The Best Things to Do in East Harlem

The Conservatory Garden is a hidden gem in Central Park accessible from East Harlem
The Conservatory Garden is a hidden gem in Central Park accessible from East Harlem | © Terrance Klassen / agefotostock / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Julia Goicochea
6 August 2021

Manhattan’s East Harlem neighborhood, or El Barrio, as locals call it, is fantastically diverse, with one of the biggest Hispanic communities in New York City. With its fabulous food scene, art museums that offer something completely different from elsewhere in Manhattan and a history of global significance, this strong and vibrant community will soon get under your skin.

See the Graffiti Hall of Fame

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Graffiti Hall of Fame, Harlem, Manhattan, New York City
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For over 40 years, art enthusiasts have been making the pilgrimage to East Harlem’s Graffiti Hall of Fame. Local legend, Ray “Sting Ray” Rodriguez, established the graffiti hub in 1980 – back when street art wasn’t tolerated – as a safe space for Harlem‘s artists to hone their craft. Today, the open-air Hall of Fame, which occupies a space in a children’s schoolyard, attracts the world’s best graffiti artists and fans from far and wide.

Visit El Museo del Barrio

Museum, Store
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El Museo del Barrio in Manhattan NYC
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Its attention to underrepresented artists of Latinx heritage sets El Museo del Barrio apart. The 6,500-object permanent collection spans 800 years, including pre-Columbian Taíno artifacts, 20th-century protest prints and modern installations that challenge the viewer’s cultural assumptions. Another highlight is the wall display of 100 masks from Central American countries, including multi-horned, demonic vejigante masks popular during Puerto Rico’s carnival season.

Tuck into Mexican food at Taco Mix

Canteen, Mexican, $$$
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The ethic diversity of East Harlem is reflected in its cuisine. A hot favorite is Taco Mix, an authentic Mexican taqueria that locals swear serves the best tacos in New York City. Tortas and cemitas come with an exciting selection of fillings – try the “Norteña-style,” which includes both steak and chorizo, plus a load of other tasty morsels such as mozzarella, avocado and jalapeños – all for under $11 (£8).

Browse the antiques at Demolition Depot

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Find yourself a souvenir with a difference at Demolition Depot, located on Third Ave. and 126th Street. One of New York’s top antique shops, it comprises four stories of second-hand treasures including homeware and other objects salvaged from the now-defunct Biltmore and Vanderbilt Hotels. With items like vintage MTA subway signs and imported British callboxes amongst its inventory, the Depot is an exciting place for a rummage, even if you don’t buy,

Visit the Museum of the City of New York

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The Museum of the City of New York (MCNY) is the only institution dedicated to the 400-year history and future of New York. You’ll gain an insight into everything from Martin Luther King Jr.’s connection to the city to the past 50 years of public art. Its latest, ongoing project is called Collecting New York’s Stories, which includes hundreds of acquisitions from the past three years. Highlights of this include black-and-white photographs of music legends, such Blondie and Sid Vicious.

Stop for lunch at Ricardo Steakhouse

Restaurant, Steakhouse, $$$
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Chef prepares porterhouse steak at Ricardo Steak House in East Harlem in NYC
© Frances Roberts / Alamy Stock Photo

Having opened in 2004, Ricardo Steakhouse has earned its place as a pillar of the Harlem restaurant scene. The cuts, including a classic New York strip and Ricardo’s fan-favorite T-bone steak, are the only ones of a steakhouse standard to be found around here. An in-house DJ, decor by local artists and made-to-order brunch drinks, like the watermelon mimosa, remind diners they’re in East Harlem, which has made this steakhouse its own.

Explore Central Park Conservatory Garden

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Conservatory Garden, Central Park, Manhattan, New York City, United States of America
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While Central Park is easily accessible from both East and West Harlem, the former gives you a direct path to one of the park’s best-kept secrets: the Central Park Conservatory Garden. Find it behind the Vanderbilt Gate on Fifth Avenue near 105th Street. Divided into three European-style gardens, the Italian area has tiered hedges and a 12ft (3.7m) fountain, the French features Walter Schott’s romantic Three Dancing Maidens sculpture, and the English garden is laid out in a circular labyrinth.

Share a thin-crust pie at Patsy’s Pizzeria

Pizzeria, Italian, $$$
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Patsy’s Pizzeria on First Avenue has been serving East Harlem since 1933, when it perfected the coal-fired pie that would bring in Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio, Francis Ford Coppola, and generations of food lovers. Although the original Patsy, Italian-American Pasquale Lancieri, died in the 1970s, his delicious thin-crust pizzas live on. There’s a sauceless “white pie” pizza, loaded with ricotta and mozzarella, and an 18-inch square pizza among the classics.

Soak up the atmosphere at La Marqueta

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La Marqueta marketplace, 1590 Park Ave, New York, NY. exterior storefront of a food market in the East Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan.
© Robert K. Chin – Storefronts / Alamy Stock Photo

La Marqueta – the market beneath the Metro North tracks – is beloved by East Harlem residents, who have watched this community hub evolve along with the neighborhood for generations. It began as the Park Avenue Retail Market in 1936, a time when East Harlem was beginning its 30-year transition into Spanish Harlem. The market became La Marqueta – a space where Latinx New Yorkers could, and still can, buy ethnic foods, hear traditional music and find a sense of comunidad.

Stop by the Langston Hughes House

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The Harlem Renaissance, in the first half of the 20th century, established the neighborhood as a black cultural mecca. The movement’s leader, Langston Hughes, lived in East Harlem from 1947 to 1967. His brownstone home at Fifth Ave. and 127th Street was the base of Harlem nonprofit I, Too Arts Collective until 2019.

These recommendations were updated on August 6, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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