Harlem is just one of the many fascinating neighborhoods that make up New York City. There are so many things to do in Harlem, it’s hard to know where to start.
Just like most of Manhattan, Harlem was originally settled by the Lenape Indians. The Dutch were the first Europeans to arrive in 1658 and named it Haarlem for an area in The Netherlands. In the 1700s it was an upscale vacation area for wealthy residents from downtown New York City. The advent of transportation routes servicing the area in the 1800s brought Jewish and Italian immigrants.
African-Americans began to flock north from the south in great numbers in the early 1900s driven by economic opportunities in the north. By the 20s and early 30s African-American contributions in music, art and literature created the Harlem Renaissance, one of the richest cultural movements in recent U.S. history.
The Depression in the 1930s, riots fueled by unfair housing restrictions and New York City’s economic woes of the 70s led to Harlem’s decline.
In the 1990s Harlem began to grow again and it hasn’t looked back since. Today Harlem is a vibrant multi-ethnic neighborhood that has remained true to its rich heritage.
At the top of my list of things to do in Harlem is take in the architecture. Strivers Row is three sets of brick buildings in various styles collectively recognized as jewels of New York City architecture. During the Harlem Renaissance, African-American professionals began to move into the area. Notable residents included Scott Joplin and Bill “Mr. Bojangles” Robinson. Renovations over the decades have striven to remain faithful to the original architectural styles.
HISTORY AROUND EVERY CORNER
The elegant Teresa Hotel was granted landmark status by the city of New York in 1993. Built in 1914, it did not segregate until 1940. Until then, many of black America’s most notable performers; Josephine Baker, Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix, Louis Armstrong, Dorothy Dandridge, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Lena Horne, Count Basie could not lodge there.
In 1960 President Kennedy stopped at the Teresa on a presidential tour. Fidel Castro once rented 80 rooms at the hotel and was visited by Khrushchev, Nehru and Malcom X. In 1970 it was converted into an office building.
THE APOLLO THEATER
Many African-American artists have passed through The Apollo Theater since it opened in 1941; Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Luther Vandros, The Godfather of Soul, James Brown and Gladys Knight to mention a few. The theater’s fortunes rose and fell along with the neighborhood but it still remains one of New York’s great art venues. Amateur Night happens most Wednesday’s and is a must for any visitor.
THE TASTE OF HARLEM
Harlem is one of New York’s great dining destinations, which makes it another of my favorite things to do in Harlem. Two of my favorites are Sylvia’s Restaurant for authentic home cooking and Red Rooster. Red Rooster, named after a legendary Harlem speakeasy, is owned by Chef Marcus Samuelsson, cookbook author, winner of many prestigious awards and guest chef at the White House. His newest restaurant venture is Streetbird , for chicken like you’ve never tasted.
For weekend brunch with spectacular jazz, my favorite was The Cecil on 118th Street which has now merged with Minton’s Playhouse next door. Now you get the best of both worlds; great music and terrific food…all in one place!
Don’t forget to make time for a stop at one of the numerous Senegalese restaurants around Harlem when you visit Little Senegal, one of the latest immigrant waves in New York City.
HARLEM IS THE EPICENTER OF JAZZ
It’s hard to suggest a jazz venue in Harlem. They’re all good. Minton’s has been around forever and is exceptional. Others include Gin Fizz Harlem and Smoke Jazz Club. Red Rooster also books very exciting performers.
BTW, if you are getting ready for your trip, make sure to take advantage of these useful, money-saving links to book your trip:
Research and book your flight with Skyscanner. I have found them to be the best because they list all airlines including the budget ones. You are always sure of having researched all options.
For car rental in Europe that has flexible pickup and drop-off options, I recommend Auto Europe.
You can also book your car rental through Skycanner.
Book your accommodation with Booking.com. I find they have the widest selection and a nice, user-friendly, transparent website.
If an Airbnb experience is more your style, book Airbnb here are get a $40 credit towards your first stay.
Protect your trip and, more importantly, protect yourself with travel insurance. I use World Nomads and have been very happy with them.
Looking for a small group tour to unforgettable destinations with top professionals? Intrepid Travel is your choice.
For more general tours to any destination or attraction, book with Viator. Check them out.
I personally use, and can recommend, all the companies listed here and elsewhere on my blog. By booking through these sites, the small commission we earn – at no cost to you – helps us maintain this site so we can continue to offer our readers valuable travel tips and advice.