You may know it as East Harlem, Spanish Harlem or simply El Barrio, but the Manhattan neighborhood by any name is just as sweet.
Today the neighborhood has some of the best panaderias and taquerias around, and can also claim such icons as Tito Puente, Tupac Shakur and Langston Hughes. But the storied area, like many places in New York City, has been home to a number of people groups over the years.
In the early 1800s, East Harlem comprised mostly black farmers and Germanic peoples. In the early 1900s, the neighborhood became predominantly Irish, with a few holdout German immigrants. As apartment buildings began popping up, the demographics began to skew Italian. It wasn’t until after World War I, when veterans began moving out, that African American and Latino New Yorkers began moving into the neighborhood, giving rise to the nickname “El Barrio.”
From La Marqueta on Park Avenue to the bustling playgrounds of Thomas Jefferson Park, this pocket of Manhattan is packed with culture. Take a day off this month, and follow our guide to seeing it all:
Get breakfast at Don Paco Lopez Panaderia
The goods at this bakery, which has a second location in Sunset Park, are worth keeping an eye out for. With everything from conchas to bigotes to chilindrinas for sale, you can get exactly what your sweet tooth is seeking.The business has been baking in New York City for 50 years, and while the quantity of each baked-daily pastry may be low, the quality is high. We recommend a churro -- simple, sweet and slathered with cinnamon, it's the perfect execution of a classic snack. (2129 Third Ave.)
Peruse plants at the Urban Garden Center
Open daily from 9 a.m.-7 p.m., the Urban Garden Center is the pride of La Marqueta. This charming gardening supply spot is nestled underneath the Metro-North train tracks, and has something for everyone, whether you're a veteran green thumb or just looking for a housewarming gift. Right now they're stocked with mums, evergreens and other fall-ready foliage. Even if you're not in the market, so to speak, it's still worth stopping by for a stroll. (1640 Park Ave.)
Explore East Harlem's musical side at Casa Latina
For more than 50 years, this music shop has operated out of the same storefront on 116th Street. If you need proof, look no further than the vintage posters wallpapering the interior. Rumor has it Marc Anthony and Tito Puente have even made personal appearances at the store. Casa Latina is your go-to for all things salsa (even guitars and congas are available to purchase), though the music is mostly on tape and CD formats. For vinyl collectors, the crates in the back are filled with old used records and are worth a close look. (151 E. 116th St.)
Grab a savory lunch at Taco Mix
If you're looking for a taco place with history, Taco Mix is not for you. However, if you're just looking for a damn good taco, look no further. The unassuming, standing-room-only joint features a simple counter with al pastor, pork roasting in the window on a vertical spit. Small tacos will run you $3.50 each, but two is a solid meal. Salsas and peppers are readily available for dressing, and tacos are served with the traditional radish slices and lime. (234 E. 116th St.)
Learn its history at El Museo del Barrio
El Museo del Barrio, or "Barrio Museum," sits at the tip-top of Museum Mile. After spending an afternoon walking the streets of East Harlem, take some time to admire the artistic history of the neighborhood. The museum houses more than 6,500 objects in its permanent collection, which "spans more than 800 years of Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino art," according to the museum's website. Currently on exhibition are the haunting prints of Cuban printmaker Belkis Ayón. (1230 Fifth Ave.)
Take in the New Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel's architecture
This stunning house of worship was constructed 133 years ago. According to a New York Times article from Feb. 3, 1887, "The New Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel ... was blessed with imposing ceremonies yesterday by Archbishop Corrigan. ... The music was very fine, the regular choir being assisted by a number of volunteers." You can't visit East Harlem without stopping to appreciate the Shrine's ornate, stained-glass windows and vaulted, painted ceilings. (448 E. 116th St.)
Reflect on a walk at Thomas Jefferson Park
This beautiful park looks much smaller on the map than it feels in person. The sidewalks lined with benches, available for you to take a load off and let your lunch digest. If you're up for a game, the park features spacious fields for soccer, football and baseball, as well as courts for basketball and handball. The Thomas Jefferson Recreation Center is open from 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. on Saturdays and boasts a massive pool, a weight room and Ping-Pong tables. (Between First Avenue and FDR Drive and E. 111th and 114th streets)
Full plates are up for grabs for little expense at Sandy
Before hitting the bar, get some slow-cooked goodness in your belly at Sandy. A hefty plate of beans, rice and beef stew will run you $8.50, but it's plenty of food to share with a couple of friends. If you're not a beef person, go for the rotisserie chicken or the traditionally prepared mofongo (a dish featuring fried plantains). If you're in a hurry to get to your next destination, just get the savory Cuban sandwich and eat it on the run. (2261 Second Ave.)
Finish your East Harlem jaunt at The Duck
The Duck is a quintessential dive bar that cannot be described, only experienced. But don't say we didn't warn you -- it's not for the faint of heart.