Blake Walsh

25 Best Things to Do in Harlem, NY

  • Published 2023/04/12

Harlem is a beautiful neighborhood in New York that is widely known for its music and cultural institutions.

It is located to the north of Manhattan and is considered to be a creative hub.

After the Great Migration of the 1920s, Harlem was infused with people of various cultures from all around the world.

This transformed neighborhood into a center for arts, fashion, food, culture, beliefs, and music.

Home to fantastic jazz clubs, trendy restaurants, and museums filled with awe-inspiring art, Harlem is one place you won’t regret adding to your New York City itinerary.

Pack your cameras and your dancing shoes, because this vibrant neighborhood will undoubtedly inspire you to unleash your inner jazz enthusiast and capture every moment of your trip on film.

Are you looking forward to immersing yourself in Harlem’s colorful and exciting culture?

These are the best things to do in Harlem, New York:

Join a Walking Tour of the Famous Apollo Theater

Exterior of Apollo Theater

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The Apollo Theater is a legendary theater that opened back in 1914 and has hosted some of the world’s greatest artists.

The famous Amateur Night, which started in 1934, is the best gift that this theater gave to the neighborhood of Harlem.

Artists who have performed in this theater include James Brown, Sammy Davis Jr., Lauryn Hill, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and many more.

Jazz festival in the Apollo Theater

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The theater is Harlem’s center of development for jazz, gospel, R&B, swing, blues, and soul and is responsible for spreading these musical genres to the masses.

In addition, the theater organizes various comedy, educational, and musical events that can be enjoyed by visitors.

You can also take the Apollo Theater multimedia walking tour, which gives you an opportunity to learn about its art and entertainment history.

Marquee of the Apollo Theater

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Try the Iconic Dishes at Red Rooster Harlem

Outdoor dining at Red Rooster

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Red Rooster Harlem is a famous restaurant that was opened by celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson in the year 2010.

The restaurant’s menu is nothing short of a tribute to Harlem, as it features dishes like shrimp, chicken and waffles, short ribs, and grits.

Exterior of Red Rooster

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What makes it even more famous is that former President Obama also dined here in 2011.

With its celebrity vibe, the restaurant is always lively with musical and DJ performances every day.

If you are in New York City, you should definitely head to Harlem to check this place out and taste their iconic dishes.

Seafood platter in Red Rooster

Studio Sarah Lou, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Check Out the Permanent Collection at El Museo del Barrio

Exterior of El Museo del Barrio

The Fixers (Wikis Take Manhattan 2009 participant), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Opened in the year 1969, El Museo del Barrio is a famous art museum in the neighborhood of Harlem.

What makes it different from other museums is that it has exhibitions that include art pieces that date back almost 800 years.

The museum is considered to be the US’ preeminent forum and resource for Caribbean, Latin American, and Latino art.

It houses a permanent collection of 6,500 art pieces, some of which are by Latino artists and are unique to this museum.

Art enthusiasts should definitely visit this museum, which is as high-spirited as the artists whose collections are showcased here.

Admire Centuries-Old Works of Art at the Studio Museum in Harlem

Entrance to the Studio Museum in Harlem

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The famous Studio Museum in Harlem is dedicated to exhibiting the famous artworks of African American and African artists.

Most of the museum’s collections date back to the 19th and 20th centuries.

The museum has a collection of more than 2,600 pieces, which include drawings, photographs, paintings, watercolors, sculptures, and mixed-media installations.

Exterior of the Studio Museum in Harlem

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These artworks were produced by more than 400 artists.

The famous archival collections of photographer James Van der Zee are also on display here.

The museum is quite classical in its interior and is definitely going to give you a vintage vibe and steal your heart with its beauty.

ME WE sign of the Studio Museum in Harlem

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Dine Like a Celebrity at Sylvia’s Restaurant

Exterior of Sylvia’s Restaurant

Ajay Suresh from New York, NY, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Sylvia’s Restaurant is another famous restaurant in Harlem that is famous for welcoming a number of celebrities and politicians alike.

The restaurant has had the honor of serving influential personalities like President Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, Jesse Jackson, and many others.

Sylvia’s Restaurant has been popular among locals and tourists for more than 60 years.

Building sign of Sylvia's Restaurant

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Due to its southern menu filled with delicious and comforting dishes, this place attracts a lot of people to Harlem.

Must-try menu items include fried chicken, barbeque short ribs, waffles, peach cobbler, and catfish.

Live music performances are also held here on a weekly basis.

Overall, Sylvia’s Restaurant is one of the best-loved places in the neighborhood, and you should definitely check it out at least once.

Al fresco dining at Sylvia's Restaurant

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Stop and Smell the Flowers at the Conservatory Garden

Opened in the 19th century, the Conservatory Garden is the most famous and easily accessible park in the entire neighborhood.

It is known for its iron gate, which was designed in Paris in the year 1894 and was transported to Harlem.

The Conservatory Garden’s property is comprised of three areas with different styles.

The first of the three, the Italianate Center Garden has tired hedges and a jet fountain that is 12 feet in height.

Meanwhile, the French-style North Garden is famous for the Three Dancing Maidens Sculpture, which was inspired and designed by Walter Scott.

Finally, the English-style South Garden is mainly known for its shrubs and perennial plants.

The Conservatory Garden is a place where you can enjoy culture from Europe while you are in the US.

This beautiful attraction is definitely worth checking out.

Take Photos with the Graffiti Hall of Fame

Originally created in the year 1980 by Ray “Stringray” Rodriguez, the Graffiti Hall of Fame is one of the most beautiful and colorful places in the neighborhood.

Since its establishment, the place has been a center of attraction for all art lovers.

Art enthusiasts from all around New York City use this spot to showcase their art.

It is an open-air hall of fame located in the Jackie Robinson Alternative Educational Complex school yard.

Due to its colorful tags and artistic views, the place is perfect for making some beautiful memories in Harlem.

You can also spot some artists working on the wall during your visit.

Shop at the Celebrity-Approved Harlem Haberdashery

Harlem Haberdashery is a famous custom clothing company that was established more than 25 years ago.

It is a family-run boutique that has styled some famous celebrities like DJ Khaled, Jay Z, LeBron James, and the Notorious B.I.G.

The place is extremely famous for its colorful suits, white ensembles, and oversized hats.

Harlem Haberdashery celebrates the neighborhood’s legacy and welcomes not only celebrities but locals and visitors as well.

If you are looking for some ready-to-wear men’s and women’s custom pieces, you should definitely check this place out.

Catch a Live Jazz Performance at Bill’s Place

Bill’s Place is a famous music venue that was opened in 2006 by renowned musician Bill Saxton.

The jazz club is designed in a manner that reminds all the visitors of the Prohibition and Renaissance eras in Harlem.

It is very cozy and spacious.

Regular shows are organized here every evening.

Bill’s Place has notably welcomed legendary performers such as Satz Waller, Billie Holiday, Willie Smith, and many more.

If you are in the city, you should definitely not miss out on this place as it is a different kind of experience in its entirety.

Go Back in Time at the Langston Hughes House

Exterior of Langston Hughes House

Americasroof, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Built in 1869, the Langston Hughes House is a famous building that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

It is managed by a non-profit organization I, Too Arts Collective.

Langston Hughes was a famous leader from the Renaissance era who stayed in Harlem for almost 20 years, starting from 1947.

This home allows you to explore his belongings and the history of how New York City developed throughout the era of the Renaissance.

The place regularly organizes various events such as public reading and writing workshops, which are quite educational and informative in nature.

With its well-maintained infrastructure, the place is one of Harlem’s top attractions for history lovers.

Attend a Gospel Mass at First Corinthian Baptist Church

Exterior of Corinthian Baptist Church

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The neighborhood of Harlem is also famous for its religious and cultural beliefs.

Due to this, attending a gospel mass becomes quite an interesting and meaningful way to better understand the neighborhood’s distinct culture.

Given that there are a lot of churches in the area, it is quite easy to attend a gospel mass in Harlem.

However, in order to ensure a better experience, you should try to find a local church that holds masses early in the morning.

In this sense, First Corinthian Baptist Church is the perfect place to go.

Even if you do not want to attend a gospel mass, you can take a gospel mass tour, which is an equally great experience.

However, it is important that you observe a respectful and diligent attitude while on this gospel tour, as it is directly related to the feelings and sentiments of the locals.

Admire the Eclectic Architectural Structures at the Mount Morris Park Historic District

Brownstone houses in Mount Morris Historic District

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The Mount Morris Park Historic District was designed in the year 1971 and is located in west-central Harlem.

The place is spread over a 16-block area and is one of the most important historical areas in the neighborhood.

It is home to a large number of historical buildings, which are still in their original positions.

Buildings facade at Mount Morris Park Historic District

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The district has a number of residential houses made of brownstones in a row, along with some beautiful unaltered streetscapes.

The Mount Morris Park Historic District has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is well-managed by the state authorities.

Designed in an eclectic architectural style, this area is one of the best places to explore on foot.

Brownstone row houses at Mount Morris Park Historic District

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Enjoy Harlem’s Vibrant Events and Festivals

African American day parade in Harlem

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The neighborhood of Harlem is quite culturally active as it organizes a lot of events and festivals on a regular basis.

Usually conducted from July to August, Harlem Week is an event that you should definitely consider participating in.

Harlem Week involves a lineup of very lively and entertaining activities related to music, dance, and culture.

Harlem Art Alliance is another event that takes place on a weekly basis and hosts plays and musical performances.

You can also consider enjoying the annual Christmas show, which is organized by the Harlem School of Art.

During this event, family-friendly performances are put on by the students of the school.

Visit the Beautiful Abyssinian Baptist Church

Exterior of Abyssinian Baptist Church

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The Abyssinian Baptist Church was founded by a group of local men and women in the year 1808.

The church also represents the non-conceding part of the population who refused to accept the segregated seating at the First Baptist Church of New York City.

At present, the Abyssinian Baptist Church is one of the most artistic and architecturally important buildings in the city.

Signage of the Abyssinian Baptist Church

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The church is constructed with stained glass windows and marble furnishings.

It features a Gothic architectural style, and the entire building looks very attractive.

The church is a perfect example of historical architecture in Harlem, and you should definitely check it out.

Stained glass windows of Abyssinian Baptist Church

The Curious Eye /

Have the Ultimate Jazz Club Experience at Minton’s Playhouse

Exterior of Minton's Playhouse

Americasroof, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Minton’s Playhouse first opened in 1938 and is believed to be the place where Bebop was born.

This famous jazz club is thought to be one of the places where modern jazz was first established.

Interior of Minton's Playhouse

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Since its establishment, the place has been through multiple renovations, and Minuteton’s Playhouse now has a sister venue called The Cecil Steakhouse.

Minton’s Playhouse has its own band that includes jazz musicians who have played at some of Harlem’s most famous events.

The place is very lively and offers a perfect opportunity to enjoy the nightlife in Harlem.

Feel the Music at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem

Jazz is a living and entertaining art form that stays vibrant and animated when it continuously evolves by incorporating new elements into its repertoire.

The National Jazz Museum in Harlem knows this all too well.

This museum conserves and advances jazz as an art form that offers insights into other cultures and brings people together.

It educates its visitors through programs and events that showcase jazz’s roots and influences.

They collaborate with businesses, schools, arts organizations, and more to bring their innovative content to the global community.

If you happen to be somewhere near 129th Street, try dropping by.

Roam around Strivers’ Row

Daytime view of Strivers' Row

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Doubling as a designated landmark since 1967, New York’s Strivers Row was formerly known as St. Nicholas Historic District.

This extension of the Harlem Renaissance continues to be a major inspiration for artists and professionals alike.

The quaint collection of stately row homes symbolizes such historical values of the city.

Walk your horses sign at Strivers' Row

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It stems from three uniquely distinct architectural styles carefully recognized as the gems of 19th-century urban planning.

Strivers’ Row was an extension of the intellectual, social, and artistic strides taken by African American people during that time.

The community began in 1919 as part of a housing program and was originally called King Model Houses.

Exterior of a Strivers' Row building

Photo by Kmf164, taken on January 16, 2006., CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Enjoy the Convenience of Marcus Garvey Park

View of the restored harlem watchtower at Marcus Garvey Park

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Also known as Mount Morris Park, Marcus Garvey Park was designed and built in the year 1840.

First named after former New York City mayor Robert Morris, the park honored his memory until 1973.

The park was eventually renamed to honor a famous Black nationalist, activist, and businessman named Marcus Garvey.

Located at the intersection of Manhattan’s Upper East Side and Harlem, this 20.16-acre park is a real treat.

A jogger at Marcus Garvey Park

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Not only does it provide visitors with pristine views of the surrounding neighborhood, but there’s plenty to do here as well.

Marcus Garvey Park has an open space for playing ball, catching up with friends and family, and having a fabulous time.

Don’t miss the Harlem Fire Watchtower, which is a beautiful piece of architecture to be admired.

The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation operates and maintains the park.

An amphitheater at Marcus Garvey Park

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Catch a Basketball Game at Holcombe Rucker Park

Scoreboard at Holcombe Rucker Park

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Basketball lovers can also enjoy watching a game at Holcombe Rucker Park, which hosts many basketball tournaments.

Named for playground director Holcombe Rucker, the park features a basketball court where he started Rucket Tournament in 1950.

His goal was to get the less-fortunate kids off the streets and to inspire them to go to college.

The grounds of Holcombe Rucker Park

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Many of his players achieved success and have played for the NBA.

Local basketball players also come here for practice and friendly games, which are all not to be missed.

You can find Holcombe Rucker Park at West 155th Street.

Take a Picnic at St. Nicholas Park

A trail at St. Nicholas Park

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Located between the neighborhoods of Harlem, Manhattanville, and Hamilton Heights, St. Nicholas Park features a nice picnic area.

It’s the namesake for St. Nicholas of Myra and was a settlement area of the Dutch farmers in the 1600s.

The park’s picnic area has grills for barbecues and cookouts, which is perfect during the summer season when families go out and share delicious meals outdoors.

There are plenty of trees at St. Nicholas Park, which offer enough canopy in the spring and summer seasons.

Your little ones can also enjoy playing at the park’s nice playgrounds.

Discover and Learn at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Entrance to Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

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The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture has been Harlem’s integral part of the community’s cultural heritage.

It’s a research library, which focuses on the Black Culture—African Diaspora, African American, and African experiences.

Research, preservation, and exhibition of the culture are highlighted at the center.

It was named for historian, activist, collector, and writer Arturo Alfonso Schomburg who was an Afro-Puerto Rican scholar.

Facade of Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

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Check out its exhibitions, including contemporary visual arts.

There are also seasonal guided tours that you can take advantage of when you’re in Harlem.

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture entered the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

Exterior of Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Jim.henderson, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Shop for Gifts and Souvenirs at Nilu Gift Boutique

Don’t head back home from Harlem empty-handed!

Instead, go to NiLu Gift Boutique on Malcolm X Boulevard to grab some unique gifts for your loved ones, as well as cute souvenirs for yourself to document this trip.

This charming gift shop features Harlem artisans’ works, including unique candles, home decor, soaps, and body scrubs, as well as greeting cards, and books.

If you love jazz, the shop also sells jazz books and many other interesting and unique finds.

Nilu Gift Boutique is a proudly black-owned shop, which preserves the culture and highlights Harlem’s local artisans and makers.

Get Your Caffeine Fix at I Like It Black

Kickstart your day in Harlem with a fresh, delicious cup of coffee from I Like It Black.

The coffee shop is popular for its pour-over coffee, latte, cappuccino, espresso, and more, which are all made with beans from local roasters.

Of course, a cup of coffee isn’t complete without a delicious pastry such as the French toast muffin, as well as the breakfast sandwiches.

All these are served in a cozy and friendly atmosphere with lots of warm smiles from the owner and baristas!

I Like It Black is located off West 125th Street in Harlem.

Final Thoughts

Harlem has a fascinating history that comes to life in many of the local tourist attractions in the area.

From unique artwork and live music to delicious food and panoramic views, Harlem is a neighborhood in New York City that must be seen to be understood.

Artistic innovation will meet tourism as you explore this neighborhood’s distinctive human energy.

Harlem is a place that should be on everyone’s list to visit while in New York City!

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