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Microguides

How to spend a day in Harlem, New York City’s soulful, historic community

Slightly out of the Manhattan melee, this venerable old neighbourhood has plenty of character and hearty food to go with its culture-rich history, says Jacqui Agate

Thursday 02 February 2023 14:10 GMT
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Bars and restaurants on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, Harlem
Bars and restaurants on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, Harlem (Getty)

Our microguides series is inspired by the slow travel movement, encouraging travellers to relax their pace and take a deep dive into one particular neighbourhood in a well-loved city. Rather than a whirlwind itinerary which aims to hit up every must-see attraction, these compact, close-up guides encourage you to zone in, take your time and truly explore like a local.

Spooling out across northern Manhattan, Harlem has long been a creative hub and a cradle of Black culture. It’s most famous for the Harlem Renaissance: in the early 20th century, African Americans transformed this district into an artistic beacon, where rich jazz, literary and fashion scenes fizzed.

Harlem has just as much creative clout today  and is currently having a second renaissance of sorts. New soul food spots are spearheading a culinary revival, while trendy boutiques and cocktail dens pop up along the main drags. Even the district’s most famous landmark – the long-standing Apollo Theater – is getting a facelift.

There’s also a lot that hasn’t changed. Veteran jazz clubs still pulse into the night; elegant 19th-century brownstones stand shoulder-to-shoulder; and the arts scene is as exciting as ever. Here’s how to get to grips with NYC’s most storied neighbourhood.

The Apollo Theater (Kate Glicksberg/NYC & Company)

Do

Bask in the jazz

Jazz lives in Harlem’s bones. Learn more at the National Jazz Museum, where exhibitions trace the musical genre, from its birthplace in New Orleans to its explosion here during the Harlem Renaissance. Jewels of the collection include a piano belonging to jazz legend Duke Ellington and a vintage Victrola record player.

But the best way to immerse yourself in the head-bobbing, soul-fuelling genre is at a traditional jazz club. You can’t beat down-to-earth Patrick’s Place, where live shows and jam sessions run from Thursday to Saturday – there’s even a Sunday brunch option. The music is served up alongside a menu of classic Jamaican dishes and Caribbean-inspired cocktails. Minton’s Playhouse and snug Bill’s Place are popular, too.

Catch a gig at the Apollo Theater

A glittering Who’s Who of the soul and jazz world – Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Luther Vandross – have played the hallowed stage at Apollo Theater. It remains a beloved Harlem landmark, though it’s currently gearing up for a major expansion; it also still runs its legendary amateur night each Wednesday. The show helped launch the careers of mega-stars like Ella Fitzgerald and Lauryn Hill. Behind-the-scenes history tours are available by reservation through the theatre website. They’re typically only offered to groups of 20 or more – but solo travellers or smaller groups can join an existing tour if there’s one running.

Get an art fix

Artists have always found a home in Harlem, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is a great place to see cutting-edge exhibits. Here, changing displays celebrate Harlem-based creatives such as Austin Hansen, a photographer who focused on documentary-style shots and portraits in his own backyard. Meanwhile, the Studio Museum has been showcasing photography, abstract paintings and sculptures by artists of African descent since the 1960s (though it’s temporarily closed as it prepares to open in a new and larger space on West 125th Street next year).

Make time to visit the “Spirit of Harlem” mural on the corner of 125th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard too. This mosaiced art piece by New Yorker Louis Delsarte celebrates the Harlem Renaissance.

Food at Red Rooster (Jen Davis/NYC & Company)

Eat

Sylvia’s

A tried-and-tested Harlem stalwart, Sylvia’s has been serving classic soul food since 1962. Stop by for belt-busting portions of fried chicken, barbecue ribs and catfish, alongside Southern-style sides like cornbread and mac and cheese. The restaurant has the feel of a family living room, filled with black-and-white photos of the restaurant’s founder and namesake – the “Queen of Soul Food”, Sylvia Woods.

Levain Bakery

It’s no great stretch to say that this little bakery sells the best cookies in the city. The signature house recipe – responsible for first putting Levain on New York’s culinary map – is chocolate chip and walnut. They’re fist-sized and served deliciously warm.

Clay

Clay is a grown-up dinner spot serving attractively plated dishes with global influences – think bucatini with short-rib ragu, or roasted beets with pistachio granola. The interiors offer a masterclass in Scandi-style chic, too.

Red Rooster Harlem

A major player in Harlem’s gourmet renaissance for some time, Red Rooster deals in American comfort food that’s been kicked up several gears. Crowd pleasers include the light-as-a-feather devilled eggs and the crab cakes with collard-greens slaw. The Sunday Gospel Brunch Experience is extra special.

Firestarter: a mixologist plies his trade (The Honey Well)

Drink

The Honey Well

Slip downstairs to this moody basement watering hole for beautifully crafted cocktails and imaginative bar bites. Classic tipples are given new guises, like the Monk Fashioned – 12-year-aged Scotch spiked with cigar-infused bitters, chartreuse and wood smoke. The low-lit setting is sophisticated but wholly lacking in pretension; weather permitting, you can opt for the garden patio.

I Like It Black Coffee Shop

The owner of this sleek coffee shop is on a mission to champion minority-owned businesses, whipping up cortados and cappuccinos with high-quality beans from Black and Latino roasters. The star of the menu is the sweet “Southern brew” with chicory.

Harlem Tavern

If you’re looking for a solid neighbourhood pub with a chilled-out vibe, then the always-buzzing Harlem Tavern is for you. Whatever your poison – craft ales, classic cocktails, world wines – you’ll find it on the sizeable menu. Come summer, the beer garden is a hit with locals. 

Shop

Harlem Haberdashery

Harlem has been a style magnet for more than a century, and this shop is one of the area’s most sophisticated and fashion-forward. Expect mannequins dressed in waistcoats, shelves laden with velvet loafers and gilded clutch bags, and colourful sneakers stacked on boxes.

NiLu Gift Boutique

Eschew the keychain-wielding souvenir stores in Midtown Manhattan and pick up thoughtful gifts from this treasure-filled boutique instead. It’s packed tight with artisan candles, eye-popping prints and books about Harlem, and there’s a focus on supporting BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) suppliers.

Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market

There’s a buzz about this market, which spreads out under an arch set between two bright green minarets. It heaves with traditional goods and crafts from varied African cultures, including woven baskets, drums and beaded jewellery.

Vintage charm in this affordable holthole (Harlem Flophouse)

Stay

The Harlem Flophouse

One of New York City’s more affordable boltholes, the Harlem Flophouse whisks guests back to the Jazz Age with its chequerboard fireplaces, antique wooden writing desks and paisley wallpaper. Doubles from $125, room only. Harlemflophouse.com

Book now

Aloft

When Aloft Harlem began welcoming visitors in 2010,  it was the first major hotel to open in the district in more than four decades. Rooms and common spaces are quirky and design-forward with bold splashes of colour – but the real drawcard is the location. The hotel is within kissing distance of the famed Apollo Theater and a short walk from Central Park. Doubles from $193, room only. Marriott.com

Book now

Getting there

The likes of British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Delta and Norse Atlantic fly direct to New York’s JFK and/or Newark Liberty airports.

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