What to Do in Harlem NYC

This post covers things to do in Harlem, including a top 10 list, where to eat, where to hear great live music, how to attend a gospel service, and much more. 

 

 


PLAN YOUR VISIT

Harlem is a vibrant neighborhood known to be steeped in African-American history and culture.

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.

 

What to Do in Harlem

 

More than many other parts of New York City, Harlem has always had a special atmosphere.

On some streets, you will find tree-lined brownstone homes and on the next street watch a live African-style drumming circle. You can see innovative art just a block away from ancient African artifacts.

It is definitely 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.

Of course, you could always book your accommodations in Harlem. This post doesn’t cover hotels, but here’s a link for Hotwire and for TripAdvisor


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 streets are entirely residential.  

 

Where is Harlem

 

A good place to start is at 125th street and Lenox Avenue which is the center of Harlem. Use this Google map to get directions from your point of departure.

By subway

  • 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

If you are unfamiliar with NYC’s subway system, then read our posts on how to master the subway and tips on choosing the right MetroCard for you.

By bus

  • 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.

 

New York Bus Tours


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.


Sunday Brunch and Services

Sunday gospel services are the highlight of the week for many locals. We have created a guide for those who would like to attend a gospel service in NYC.

 

Shiloh Baptist Church Harlem

 

Non-church goers 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.

Here are some of the best Sunday Brunch with Live Jazz options: Nabe, Harlem Tavern, Minton’s Playhouse, Rowhouse, BLVD Bistro.  

For other options, see our list of restaurants below.  


Events

  • 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. 
  • Harlem Art Alliance lists dozens of weekly events on their website calendar, from plays, dance performances, classes, most for free or very affordable. 
  • Annual Christmas Show by the Harlem School of the Arts. A family-friendly performance put on by the students of HSA.

Is Harlem Safe to Visit?

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 a restaurant or club, such as the ones we suggest below, then a night in Harlem will be an unforgettable night!

 


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TOP 11 THINGS TO SEE AND DO IN HARLEM

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. 

Most things listed below are included in our pay-what-you-like Harlem Walking Tour as well as in our GPS-led audio tour of Harlem

Click the map to open an interactive version.

Map of Harlem Attractions and Things to Do

 


1) Take a Walking Tour  

Harlem Walking TourWe offer a pay-what-you-like Harlem Walking Tour that stops at any 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 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.

Apollo Theater Harlem

The world-famous Apollo Theater has been a staple in the Harlem community since 1934 and has featured musical giants for generations.

The list is endless! Performers over the decades include Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and James Brown. 

The 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 a 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

Schomberg Center Harlem

515 Malcolm X Blvd. 

This unique public library is located in the heart of Harlem and also where we begin our pay-what-you-like Harlem Walking Tour. It is also included in our  GPS-enabled tour of Harlem.  

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 are 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.

For more details on the one and only Sylvia’s, click here

For other restaurants, see our Where to Eat section below. Also, check out our post on Soul Food in Harlem


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.

Take the time to talk to the docents and you will have a much deeper experience.

They are open Thursdays-Mondays, 11am-5pm.  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 it’s most famous leaders was Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., one of America’s first civil rights activist.

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. 

To find other locations to witness a gospel church service, see the section below as well as our post, Where to Hear Gospel Music in New York City.  


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.

 

Dizzie Gillespie Murals

 

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 Aves.

Studio Museum Harlem

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 at between Thursdays through Sundays, 12 to 6 pm.

Check their website for schedules of exhibitions and other exciting initiatives.


10) Hotel TheresaHotel Theresa in Harlem

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 Ave. 

Marcus Garvey Park

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 are 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).


BEYOND CENTRAL HARLEM

Central Park

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 Aves. (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.

TIP: To see where he is buried and hear about his duel with Aaron Burr, you can join our pay-what-you-wish Lower Manhattan Tour or explore on your own with our GPS-led Self-Guided Audio Tour.


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, gift shop, and 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 websiteFree 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.

 


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PLACES TO EAT

Sylvia’s House of Soul Food  328 Malcolm X Blvd. at 127th St.

Decades-old and world famous, Harlem would not be the same without this restaurant. To learn more about this iconic Harlem restaurant click here.

Red Rooster Restaurant  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. The fried chicken is a must-have.

Make My Cake  Two locations: 121 St Nicholas Ave and also 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 there “Sweet Brand” of mugs, t-shirts, and hats. 

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.

 


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NIGHTLIFE

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. Click here for tickets. 

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 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.

 


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GOSPEL SERVICES

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 which will ensure that you see great gospel, here are a few choices:

 


Shopping in Harlem

Harlem Haberdashery Boutique – 245 Lenox Ave  646-707-0070
Future forward edgy urban unique style

Harlem Underground Retail store – 20 E. 125th Street212-987-9385
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.

 


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