Harlem has long been synonymous with African-American culture. In the early part of the 20th century, the neighborhood was the setting for African-American-led movements in music, literature, dance and art—collectively known as the Harlem Renaissance—that featured innovators like Bessie Smith, Langston Hughes and Josephine Baker. That legacy is still evident today, especially along the area's main thoroughfare, 125th Street, which is anchored by the Apollo Theater. The 80-year-old concert hall has introduced to the world artists such as the Jackson 5, Ella Fitzgerald and James Brown, remaining a continuous source of local—and national—pride for the better part of a century. As Apollo Theater tour director Billy Mitchell puts it, “Residents in the community look to the Apollo as part of themselves.”
For those interested in its history, Harlem might be explored by inspecting its religious edifices (like the Abyssinian Baptist Church), elegant row houses that rival the brownstones of Brooklyn Heights and attractive parks (landmarks like Hamilton Grange and the Mount Morris Fire Watchtower can be found in St. Nicholas and Marcus Garvey Parks, respectively; note that the Fire Watchtower in Marcus Garvey Park is currently being restored). But there's much to admire about Harlem's present, too. The neighborhood has seen an influx of new shops, music halls and restaurants, including the acclaimed Red Rooster Harlem, from celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, and The Cecil, Esquire magazine's 2014 pick for best new restaurant in America. Our guide below will help you take advantage of all the neighborhood has to offer.
Where it is: Harlem extends roughly from the Hudson River to the East River/Harlem River, and from 110th to 155th Streets. (Between 110th and 123rd Streets, the western border of Harlem is Morningside Avenue; the southern border of East Harlem, or El Barrio, is 96th Street.)
How to get there: The 2, 3, A, B, C and D trains to 125th Street put you right in central Harlem; the 1, 4, 5 and 6 lines also provide options.
Arts & Culture
No trip uptown would be complete without a stop at one of Harlem's many vibrant cultural institutions. Located on Fifth Avenue's Museum Mile, El Museo del Barrio specializes in Puerto Rican, Caribbean and Latin American art—the only museum in New York City with these cultures at its core. On the block south of it is the Museum of the City of New York, which allows visitors a peek into the City's past via exhibitions and lecture series. (An ongoing video installation, Timescapes: A Multimedia Portrait of New York, explains how New York City developed into one of the world's great capitals.) Well north of those museums, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture houses more than 11 million items—manuscripts, recordings, photographs and prints—that document the experiences of peoples of African descent throughout the world.
More centrally located (on the 125th Street corridor) is the Studio Museum of Harlem, stocked with new and historic works by African-American artists, alongside those by artists from Africa and the African diaspora. Highlights of the permanent collection include paintings by Romare Bearden and seminal photographs of the neighborhood by James VanDerZee. Nearby, the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, a Smithsonian affiliate, hosts performances as well as discussions with artists and critics related to the genre. You can also listen to rare jazz recordings in the visitors' center. Within walking distance is the Maysles Cinema, which pays tribute to the art of documentary filmmaking and hosts festivals, screenings and workshops for budding directors.
Surrounded by the City College campus is Harlem Stage, whose mandate to support new works by minority performing artists has made the institution integral to the neighborhood. “Our artists look at art with a vision that has to do with who they are and what we are in our society,” says executive director Patricia Cruz. “We want to support the legacy that is Harlem for us and our audience.” Upcoming events, which take place in the Gatehouse, include music and dance tributes to Billie Holiday and James Baldwin.
Music & Nightlife
As mentioned, the crown jewel of Harlem's music scene is the Apollo Theater, which has provided big breaks to a long list of African-American performers since 1934. Amateur Night, taking place most Wednesdays, showcases a slate of new artists from all backgrounds looking to win over the capricious crowd. Those who are successful stand a decent chance of rising to acclaim.
But the neighborhood features plenty of other historic venues, too. Take Minton's: originally established in 1938, the club was the setting for a revolution in jazz—the place where some say bebop was born. Today it's open as a jazz supper club with a house band of accomplished musicians, some of whom played at Minton's in its previous incarnation. The stage at Showmans Jazz Club, meanwhile, has been graced by the likes of Sarah Vaughan and Duke Ellington, and currently features evening performances by jazz and blues vets. Those looking to experience the feel of Harlem during the late 1920s will appreciate the Cotton Club, where a 13-piece combo draws crowds in with swing and jazz tunes.
For lower-key entertainment head to a bar like Bier International, whose list of brews lives up to its name: you'll find bottles from Kenya and Turkey as well as plenty of German and Belgian draughts. And anyone in the mood for a killer cocktail should stop at 67 Orange Street, where libations include the No Mail (Old Tom gin, Aperol, St. Germain, fresh lemon juice) and the Upper Manhattan (rye, Carpano Antica Formula, Angostura bitters, orange bitters, brandied cherry). The swank cocktail den's moniker is a nod to the address of Almacks Dance Hall, one of the first black-owned bars in New York City, which operated during the 1840s.
At the forefront of Harlem's recent dining renaissance is celeb chef Marcus Samuelsson, whose perennially packed Red Rooster Harlem serves an innovative menu of reinterpreted comfort-food classics. The warm, convivial space—not to mention the small performance venue downstairs, Ginny's Supper Club—has become a global draw. “Harlem is a magical place,” says Samuelsson. “I love the diversity and the landscape, the infrastructure of old and new.” His soon-to-open Streetbird Rotisserie will join Harlem's Restaurant Row—on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, north of 110th Street—which includes Melba's, featuring Southern classics, and Italian eateries Vinatería and Lido.
If you'd rather try traditional fare, consider some of Harlem's famed soul-food spots: Sylvia's Restaurant, Amy Ruth’s, Billie's Black and Miss Mamie's Spoonbread Too. Come hungry and fill up on Southern fried chicken, cornmeal-dusted catfish, barbecue shrimp and other down-home favorites. Londel's Supper Club offers Cajun, Creole and Southern comfort food that, on Friday and Saturday nights, comes paired with free jazz. Other choice Harlem restaurants include Chez Lucienne, serving French dishes like escargots and coq au vin; Harlem Food Bar, home to burgers, po'boys and other American fare; and Corner Social, offering mains like sautéed Montauk flounder, grilled hanger steak and jumbo lump crab cakes.
Tours and Other Resources
Knowledgeable guides are one of the best ways to learn about Harlem; they can give visitors an in-depth appreciation for the neighborhood's streets, churches, restaurants, theaters and historic homes. Experience the area's vibrant personality with Harlem Heritage Tours, whose Harlem Renaissance– and civil-rights-focused walks are led by locals. Harlem Your Way! allows you to tailor tours to your taste, whether your interests lean toward architecture, jazz or food. Those interested in NYC music history should check out Harlem Spirituals, which focuses on jazz and gospel in the neighborhood, and Hush Hip Hop Tours, which has real-life emcees like Grandmaster Caz taking patrons to hip-hop landmarks such as Rucker Park and the Graffiti Hall of Fame. Taste Harlem Food and Cultural Tours, meanwhile, provides a flavorful trip through the menus of some of the neighborhood's most delicious hideaways.