Top 10 Things to See and Do in Harlem

Harlem streets
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Philip Dumas/Getty Images

Many visitors to New York City don't venture far north of Central Park — but they're missing out. Harlem's attractions are rich in history and culture: Walk in the footsteps of music legends at the Apollo Theater, feast on soul food at Sylvia's, or marvel at a gothic cathedral so elaborate you'll think you're in Europe. 

  • 01 of 10

    See a Show at the Apollo Theater

    Apollo Harlem
    ••• Cindy Ord/Getty Images

    Perhaps one of Harlem's most famous icons, the Apollo Theater offers a wide variety of programming, including family-friendly shows and their famous Amateur Night every Wednesday that first began in 1934. Groups and individuals can also take Historic Tours of the Apollo Theater.

  • 02 of 10

    Treat Yourself at Levain Bakery

    A hand holding a chocolate chip cookie from Levain Bakery
    ••• City Foodsters/CC/Flickr.com

    Oprah made Levain famous for its sticky buns back in 2009, but the bakery’s massive, impossibly gooey chocolate-chip cookies have given it staying power — and supremely long lines. On weekend afternoons, crowds snake down the block at the bakery’s original Upper West Side location. The trick? Head uptown to this much calmer outpost. You can typically walk right inside to purchase a cookie, even on a bustling Sunday after brunch. Take your time and snack at the inside counter, or stroll a few blocks south to Central Park and burn off (a small fraction) of the calories you’ll consume.

  • 03 of 10

    Attend a Service at Abyssinian Baptist Church

    Abyssinian Baptist Church
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    DennisInAmsterda  Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0

    The first African-American Baptist Church in New York state, Abyssinian began in downtown Manhattan in 1808. Their home in Harlem was opened in 1923, under the ministry of Dr. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. (Please note: Due to its popularity with tourists, particularly its Gospel Worship Services, they have established a strictly enforced Tourist Policy that allows tourists only to the 11 a.m. service (not the 9 a.m. service) on Sunday on a first come, first-served basis.

  • 04 of 10

    Eat Soul Food at Sylvia's

    A street view of Sylvia's restaurant in Harlem
    ••• Paul Sableman/CC/Flickr.com

    If you go to only one soul food joint in Harlem, make it Sylvia’s. The historic restaurant was founded in 1955 and quickly rose to fame — pretty much any celebrity or president who has visited Harlem since has eaten here. In fact, the restaurant is so beloved that in 2014 the city co-named 126th street Sylvia P. Woods Way, after the founder and Queen of Soul Food herself. That legacy drives the tourists, but it’s the food that keeps locals coming back: Feast on tender ribs, juicy fried chicken, and classic sides (mac ‘n’ cheese, collard greens, black-eyed peas).  Just don’t forget to save room for dessert — you won’t regret one bite of the peach cobbler or red velvet cake.

     

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  • 05 of 10
    The North Woods in Central Park
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    gigi_NYC/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

    Southern Central Park’s iconic sites — the zoo, Wollman Rink, Bethesda Fountain — naturally draw throngs of tourists, but the tip-top section just south of 110th street offers its own, more peaceful, allure. Get lost in the North Woods, a 40-acre, wooded section of the park that somehow muffles the sounds of the city; head to Lasker Rink & Pool with a swimsuit or ice skates, depending on the season; or take a jog around Harlem Meer, a calm pond where you can watch local fishermen catch and release.
     

     

  • 06 of 10

    Tour the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine

    Cathedral of St. John the Divine
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    Steven Greaves/Getty Images

    The largest church in the United States, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine is famously incomplete despite over a hundred years of construction and it features a Romanesque sanctuary and choir with a Gothic nave, due to changing architects after the project was first started in 1891. Built as a "house of prayer for all nations," it is welcoming to visitors and even has interesting tours for those who want to learn about its history and architecture.

  • 07 of 10

    Visit The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

    The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
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    Desiree Navarro/Getty Images

    A research branch of the NYPL focused on materials documenting Black life and the history and culture of people of African descent, features changing exhibitions that highlight the collections. Admission is free and the Galleries and Gift Shop are open Monday - Saturday (Collections are closed on Monday).

  • 08 of 10

    Take a Walk on Striver’s Row

    Landmark Harlem rowhouses
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    Barry Winiker/Getty Images

    Originally called the King Model Homes, these 130-row houses were built between 1891-93 on four blocks in Harlem on West 138th and 139th Streets between 7th and 8th Avenues. Three different architecture firms designed different blocks: McKim, Mead, and White designed the houses on the north side of West 139th; Bruce Price and Clarence S. Luce designed the south side of West 139th Street and the north side of West 138th Street; James Brown Lord designed the south side of West 138th Street. Although the original residents were white, when blacks started moving into Harlem after the First World War, these houses were renamed Strivers' Row and became home to many successful professionals, including lawyers, doctors and administrators, as well as famous Harlem residents such as composer W. C. Handy, comedian Stepin Fetchit, prizefighter Harry Wills, bandleader Fletcher Henderson, architect Vertner Tandy, Dr. Louis T. Wright, dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and pianist Eubie Blake.

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  • 09 of 10

    Visit the Studio Museum of Harlem

    Studio Museum in Harlem
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    Dan Herrick/Getty Images

    First opened in 1968, the Studio Museum in Harlem focuses on the work of local, national and international artists of African descent, as well as art that is influenced and inspired by black culture. Open Thursday - Sunday, suggested admission is just $7 (students & seniors are just $3 and children 12 and under are always free), and admission for all is free on Sunday. They often have family programs on the weekends, both gallery tours and also hands-on workshops suited for children of all ages and their families.

  • 10 of 10

    Bar Hop on Restaurant Row

    A covered patio at Harlem Tavern in New York City
    ••• Harlem Tavern

    Harlem’s steady gentrification in the early 2000s gave rise to Restaurant Row, a buzzy strip of places to eat and drink on Frederick Douglass Boulevard between 110th and 125th streets. The three-quarter mile stretch is lined with trendy bars, coffee shops, restaurants — and even one Michelin-recognized spot. Start your tour with the best at Melba’s, the Michelin Bib Gourmand recommendation on 114th street; the southern comfort food joint serves classics with a twist — think chicken with eggnog waffles. After you’re sated, head next door to Bier International, a (cash-only) German-style beer hall with communal tables and giant steins of beer. Then meander north and pick your poison: Harlem Tavern, located in a former mechanic’s lot, is the neighborhood’s go-to sports bar and the perfect pick for a sunny afternoon; Lido is a sleek Italian spot; and Mess Hall offers fantastic happy hour deals in a coffee shop-meets-bar setting.