Harlem, known for its music scene and African American heritage, is awash with cultural institutions that have been significant in defining New York City and the US at large. From the talent-incubating Apollo Theater to the canon-redefining Studio Museum – these are the best things to do in Harlem during your next visit.
Located north of Central Park in Manhattan, Harlem has long been a creative hub. The cultural renaissance that followed the Great Migration of the 1920s brought new influences and talent to the area, which became known for the arts, music, fashion and soul food. While the neighborhood might have changed in recent times, it’s still got a real buzz about it. Below, explore 10 of the best things to do and see in New York’s Harlem.
This legendary theater, opened in 1914, has launched careers and popularized genres through its devotion to showcasing black talent. The Apollo’s greatest gift to culture is its famous Amateur Nights, which began in 1934. Over the years, this showcase has lent its stage to such royalty as James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr, Billie Holiday and Lauryn Hill, who can all undoubtedly credit part of their success to the platform. The programming at the Apollo also brought forms such as jazz, swing, R&B, gospel, blues and soul to a larger audience, and today the theater continues to host comedic, educational and musical events. Amateur Nights are still hosted each Wednesday. Tickets can be purchased here.
Opened in 2010 by celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, Red Rooster the restaurant derives its name from an infamous 138th Street speakeasy of the same name that closed in the 1980s. In the basement of the soul food eatery is Ginny’s Supper Club, Red Rooster’s very own speakeasy, where musicians and DJs perform live every day of the week. Samuelsson’s menu is another homage to Harlem: dishes feature traditional neighborhood staples such as chicken and waffles (said to be invented there), shrimp and grits and a short rib named for President Obama who dined at the restaurant during a 2011 DNC fundraiser.
Its special attention to underrepresented artists of color sets El Museo del Barrio apart from the city’s many art museums. While it was founded in 1969, the institution’s holdings span more than 800 years, making it the country’s ‘preeminent forum and resource’ for Caribbean, Latino and Latin American art. Some genres of work in the 6,500-object permanent collection, such as 20th-century Nuyorican fine prints and contemporary art from New York-based Latino artists, are unique to the museum.
Dedicated to showing the works of African Americans, members of the African diaspora and artists from the African continent, the Studio Museum in Harlem offers a collection of vibrant and inspiring art of the 19th and 20th centuries. More than 2,600 pieces – including paintings, drawings, sculptures, watercolors, photographs, videos and mixed-media installations – credited to more than 400 artists are displayed throughout the museum, along with the permanent archival collection of work from renowned Harlem Renaissance photographer James Van Der Zee.
For close to 60 years, Sylvia’s Restaurant has been a staple of the neighborhood thanks to its Southern comfort food. The menu has all the classics covered, from fried chicken and waffles and barbecue short ribs, to catfish and peach cobbler, and you can even tuck in while singers perform during weekly events including the packed Gospel Brunch Sundays and Live Music Wednesdays. A popular spot among politicians, Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have dined here, as well as Senator Bernie Sanders, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
Central Park is easily accessible from both East and West Harlem, though the former grants visitors a direct path to one of the park’s best-kept secrets. Open the iron gate, made in Paris in 1894, on Fifth Avenue and 104th Street, and be transported to Italy, France and England by way of the Central Park Conservatory Gardens. Comprising three gardens with distinct styles – Italian (tiered hedges and a 12-foot-high jet fountain), French (including Walter Schott’s romantic Three Dancing Maidens sculpture) and English (shrubs and perennial plants) – this attraction brings a piece of Europe to the US.
For nearly 40 years, art enthusiasts have been making the pilgrimage to New York City’s Graffiti Hall of Fame, located in East Harlem. Local Ray “Sting Ray” Rodriguez created the attraction in 1980, before street art had become a respected form, as a safe space for Harlem artists to hone their craft. Today, the open-air hall of fame, the concrete walls of Jackie Robinson Educational Complex’s schoolyard, are covered in tags. The Hall of Fame still welcomes locals as well as far-flung artists, plus photographers and fans of the medium.
Harlem Haberdashery is a family-run boutique that is the retail extension of 5001 Flavors, a custom clothing company that began more than 25 years ago. Its style favors colorful three-piece suits, all-white ensembles and oversized hats. Celebrities, including DJ Khaled, The Notorious BIG, Jay-Z and LeBron James, have all worn pieces from 5001 Flavors. The shop, which celebrates the spirit of Harlem in the 1970s and ’80s, isn’t just for celebrities, offering ready-to-wear options in men’s and women’s styles.
Opened in 2006 by musician Bill Saxton, Bill’s Place traces its roots to the Prohibition era. Visitors take a trip back in time to the Harlem Renaissance with its cozy, elbow-touching speakeasy space. Saxton, a world-renowned saxophonist, leads the Harlem All Stars on Friday and Saturday nights, with an early (8pm) and late (10pm) show each evening. Over the years, legendary performers including Billie Holiday, Fats Waller and Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith have all graced this parlor.
Harlem Renaissance leader Langston Hughes lived in East Harlem from 1947 to 1967. His 1869-built brownstone at Fifth Avenue and 127th Street is now on the National Register of Historic Places and the home of Harlem nonprofit I, Too Arts Collective. Explore the home of a legendary artist while supporting those whom Hughes inspired at events including public readings and writing workshops.