This post covers things to do in Harlem, NYC.
We include top sights, where to eat, where to hear great live music, how to attend a gospel service, and much more.
Watch a 22-minute abridged version of our live Harlem tour.
PLAN YOUR VISIT
Harlem is a must-visit neighborhood located at the northern end of Manhattan known to be steeped in African-American history and culture.
Harlem is often best known as the Black Mecca of the World, and it's definitely a place worth visiting to understand an important layer of NYC.
It’s a neighborhood where you can see historic sites, hear amazing jazz and gospel, taste succulent ‘soul food’, and feel the unique vibe that Harlem offers.
More than many other parts of New York City, Harlem has always had a special atmosphere.
You can see historic brownstone homes on the sidestreets, while along the avenues, you may come across a live African-style drumming circle.
You can see innovative art just a block away from ancient African artifacts.
It is a neighborhood that you should visit if you have time in your itinerary.
You can take our pay-what-you-like Harlem Walking Tour.
If you prefer to explore on your own, you can enjoy our GPS-led audio tour, which can be taken at any time of day or night.
Podcast Episode: Listen to tour guides Lori and Katherine discuss why to visit Harlem on an episode of our NYC Travel Tips podcast.
How to Get Here
Harlem is a large neighborhood, stretching from the Hudson River to the East River and from 110th to 155th Streets.
There are many different areas with their own vibe. Some streets are bustling with restaurants, bars, and shopping while others are entirely residential streets.
A good place to start is 125th street and Lenox Avenue which is the center of Harlem.
125th Street is one of Harlem's most famous streets where you will find many of the attractions listed later in this post.
Use this Google map to get directions from your point of departure.
- Take the A, B, C, or D trains to 125th Street
- Take the 2 or 3 trains to 125th Street
- Take the 4, 5, or 6 trains to 125th Street and then either take a taxi or a bus Westbound to 8th Avenue/Frederick Douglass Boulevard
- M1, M7, M10, M101, M102, M103, M104, M103, M106, M116
TIP: If you are considering using a hop-on-hop-off bus to get around NYC, keep in mind that many tours stop in Harlem. Find out which bus tours do by reading our post comparing the different New York bus companies.
Best Times to Visit
Harlem is at its most energetic when the weather is pleasant and locals and visitors are enjoying time outdoors. The weekends are the liveliest, both day and night.
During the peak tourist season, you may find that restaurants, jazz clubs, museums, and historic sites are a bit more crowded than on weekdays.
Sunday is the busiest day of the week in Harlem as locals are out and about, enjoying brunch, shopping, and for many, going to church.
Sundays are also the best if you want to see Harlem at its liveliest, but if you are coming for the art centers and museums, you may want to visit on a weekday.
Gospel Brunch and Services
Sunday gospel services are the highlight of the week for many locals. But you can also get a gospel experience on Wednesdays.
Lady Altoviese's Harlem Renaissance and Gospel Experience.
Every Wednesday, Lady Altoviese, a tour guide with Free Tours by Foot, presents her gospel performance.
There's no dress code and this is not a church service. Learn more here.
We have created a guide for those who would like to attend a gospel service in NYC.
Non-churchgoers will be out around 12 pm-4 pm enjoying brunch, often accompanied by live music.
This is both a great time to see Harlem but not if you are in a rush.
For other options, see our list of restaurants below.
Events in Harlem
- Harlem Week is actually a month-long and takes place annually (usually the last week in July to the last week in August). There are dozens of events with music, dance, cultural films and performances, sports, kids' activities and so much more.
- Events at Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture are held all year long.
- Harlem Art Alliance lists dozens of weekly events on its website calendar including dance performances, and classes. Most are free or very affordable.
- First Fridays at the Schomberg Center is a special event with varying themes and a party atmosphere.
- Annual Christmas Show by the Harlem School of the Arts. A family-friendly performance put on by the students of HSA.
- For other events in Harlem and the rest of New York City, see our post about things to do in New York City.
Is Harlem Safe to Visit?
This excerpt below was taken from our master post, Is Harlem Safe?
The reputation Harlem once had as a dangerous neighborhood is no longer the case.
With urban development along 125th Street and the surrounding streets, most of Harlem is safe, more so during the day.
Since you may be new to NYC, for your comfort we recommend the following:
- During the day, use the same precautions you would when visiting any other New York City neighborhood. Keep your eyes on your bags and pockets as a precaution.
- Feel free to ask locals for directions if you are lost. Most people are friendly, just like in other parts of the city. Note that not everyone who lives in Harlem is thrilled that it has become a tourist destination. Still, it is unlikely that you will have any negative interactions.
- At night, use your common sense. If a street is not well-lit and you don’t have a particular destination on that street, take another route.
- As everywhere in NYC at night, pay attention to your surroundings. It’s best not to be flashing your wallet about in the street.
- Avoid the parks in Harlem at night (this applies to most parks in NYC, even certain areas of Central Park).
- If you have a particular destination, such as a restaurant or club, such as the ones we suggest below, then a night in Harlem will be an unforgettable night!
Here is a list of the best things to do in and around Central Harlem. We also include sites to see beyond Central Harlem.
Everything on the list is family-friendly, and most are free or affordable.
Click the map to open an interactive version.
1. Take a Walking Tour
We offer a pay-what-you-like Harlem Walking Tour that stops at more sites than covered in this post.
Your guide will entertain you with stories of Harlem's past and present.
You can see all our tour offerings on our calendar.
If you prefer to explore alone, you can use our GPS-enabled Audio Tour of Harlem at any time.
For a different take on Harlem, try a bike tour. You can see much more in the same amount of time. Giro Bikes has a 5-hour Harlem-Bronx Bike Tour.
To learn about the economic, political, and cultural changes in Harlem over time, check out Social Justice Tours.
2. Apollo Theater
253 West 125th St bet. Frederick Douglass Blvd. and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd.
The world-famous Apollo Theater has been a staple in the Harlem community since 1934 and has featured giant musical entertainers for generations.
The list is endless! Performers over the decades include Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and James Brown.
Apollo's famous Amateur Night showcases emerging singers, bands, comedians, and dancers from all backgrounds.
The audience is the judge and a contestant who wins over the crowd is sure to make it to the big leagues one day. Many Amateur Night contestants have gone on to stardom, such as 15-year-old Ella Fitzgerald.
Others whose careers were launched at Amateur Night include Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, and Lauryn Hill.
Amateur night is on Wednesday nights at 7:30 pm. You can also see other shows at the Apollo. (See our Nightlife section below).
Read more about the Apollo Theater here.
3. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
515 Malcolm X Blvd.
The Schomberg opened in 1925 and has become one of the world's top institutions devoted to the research, preservation, and exhibition of materials focused on African American, African Diaspora, and African experiences.
They have over 10 million objects, artifacts, documents, recordings, art pieces, and more.
The main floor has rotating exhibitions that are always interesting and free to see. Click here for more information.
It's on our list of the top free things to do in NYC.
4. Sylvia's Restaurant
328 Malcolm X Blvd. at 127th St.
Looking for a great place to eat in Harlem? A popular yet affordable place that’s rich in culture and history?
Why not head up to Sylvia’s Restaurant in the heart of where the Harlem Renaissance took place?
Sylvia’s is simply a must-have to really experience the Harlem culture and is surprisingly reasonably priced for the entire family.
The late founder, Sylvia Wood, was known as the Queen of Soul Food.
For more details on the one and only Sylvia's, click here.
5. National Jazz Museum
58 West 129th St. at Malcolm X Blvd.
This Smithsonian-affiliated museum is located just a few streets north of Sylvia's.
It is a small museum, but for Jazz fans, you will leave feeling very satisfied.
While they have access to the Smithsonian's Jazz collection, this museum prefers to keep jazz thriving through lectures, discussions, and live performances.
You can listen to hundreds of historical recordings of early jazz pioneers, including rare recordings not found anywhere else in the world.
Also covered are related forms of music, such as swing, R&B and jazz, and their influence on these forms.
Take the time to talk to the docents and you will have a much deeper experience.
They are open Thursdays-Mondays, 11 am - 5 pm. Admission is free, but they do ask for a suggested donation of $10. See their website for more information.
6. Abyssinian Baptist Church
132 W 138th St.
Founded in 1808, considered a ‘mega-church’; One of its most famous leaders was Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., one of America’s first civil rights activists.
The Abyssinian Baptist Church is a popular place for visitors to take in a gospel service.
It can be quite crowded though on a Sunday, so you may want to see gospel at a different church.
7. Check Out Harlem's Murals
Harlem is one of our picks for top places to see street art in NYC. In addition to the Graffiti Hall of Fame, there are countless murals to be seen.
Two of the newer murals are of jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie, who made his name in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance.
We visit many of these murals on our tours of Harlem.
8. Strivers’ Row
West 138th St. and West 139th St. bet. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. and Frederick Douglass Blvd.
Strivers' Row is the unofficial name for a small, historic set of houses built in 1891.
One special thing about Strivers' Row is the several different styles of buildings you will see within just two blocks.
On the south side of West 138th Street, you can find red-brick and brownstone buildings. On the north side of West 138th Street, the houses are entirely different, made of yellow brick and white limestone with terra-cotta trim.
Most notable are the plots of land between some of the houses. These were stable mews for the horses to drive carriages -- there weren't cars in 1891.
The cultural history of Strivers' Row is also quite interesting.
Our Harlem Tours cover the role these houses played in the growth of distinct socioeconomic classes among the African-American residents of Harlem.
9. Studio Museum
429 West 127th Street bet. Amsterdam and Convent Avenues.
This is a contemporary art museum devoted to African-American artists of the 19th and 20th centuries.
It curates work from emerging black artists and has both a permanent collection and rotating exhibitions.
Note: Its home location at 125th Street is currently closed as they renovate and expand the museum. The work is expected to be done by 2021.
Until then you can visit Studio Museum 127, a temporary programming space between Thursdays through Sundays, from 12 to 6 pm.
Check their website for schedules of exhibitions and other exciting initiatives.
10. Hotel Theresa
On the corner of 125th Street/Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Blvd.
Built in 1912-13, the Hotel Theresa was a major social hub in Harlem.
The building itself is architecturally handsome and it was known as the "Waldorf-Astoria" of Harlem.
Its history is really what makes it interesting.
Among its guests over the years are Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Fidel Castro - who had his 'friend' Nikita Krushev over while he was visiting New York from the USSR.
11. Marcus Garvey Park
Mt. Morris Park West & Madison Avenue
Marcus Garvey Park has something for everyone. There are two playgrounds as well as a pool to cool off in on summer days.
You can often find live music, plays, and comedy performances put on in the park’s amphitheater.
See the park's website for events, hours, and amenities.
For more activities for children, check out Mommy Poppins' website for 50 Things to Do with Kids in Harlem.
Tip: There is free wi-fi by the Amphitheater. (For other free wifi access throughout the city, see our post Where to Find Free WiFi in New York).
12. The Cotton Club
This legendary jazz club opened in 1920, at the height of Harlem’s jazz scene. Prohibition had been enacted that year and the country went ‘dry’ The Cotton Club opened somewhat in response.
The club served a dual purpose: providing superb entertainment and providing “bootleg” alcohol. Over the years jazz musicians like Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong played here.
The Cotton Club is still swinging today. You can enjoy a range of music, from jazz to gospel, while eating lunch or dinner.
The club is located at 656 W. 125th St. See the Cotton Club website for more information.
13. The Langston Hughes House
The renowned African-American poet Langston Hughes was one of the most important figures during the Harlem Renaissance era.
In 1951, he wrote the deeply moving poem Harlem, better known as A Dream Deferred.
Hughes lived in Harlem for the last 20 years of his life. He died in 1967 and in 1980 his residence at 20 E. 127th St. was given landmark status.
Today, his apartment is open to the public to visit and pay tribute. Also in the building is the I, Too Arts Collective at the Langston Hughes House, a non-profit that offers poetry readings.
The northern section of Central Park is located on the southern border of Harlem and is less frequented by tourists.
It is worth a visit to see how the locals live as well as some natural features not found in other parts of the park.
You can swim in Harlem Meer in the summer or in the winter go ice-skating on Lasker Rink.
In the Autumn you can see the colorful leaves and in Spring, see the new blossoms. There are some great playgrounds as well.
For more about the north section of Central Park, you can take a look at the maps on our post about free tours and activities in Central Park.
Alexander Hamilton Grange National Memorial
414 West 141st bet. Convent and St Nicholas Avenues. (family-friendly)
This historic house dating from 1802 is located in Hamilton Heights, in North Harlem.
Alexander Hamilton is one of the most significant individuals in American History whose life (and death by duel) story is a fascinating one.
He was one of America's Founding Fathers, as well as the founder of the U.S. Treasury system. You can see him on the $10 bill and he is the subject of a hit Broadway play!
At the Grange home, you can see historically furnished rooms either on a ranger-guided tour and talk or on your own. See their website for more information. Free.
General Ulysses S. Grant National Memorial
122nd St and Riverside Drive
More widely known as Grant's Tomb, this is the largest mausoleum in the United States.
You can explore the inside of the large impressive stone monument, with occasional access to the crypt.
There are reliquary rooms on the main floor with Civil War artifacts, a visitors center, a gift shop, and a public restroom. Free.
Museum of the City of New York (MCNY)
1220 Fifth Avenue at 103rd St.
As its name suggests, this museum is dedicated to preserving and showcasing New York City's history through exhibits of all kinds in addition to its permanent collection.
The museum is fun for kids as well with special educational programs. You can find more information on their website. Free entry with suggested admission.
El Museo del Barrio
1230 Fifth Avenue at 104th St.
This museum is the only museum in NYC that showcases Latino cultures so extensively. You can see works by artists of Puerto Rican, Caribbean, and Latin American heritage.
They also host cultural festivities, youth, and educational programming, and literary discussions. Click here for more information. Free with suggested admission.
TIP: For a long list of other free museums and memorials, click here.
Decades-old and world-famous, Harlem would not be the same without this restaurant. To learn more about this iconic Harlem restaurant click here.
310 Lenox Avenue between 125th and 126th
A mix of traditional American food and diverse culinary appeals to the “New Harlem" scene.
The chef is award-winning chef Marcus Samuelsson, who also was the chef for the first State Dinner of the Obama administration. Fried chicken is a must-have.
Make My Cake has two locations: 121 St Nicholas Ave and 2380 Adam Clayton Powell Blvd.
This former home-based family business offers a tasty answer to any sweet tooth. With such yummy delights as cookies, cakes, cupcakes, and pies. Be sure to check out their “Sweet Brand” of mugs, t-shirts, and hats.
2167 Frederick Douglass Blvd (at Eighth Ave)
Levain Bakery is a must for those who love chocolate chip cookies. The famous 6 oz. giant Chocolate Chip Walnut and Dark Chocolate Chip Chocolate cookies are sublime.
You can ask for your cookie to be warmed up for an extra gooey experience.
Yatenga Bistro 2269 Adam Clayton Powell Blvd.
Yatenga is located in the heart of Harlem and has a very rustic look with matched chairs and festive statues for sale. The mac and cheese is a huge favorite!
They have outdoor seating, which is a treat in nice weather.
Melba's American Comfort Food 300 West 114th St.
This attractive establishment stands out with its charming church pews sitting out front. This is one of the smaller restaurants in Harlem and seating is limited.
Check out the Southern Fried Chicken & Eggnog Waffles featured on the Food Network. Bonus: Tuesday is live music night!
Londel's 2620 Frederick Douglass Blvd.
Authentic Harlem food, although a bit more expensive than other places. But they have live music, so the extra money is worth it.
TIP: Read our post on Soul Food in Harlem to learn what foods are found in Soul Food cuisine and where you can find great Soul Food.
Be sure to also check out our post on things to do at night in NYC.
Apollo Theater 253 West 125th Street
There is no shortage of live performances at the Apollo. You can see comedy, music, dance, theater, and more. See their calendar here.
Don't forget you can go see Amateur Night At The Apollo.
Shrine World Music Venue East side of Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard (7th Avenue) just below 134th St.
There is no cover charge to see great live music. You'll hear genres such as Hip Hop, African, and the Caribbean.
Be sure to check the Shrine’s website for the musical performance schedule.
Bill's Place 148 W 133rd St.
A visit here is like seeing great live jazz in a friend’s basement. It is intimate, informal, and incredible. You pay only the cover charge of $20 per person (cash only).
You can bring in your own drinks, wine, etc. as well as snacks. Make reservations ahead of time for this “only in New York" experience.
Harlem Nights 2361 Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd (138th Street)
A cozy neighborhood bar with live music most nights, of many genres, including jazz, Latino, singer/songwriter music, and more. It’s a very welcoming atmosphere with playful cocktails and small plates of food.
Harlem Tavern 2153 Frederick Douglass Blvd (at 116th St)
This bar & grill has live music Tuesday and Thursday nights. It’s authentic and you’ll find native Harlemites enjoying the tunes.
The Cotton Club 656 W. 125th St.
See live music at this iconic Harlem establishment that opened in 1920. Sip on classic a cocktail like Mai-Tais and Cosmopolitans. They also have a full menu for lunch and dinner. Music ranges from jazz, blues, and gospel.
Lady Altoviese's Harlem Renaissance and Gospel Experience.
Every Wednesday, Harlem resident, Lady Altoviese, a tour guide with Free Tours by Foot, presents her gospel performance.
There's no dress code and this is not a church service. Learn more here.
There is no shortage of Harlem gospel tours. Before booking a tour, be sure to read our post, Where to hear Gospel Music for New York for free.
If you prefer a guided tour that will ensure that you see some great gospel, here are a few choices:
- New York Pass - this tourist pass includes two free gospel experiences, a 9:30 a.m. Sunday gospel walk and a Wednesday evening walk. Both include gospel experiences. Check out our review of the New York Pass to see if it is right for you.
- You can find a variety of highly-rated Harlem tours, including gospel tours on GetYourGuide and also Viator.
- Harlem Spirituals offers both Gospel Tour on Sunday as well as Gospel Tour on Wednesday. There are also Sunday gospel tours that include brunch.
Shopping in Harlem
Harlem Haberdashery Boutique - 245 Lenox Avenue.
Future forward edgy urban unique style
Harlem Underground Retail store - 20 E. 125th Street. Vibrant cool shirts and jackets often with Harlem’s name stylish centered on the clothing.
125th Street - The main shopping area in Harlem.
Flame Keepers Hat Club - 273 West 121 St.
Classic stylish men’s hats from Ecuador and Columbia. The 700-foot square store is brimming with hats and a great new addition to the Harlem community.