Harlem is known for its African American heritage and its musical scene, and there are plenty of cultural institutions here that have redefined New York City and the United States. From the canon-redefining Studio Museum to the talent incubating Apollo Theatre, we are going to be presenting you with the very best places to visit and things to do in Harlem on your next trip here.
But first, get to know a bit about the culture of Harlem. It is situated towards the north of Central Park in Manhattan and Harlem is renowned for being a cultural and creative hub. The cultural renaissance that came after the Great Migration of the 1920s brought new talent and influences to the area, which became well known for its soul food, fashion, music, and arts.
The neighborhoods surrounding it may have changed in recent times, but there is still the familiar buzz around Harlem that has made it into a wonderful place to visit. So, without further ado, here are the 7 best things that you should do next time you’re in Harlem.
1. The Apollo Theatre
The legendary Apollo Theatre opened first in 1914, and ever since that time has launched careers and popularized genres with its devotion to showcasing black talent. The greatest gift Apollo has given to culture are the famous Amateur Nights that had begun in 1934. Over the following years, the showcase has started lending the stage to royalty like Lauryn Hill, Billie Holiday, Sammy Davis Jr, Ella Fitzgerald, and James Brown, who can all credit part of their success to the platform.
The programming at the Apollo has also brought forward different forms like Swing, Jazz, R&B, gospel, blues, and soul to a larger audience. Today, the theatre continues hosting educational, comedic, and musical events, with Amateur Nights being hosted every Wednesday.
2. Red Rooster
The restaurant Red Rooster was opened in 2010 by celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, and it got its name from the infamous 138th street speakeasy that had closed in the 1980s. Ginny’s Supper Club is Red Rooster’s own speakeasy and is in the basement of this soul food eatery, where live musicians and DJs perform every day of the week.
The menu here is another homage to Harlem as the dishes feature traditional staples of the neighborhood like chicken and waffles, shrimp and grits, and a short rib named after President Obama, who had dined here during a 2011 DNC fundraiser.
3. El Museo del Barrio
The El Museo del Barrio art museum gives special attention to underrepresented artists of color, which is what sets it apart from other art museums in New York. It was founded in 1969, and the institution’s holdings span more than 800 years, which makes it the country’s ‘preeminent forum and resource’ for Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino art.
Some of the genres of work in the 6,500-object permanent collection, like the contemporary art from Latino artists based in New York, and the 20th century Nuyorican fine prints are unique to the museum.
4. Studio Museum in Harlem
The Studio Museum in Harlem is dedicated to showing works of African Americans, artists from the African continent, and members of the African diaspora. There is a massive collection of inspiring and vibrant art from the 19th and 20th centuries.
With over 2,600 pieces, including drawings, paintings, sculptures, photographs, watercolors, videos, and mixed-media installations, credited to over 400 artists, it is one of the most complete collections in Harlem.
5. Sylvia’s Restaurant
Sylvia’s Restaurant has been a staple of the neighborhood for over 60 years, thanks mainly to its Southern comfort food. The menu here has all the classics covered from waffles and fried chicken to barbecue short ribs and from peach cobbler to catfish. You can tuck into your favorite dish while singers perform during weekly events that include Live Music Wednesdays and Gospel Brunch Sundays.
It has been a popular spot for politicians as well, with Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton have dined here, along with Senators Bernie Sanders, Al Sharpton, and Jesse Jackson.
6. Central Park Conservatory Gardens
You can easily access Central Park from both East and West Harlem, but the former grants visitors with a direct path to one of the best kept secrets of the park. Enter from the iron gate, which was made in Paris in 1894 on Fifth Avenue and 104th Street, and you will be transported to England, Italy, and France through the Central Park Conservatory Gardens.
It consists of three gardens that have their own distinct styles, Italian, French, and English. This attraction helps bring a bit of Europe to the United States and is definitely something you must do in Harlem.
7. Graffiti Hall of Fame
Located in East Harlem, art enthusiasts for 40 years have been making the pilgrimage to New York City’s Graffiti Hall of Fame. The attraction was created in 1980 by local Ray ‘Sting Ray’ Rodriguez, before street arm became a respected form, and gave a safe space for Harlem artists to hone their craft.
Today, the open-air hall of fame, along the concrete walls of Jackie Robinson Educational Complex’s schoolyard, is completely covered in tags and attracts photographers and fans of the medium.