When thinking of Harlem, rich African-American culture and some of the city’s best soul food may first come to mind. But if you haven’t visited in a while, the ever-evolving neighborhood is home to an array of options beyond the musts, like the famous Apollo Theater.
Just in the past few years, Harlem has seen particular growth in terms of options for day-trippers, notably for foodies. While maintaining its historic charm — in addition to the Apollo, housed in a building dating to 1914, there are the idyllic townhouses of Strivers’ Row, along West 138th and 139th streets, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture — the area also has a modernized side, with options for higher-end dining, including its first-ever Michelin Star restaurant Sushi Inoue, swanky bars and lounges, and new galleries.
Nestled between Marcus Garvey, St. Nicholas and Morningside parks are also the many shops, museums and mom-and-pop restaurants that give Harlem its unique culture and charms. Whether hopping off the 2, 3, A, B, C, or D trains, you’ll find something worth checking out in virtually any part of the neighborhood.
Though there’s much to explore, here are some picks for spending a perfect day in Harlem, sunrise to sunset.
Open your eyes at Shuteye Coffee
A small space nestled in the middle of busy street, Shuteye Coffee (137 W. 116th St.) offers a dose of charm and a place to take a breather. It sources beans from East One, a Brooklyn roastery, and sells a small selection of pastries such as croissants, toast and doughnuts. Just about over a year old, Shuteye is a newcomer compared to the neighboring Double Dutch Espresso — also worth checking out, on 118th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard. Aside from beverages and sweets, Shuteye also sells locally crafted pottery and chocolate bars from Bronx-based Sol Cacao.
Enjoy a jazzy brunch at Harlem Tavern
A big space offering traditional American fare, Harlem Tavern (2153 Frederick Douglass Blvd.) is the place to go if you’re looking for music with your brunch. On Saturdays, the restaurant has live jazz from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., sometimes in its massive outdoor space. Harlem Tavern’s brunch includes seafood gumbo, an egg white omelet with lobster and shrimp, and corn flake-crusted French toast, and they’re served with a beverage — soda, juice, Bloody Mary, mimosa or beer — for $17.95.
Shop along 125th Street
This bustling strip is filled with shops, street performers and vendors. The lively street always has something to look out for — there’s even a Whole Foods now — and you’ll definitely want to hit the stands between Lenox Avenue and FDB. There, fill your tote with African shea butter, handmade soaps, jewelry, sunglasses and traditional African hats and scarves, and much more.
Check out some historic churches
Harlem is home to a couple of the oldest churches in the city, both built in the 1920s and now landmarked. One of them is the Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (140 W. 137th St.), the oldest organized black church in NYC. And the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church at 132 W. 138th St. is where New York’s first black congressman, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and his father both ministered.
Snack on the famous Levain cookie without waiting
Did you know Levain Bakery, the famed chocolate chip cookie spot, has an outpost in Harlem? Unlike the original location on the Upper West Side, the one at 2167 Frederick Douglass Blvd. has no lines but all of the same delicious cookies. Try the original chocolate chip-walnut cookie — can’t go wrong with the classic — or the decadent dark chocolate-chocolate chip. (FYI, cookie fans, an UES spot at 1484 Third Ave. is slated to open July 17.)
Get schooled at the National Jazz Museum
Historically the city’s cultural center of jazz, Harlem fittingly houses the National Jazz Museum (58 W. 129th St.), which showcases the history of the genre and holds live performances, workshops, educational tours and music lessons. Also on display is the Savory Collection, which includes more than 100 hours of live recordings of NYC’s legendary jazz musicians from the 1930s and 1940s. Tickets to enter are donation-based, with $10 suggested.
Try Amy Ruth’s famous chicken and waffles
Harlem’s known for its soul food, and Amy Ruth’s (113 W. 116th St.) is among the most popular in the neighborhood. While many may first think of Sylvia’s when looking for fried chicken and waffles, Amy Ruth’s is also famous for the classic Southern dish, where it’s called The Rev. Al Sharpton, as well as its complementary biscuits and cornbread. In fact, Amy Ruth’s has a separate menu for its waffle options, served with catfish, whiting, sautéed apples and much more. The restaurant, which opened in the late 1990s, also serves Jamaican jerked chicken, beef short ribs and pulled pork sandwich.
Cool off with a Sugar Hill Creamery scoop
Owned by fellow Harlemites, Sugar Hill Creamery (184 Lenox Ave.) offers custom ice cream flavors, many of which are inspired by the owners’ Caribbean and Midwestern roots. Of course, some are dedicated to Harlem, where owners Nick Larsen and Petrushka Bazin Larsen have lived for 15 years. The Harlem Sweeties, a salted caramel ice cream with brownies, was inspired by Langston Hughes, while Despacito, a cream cheese ice cream with guava and pastry, was created as an homage to the Puerto Rican dessert quesito.
Catch a show at Shrine
For a night out, Shrine (2271 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd.) is a great option for some live music and dancing. Founded in 2007, the arts space holds a wide range of performances, including live music (genres include jazz, blues and reggae), with up to six shows in its main room every night. It also has a green room, where it hosts comedy shows and DJs.
Nightcap it at Harlem Hops
Right across the street from Shrine is Harlem Hops (2268 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd.), the neighborhood’s first black-owned craft beer spot. Another relative newcomer, the bar, which opened in 2018, boasts 35 different kinds of beer and cider, with 16 on tap, that range from $8 to $12. It also offers nibbles such as craft beer bratwurst for $9, four kinds of spicy pies (crab, chicken, vegetables and habanero beef) for $7, and Bavarian pretzels for $10.