Snuggled into the northeastern shoulder of Manhattan, where the Harlem River meets the East River at Randall's Island, East Harlem was once home to the borough's first Little Italy. After the First World War, a new wave of émigrés from Puerto Rico settled here, and during the subsequent century Italian Harlem, bordered to the west by Fifth Avenue and to the south by 96th Street, became East Harlem—or, more colloquially, El Barrio. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the neighborhood's first- and second-generation sons and daughters, seeking to forge an identity in their adopted homeland, bonded together as the Nuyorican school of poets, playwrights and musicians, and, as their neighbors to the northwest had done in the 1920s, launched an artistic renaissance.
Among the institutions to sprout from this movement is El Museo del Barrio. Part cultural hub, part learning center, the recently expanded El Museo anchors the upper end of Manhattan's Museum Mile with an incredible collection of pre-Columbian artifacts as well as a showcase of contemporary Caribbean and Latin American art. Across the street, in a neo-Georgian building finished in 1932, the Museum of the City of New York houses a living history of the city. On any given day you might hear a lecture about the Beaux Arts architecture of Manhattan, see a handwritten manuscript by Eugene O'Neill or inspect a glass negative of a photograph taken by Jacob Riis. Farther north, the Smithsonian-affiliate National Jazz Museum, created in 1997, hosts performances and lectures on all things related to the musical genre. The World Series of Stickball Community Gallery, meanwhile, serves as the home of the Stickball Hall of Fame and pays tribute to this humble urban interpretation of baseball with displays and memorabilia that tell the story of the game's development.
As with any cultural melting pot, East Harlem is a food lover's paradise. The most famous of its restaurants—indeed, one of the high churches of food in America, and now the hub of a booming red-sauce business—is Rao's (pronounced ray-ohs), founded in 1896. Even by Manhattan standards, the real estate here is at a premium. Each of the 10 tables in the tiny joint is "owned" by devout regulars who can, on their nights off, rent out their seats to anyone on a pasta pilgrimage. (It pays to have friends in delicious places.)
Nearly as renowned, Patsy's, established in 1933, is one of the City's ultimate pizza parlors. In the good old days Patsy's was a hangout for the Rat Pack and Yankee Joe DiMaggio, who worked not far away. It was here that future mayor Fiorello LaGuardia held his community meetings and where budding filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola spent nights mulling ideas for The Godfather.
But not all of the area's restaurants are cast in amber. Lexington Social with its relaxed décor, elegant cocktails and delectable small plates, is a comfortable, no-fuss local hangout. El Kallejon, opened in 2012, is a full-tilt tapas bar, serving up Spanish treats and a range of sangrias. On the livelier end of the scale, Camaradas El Barrio offers hearty pub-style fare, including empanadas, burgers and Cuban sandwiches, along with a performance space where DJs and local musicians play. Amor Cubano has an entire mojito menu to go with its garlicky shrimp, grilled steaks and traditional arroz con pollo. Cascalote Latin Bistro is a BYOB pan-Latin restaurant that serves tacos, chipotle ribs, paella and seafood Veracruz-style. Restaurant San Cristobal specializes in dishes from Puebla, Mexico—say, mole de olla (a beef stew) and the beloved sandwich called the cemita.
East Harlem Café prides itself on serving the "best coffee in El Barrio." (Current Yankee Mark Teixeira seems to agree, calling the spot the Cheers of cafés). The shop also functions as an ad hoc art gallery, office for freelancers and community hangout. Aromas Boutique Bakery & Café is famous for its baked goods—especially its pumpkin cake. And Evelyn's Kitchen is a beloved catering company and confectioner with a real local vibe (and the Kickstarter backing to prove it).
A great way to gauge the vibe of any neighborhood is to peruse the wares for sale in its central market. The cluster of food purveyors at La Marqueta in El Barrio is perfect for that. Among the shops to discover are Breezy Hill Orchard and Cider Mill, Beurre & Sel, Hot Bread Almacen, Mama Grace's Afro Caribbean Food and Nordic Preserves Fish & Wildlife Company. Frequently listed among the best butchers in the city, the nearby Casablanca Meat Market has been a local staple for more than 60 years.
This is a neighborhood famously bursting with culture, where musicians as varied and accomplished as Tito Puente, Frankie Cutlass and Cam'ron came up. A good place to savor the local sounds is the family-owned Casa Latina Music Shop, which specializes in Latin music and collectibles. For those with more bookish inclinations, La Casa Azul Bookstore acts as a kind of literary nexus for the neighborhood, hosting signings, gallery shows and film screenings, among other events.
Across the street from where it originally opened in 1950, the incredible time machine that is Claudio's Barber Shop is still going strong—its 83-year-old proprietor lovingly executing his craft. On the new-school tip, sneakerheads from all over the world come to East Harlem to visit Goliath RF, a high temple of street wear.
One of the neighborhood's most remarkable venues, Justo Botanica is a sort of sacred emporium that sells herbs and other items related to Santeria—an Afro-Caribbean religious practice based on Catholic and Yoruba traditions. Also in the neighborhood, Exotic Fragrances is a wonderfully bizarre bazaar selling a wide array of exotic oils and fragrances needed to create signature perfumes and scented lotion.
At the top of Harlem Meer, the northernmost body of water in Central Park, the Dana Discovery Center offers plenty of activities throughout the year—everything from catch-and-release fishing and a pumpkin sail to a holiday tree-lighting ceremony. Straight down Fifth Avenue at 105th Street, the Conservatory Garden is the only formal garden in Central Park. Designed by Gilmore Clarke, Thomas Price and M. Betty Sprout in 1937, and significantly restored in the mid-1980s, the conservatory has English, French and Italian sections planted around a lovely fountain and wisteria-draped pergola. On the east side of the island, overlooking FDR Drive, the comparatively pocket-sized Thomas Jefferson Park has four basketball courts, a few baseball diamonds and a full soccer field to go along with its pool, flower beds and Tomorrow's Wind steel sculpture.
Another piece of alfresco art, the celebrated Spirit of East Harlem mural, is perhaps the most identifiable and fitting of monuments—by the neighborhood for the neighborhood. Begun in 1973 by Hank Prussing (and restored in 1999 by Manny Vega, Prussing's one-time apprentice), the mural is a series of portraits of local residents—and of the spirit and life of East Harlem itself. And last summer, a festival called Los Muros Hablan ("the murals speak") invited artists from Latin America, Puerto Rico and NYC to adorn buildings in the neighborhood with murals. For a map of the stunning results, visit losmuroshablanyc.com.