborhoods that are authentic and when you visit them you become part of them and the city. In New York one of these neighborhoods is Harlem.

Ana Caballero

Ana Caballero

10 min read

10 Things to Do in Harlem NYC

Aerial view of East Harlem | ©Ajay Suresh

If you're in New York, you have to visit the neighborhood that inspired the popular Harlem Shake dance a few years ago. Home of the Harlem Globetrotters, good jazz, hip hop and soul food cuisine.

The diversity, history and eclectic atmosphere of Harlem make it a unique experience. Highly recommended!

1. Apollo Theater , the soul of American culture

Entrance of the Apollo Theater in Harlem| ©Ken Yuel
Entrance of the Apollo Theater in Harlem| ©Ken Yuel

The Apollo Theater is more than just an important stage. It was the center of the movement known as the Harlem Cultural Renaissance. It featured such luminaries as: Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, James Brown and Jimi Hendrix.

Located at 253 125th Street, the theater is also a meeting place. In addition to hosting the legendary Amateur Nights and the NY Comedy Festival, it offers a series of cultural programs geared towards education, the family and the community. With an emphasis on the contribution of African-American culture to the development of the United States and global culture.

  • Address: 253 West Dr Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard (125th Street)
  • Hours: Guided tours daily at 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. (Wednesdays only at 1:00 p.m.)
  • Price of guided tours: $16

2. Book a guided gospel tour

Gospel Mass| ©Fran García
Gospel Mass| ©Fran García

The renewal in music, starting with the aforementioned renaissance, was an extraordinary phenomenon in Harlem. Gospel and jazz dominated the streets of New York. And even today they still define to a large extent the idiosyncrasy of this charismatic place.

If you want to take a gospel tour and visit a mass there are several options. I suggest you take a look at the different guided tours. In them you will have the opportunity to connect with the spirituality and the most genuine values of the neighborhood.

Considering that this is one of the main attractions of the area, it is advisable to have a professional guide. It is an effective way to optimize time and the guides always know a trick or two.

You can expect crowded places, a ceremony of about 2 hours and to be asked for a donation. Always remember that a mass is a moment of religious communion, be respectful and follow the rules of the place.

Book a guided Gospel Tour

3. A night at Bill's Place

Jazz Nights in New York| ©Zhang Yu
Jazz Nights in New York| ©Zhang Yu

If you want to know the place where Billie Holliday 's career was born, you must go to Bill's Place. This club was an authentic speakeasy during Prohibition in 1920 and still maintains its spirit.

Run by Dr. Theda Palmer and Bill Saxton, "the jazz king of Harlem," the venue promises visitors a night of pure jazz. You can enjoy a jamming session with exceptional musicians. The place is small, intimate and noisy. It offers an unforgettable experience for those who love live music.

  • Address: 148 West 133rd Street (between Seventh and Lenox Avenues)
  • Hours: Friday and Saturday from 6:30 p.m. to 11:00 p.m.
  • Price: $30

4. Visit the Cotton Club

Cotton Club Entrance| ©daspunkt
Cotton Club Entrance| ©daspunkt

Following this line of musical tourism you must make a mandatory stop at 656 125th Street, the CottonClub. This legendary jazz club opens its doors every Monday and Saturday at 8:00 pm. Here you can order dinner and drinks while enjoying a jazz or blues performance. It also has the option of Brunch & Gospel on Saturdays and Sundays, between 12:00 - 2:30 pm.

Although this is not the historic club, as the original building is gone, it retains the charm of the era when stars such as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Slappy White, Chuck Jackson, Art Blakley and Count Basie performed.

  • Address: 178 7th Avenue South (between Perry Street and Waverly Place in the West Village)
  • Hours: Monday and Thursday 8:00 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., Saturday 12:30 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. to 12:00 midnight and Sunday 12:30 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.
  • Price: from $20

5. Activate all your senses with Harlem cuisine.

Famous Waffles and Chicken dish.| ©Jeff Keyzer
Famous Waffles and Chicken dish.| ©Jeff Keyzer

Harlem is known for its gastronomy, soul food, with its references to southern cuisine. The fried chicken with waffles, the burgers and the BBQ, the chocolate cake or the banana pudding. All delicious dishes that will make you feel at home and at affordable prices. Here are three recommendations of places to have the soul food experience in Harlem.

Sylvia's Restaurant

Sylvia's Restaurant Sylvia's Restaurant, founded in 1962 by Sylvia Woods, "the queen of soul food". It is located on Malcom X Boulevard. This is probably the best known of Harlem's restaurants. It will soon be 60 years old and is still run by the Woods family.

Amy Ruth's

Amy Ruth's AmyRuth' s opened its doors in 1999. A charming place where dishes named after prominent African-American figures are served. So you can savor dishes named: President Barack Obama (chicken), Michelle Obama (fish), Gabrielle Union (pork chops), Judge George B. Daniels (shrimp) and C. Virginia Fields (carrot cake).

The house specialty is waffles. You can find on the menu waffles with chicken, bacon and sausage, strawberries, blueberries, cinnamon, bananas and pecans, among others.

Red Rooster Harlem

Red Rooster Harlem RedRoosterHarlem is a local favorite. Conceived by Marcus Samuelsson, the renowned Ethiopian-Swedish chef, it opened on Lenox Avenue in 2010. In his own words the restaurant "celebrates the roots of American cuisine and the diversity of the neighborhood's culinary traditions."

If you go downstairs you will be surprised by Ginny's Supper Club. A club that emulates the spirit of the secret bars of the 1920s. Where you can enjoy live jazz and a private dinner.

Up, down, center and in!

Margarita cocktail in New York| ©Ralph Daily
Margarita cocktail in New York| ©Ralph Daily

If you're looking for a place to drink in Harlem, trendy bars are the place to be. You can find everything from beers, margaritas and mojitos, to the most exotic cocktail drinks.

Accompanied by appetizers, music and entertainment. You can enjoy them with your friends, your family, your partner. Or you can take the opportunity to party alone and meet new people.

Here is a list with some proposals to have a great time. The best rated bars, cocktail bars, breweries and clubs on Google:

7. Dare to lose yourself in the urban charm of Harlem!

Langston Hughes Residence| ©Christopher Busta-Peck
Langston Hughes Residence| ©Christopher Busta-Peck

Harlem is a piece of living art. In its streets tradition and modernity are mixed. Nineteenth century and skyscrapers, brownstones and graffiti come together. Thus, taking the subway and walking aimlessly to appreciate the local architecture can be in itself a very pleasant experience.

A singular attraction is the Langston Hughes House, located at 5th Ave and 127th St. Here the poet lived from 1947-1967. The house is a brownstone, as the brown buildings and sidewalk staircases we see so often in the movies are known. These picturesque buildings adorn the Harlem landscape, becoming a hallmark of Harlem's identity.

8. Visit the Studio Museum

Facade of the Studio Museum in Harlem| ©Edwardh blake
Facade of the Studio Museum in Harlem| ©Edwardh blake

New York is the city of irresistible museums, and Harlem is no exception.

The Studio Museum StudioMuseum, opened in 1968 at 144 125th Street, was the first art gallery in the area. Due to remodeling, it is now located at 429 West 127th Street.

However, you can keep up to date with the latest news through the website and its social networks (@studiomuseum). Check the calendar for programming and actively participate in the life that surrounds the institution.

The museum exhibits the work of more than 400 artists of African descent, Afro-Latino or from the diaspora. In addition to collections and events, it fosters the Artist-in-Residence program. This offers an 11-month residency to 3 local, national or international artists.

  • Address: 144 W 125th St, New York City
  • Hours: Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays from 12:00 to 9:00 pm and Saturdays from 10:00 to 6:00 pm
  • Price: from $20

9. El Museo del Barrio

Facade of El Museo del Barrio in Harlem| ©William Alatriste
Facade of El Museo del Barrio in Harlem| ©William Alatriste

The same is true of El Museo del Barrio. Founded in 1969, it is located at 1230 5th Avenue and 104th Street.

With more than 8,000 exhibits, its mission is to preserve Latino culture in the United States. The museum produces bilingual publications and programs. It organizes exhibitions, educational activities and festivals. And it promotes the work of Caribbean and Latin American artists.

Through its virtual platform you can explore the proposed activities. The museum recommends getting tickets in advance. And you should keep in mind that certain health measures are required. Among them, it is mandatory to be vaccinated against covid-19 to enter the facilities.

  • Address: 1230 5th Ave, New York
  • Hours: Friday to Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
  • Price: $8.00

10. Welcome to Spanish Harlem!

Different Graffiti in Harlem| ©Lydia
Different Graffiti in Harlem| ©Lydia

The Latino community is one of the most important in New York. The Spanish Harlem is home to the largest concentration of Puerto Ricans, Cubans and Dominicans in the city.

The Graffiti Hall of Fame is an exciting display of street art. It emerged in the 1980s, when it was not even considered a serious art form. Its promoter was Ray Rodriguez, a New York graffiti artist known as Sting Ray.
Today it is considered a commissioned space for public art. The murals invite artists and amateurs from all over to intervene the space and contemplate the results. This landmark has become a traveling outdoor gallery.

Another key location in Spanish Harlem is La Marqueta. The market, open since 1936, is located at 1590 Park Avenue. Here you can buy food, fabrics, flowers and other products. Mostly organic and local products are sold. La Marqueta also functions as a cultural platform, uniting Latinos around cuisine and community.

11. Theresa Hotel, a hotel and a lot of history

Facade of the Theresa Hotel, Harlem| ©Ajay Suresh
Facade of the Theresa Hotel, Harlem| ©Ajay Suresh

The Theresa Hotel is a symbolic place. Not only was it one of the first establishments to admit black people. It also became a cultural center linked to the struggle for civil rights in the United States. A curious fact is that among its most famous guests are: Fidel Castro, Nikita Khrushchev, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Jawaharlal Nehru and Patricio Lumumba. It also hosted intellectuals such as Allen Ginsberg and C. Wright Mills.

For history buffs, Harlem is a special destination. Districts such as the Mount Morris Historic District and the St. Nicholas Historic District maintain the original look of the area. Other major buildings of public interest are linked to the founding fathers of the American nation, they are:

  • The Morris-Jumel Mansion, located in Washington Heights, where George Washington made his stay in 1776.
  • The Hamilton Grange National Memorial, the last house where Alexander Hamilton lived.

Between the 1970s and 1990s Harlem experienced serious social conflicts caused by drug trafficking. However, today it is a safe and prosperous place. It is also a multicultural space where cultures as distant as Puerto Rican and Senegalese converge.

12. A bridge in the center of Harlem

Walking across the George Washington Bridge| ©Shinya Suzuki
Walking across the George Washington Bridge| ©Shinya Suzuki

The George Washington Bridge is a suspension bridge. It is the only bridge that crosses the Hudson River and connects New York and New Jersey. The structure is 94 years old and 1451 meters long.

For many people walking across the bridge looking at the views of the river is a very rewarding activity. You can also cross it, or ride a bicycle over some of it. But you must be alert to the information that the authorities issue for pedestrians and cyclists.

13. A visit to Columbia University

Facade of Columbia University in Harlem| ©Ana Paula Hirama
Facade of Columbia University in Harlem| ©Ana Paula Hirama

From Central Harlem, it is very easy to get to the Columbia University campus. In fact, there is some controversy between the boundaries that define one space and the other. If you are interested in educational tourism you can plan a moment in your tour of Harlem to get close to the University.

You will notice that the differences between the two areas are marked. You can also take a tour of contrasts, which are quite popular in this region.

Book a tour of contrasts

14. End the tour in Central Park

Autumn in the Conservatory Garden, Central Park.| ©Bill B
Autumn in the Conservatory Garden, Central Park.| ©Bill B

The Central Park area near Harlem is an area rarely visited by tourists. If you want to take a moment to connect with nature, head to Central Park Conservatory Garden or Harlem Meer.

The Central Park Conservatory Garden will transport you to a little piece of Europe. Surrounded by the beauty of its gardens and its Italian, French and English style statues. Meanwhile, Harlem Meer offers incredible views of the lake. You can even take an audio-guided tour.

In both places you will appreciate a less exploited area of the park. And, therefore, have a quieter and more private experience. At the same time you can take a break from touring Harlem.