Harlem, NYC Neighborhood Guide

As rich and varied as New York City neighborhoods tend to be, few can rival Harlem for sheer diversity and globe-spanning importance. Primary site of the cultural phenomenon that was the Harlem Renaissance, Harlem has long been a home to artists, writers, and musicians of the caliber whose works have changed the world. Today, this historic neighborhood is where you’ll find the Apollo Theater, Studio Museum, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and so much more.

Harlem Neighborhood History

The neighborhood known today as Harlem was colonized by the Dutch in the seventeenth century. By the late seventeenth century, the area was under control of the British, who would burn what developments existed there to the ground during the American Revolutionary War. For the next 100 years or so, Harlem grew in fits and bursts, but the neighborhood exploded onto the world stage in the years right after World War I during the Harlem Renaissance. This artistic and intellectual movement saw African-American music, theater, fashion, scholarship, and literature grow in stature and prominence, widely shaping culture throughout America and across the planet. Its influence is still felt and appreciated today.

Harlem is home to several historic attractions and districts well worth exploring. Hamilton Grange National Memorial is run by the National Park Service and consists of Alexander Hamilton’s restored 1802 mansion, while the Langston Hughes House is the preserved home of the venerable poet. Mount Morris Park Historic District is comprised of over a dozen blocks of iconic venues, historic brownstones, and Harlem landmarks.

Exploring Harlem

Two of Harlem’s most acclaimed attractions are the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the Studio Museum. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is affiliated with the New York Public Library, and its permanent collection contains millions of artifacts and research materials. The Center regularly organizes special exhibits, guided tours, live concerts, lectures, and more. The Studio Museum was founded in 1968, and for decades it has showcased the work of artists of African descent. Today, it’s widely considered to have one of the finest collections of exhibits displaying contemporary African-American art.

The one-and-only Apollo Theater is a major New York City landmark, a member of the National Register of Historic Places, and still an incomparable venue at which to see a live show. The Apollo, which first opened to the public in 1914, has hosted legends like Billie Holiday, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Duke Ellington, Aretha Franklin, and Sarah Vaughan (to name but a few), and scoring a gig here remains one of great accomplishments a performer can have in their career—even as the Apollo’s famed amateur nights continue to unearth the next generation of talent.

In recent years, Harlem has become an increasingly popular destination for guided New York City tours. Depending on what aspect of the neighborhood you’re most interested in learning more about, there are several options available. Popular tours of Harlem include guided walking tours focused on the neighborhood’s street art, historic districts, and gospel choirs, as well as its importance in the development of jazz music, the civil rights movement, and of course the Harlem Renaissance.

Harlem is bordered to the north by Washington Heights, to the south by Central Park, to the east by Fifth Avenue, and to the west by the Hudson River and Morningside Heights. Harlem is often subdivided into smaller area neighborhoods like West Harlem, Central Harlem, Hamilton Heights, Manhattanville, and Sugar Hill.

Harlem Dining

Harlem is home to a wealth of wonderful restaurants. You name a style of food or a type of a cuisine, you’re likely to find it here. From sushi and pizza to burgers and ribs, Mexican to Somalian and Jamaican to Ethiopian and beyond, Harlem makes for a well-rounded foodie’s dream destination. And better yet, the neighborhood’s many fine dining options can be situated across a wide range of price points, meaning you don’t necessarily have to break the bank to have a fabulous meal in Harlem.

If you’re on the lookout for an unforgettable dining experience in Harlem, one of the neighborhood’s most noteworthy establishments is award-winning chef Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster. Red Rooster specializes in American comfort food, and the spacious restaurant routinely hosts special culinary events, live music, and more.

Other notable contemporary Harlem restaurants include The Edge, whose eclectic menu has offerings as diverse as fish and chips, jerk chicken Caesar wraps, and Belgian waffles; Famous Fish Market, a takeout spot that’s been in business for approximately 50 years and still frequently has lines out the door and down the block; and Sylvia’s, a world-famous soul food restaurant that’s been going strong here for over 60 years now.

Harlem Shopping

As seems only appropriate for a neighborhood encompassing as large an area as Harlem, the shopping scene here is home to a little bit of everything. Chain stores, big-name brands, conscientiously curated collections, thrift shops, vintage boutiques, and flea markets—you name it, you’ll find it in Harlem.

Perennial favorite shopping destinations within Harlem would have to include Trunk Show Designer Consignment, where you can find luxury brands like Chanel, Lanvin, and Alexander Wang at nearly 60 percent off list price; Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market, a daily outdoor market where you can purchase an assortment of traditional African textiles, jewelry, clothing, and more; and NiLu Gift Boutique, a charming store selling home goods, personal accessories, games, books, and a whole lot more.

Explore Harlem Like a Local

  • Marcus Garvey Park is a popular public green space in Harlem. It has playgrounds, basketball courts, an amphitheater, pool, and from time to time hosts special events like the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival (which typically takes place here in August).
  • Basketball fans will need no introduction to fabled Rucker Park, which is home to a legendary basketball court where greats like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Connie Hawkins, and Kenny Anderson made names for themselves and from which the hoop stars of tomorrow continue to emerge. Rucker Park is located in Harlem, at the corner of 155th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, just southeast of where the Polo Grounds once stood, and directly across the Harlem River from Yankee Stadium, making it prime pilgrimage terrain for big-time sports fans.