The alternative traveler’s guide to Harlem

Proudly located in upper Manhattan, Harlem was the epicenter of the African-American culture in the 20s. Today, Harlem is a vivid neighbourhood notable for its exuberant gospel choirs, soul food restaurants and alternative things to do.

Settled by the Dutch and named after the city of Haarlem in the Netherlands, Harlem has been a melting pot of cultures including the German, Italian, Irish, Jewish and Afro-American. Originally called the New Negro Movement, the Harlem Renaissance spanned the 1920’s when a cultural, social and artistic explosion took place in the neighbourhood. This movement was considered to be a rebirth of African-American arts. Nowadays, Harlem is probably the most authentic neighbourhood in New York City, offering varied attractions.

Main landmarks

Central Harlem is the heart and soul of the neighbourhood, where the past coexists with the present. Historic buildings and landmarks still stand, re-purposed into modern entertainment venues, educational institutions, galleries, and restaurants. Here is where you’ll find blocks of turn-of-the-century town homes, churches to hear great gospel like the Abyssinian Baptist Church and the legendary Apollo theater.

The streets of Harlem

The streets of Harlem (photo courtesy of Cameron Blaylock for Airbnb)

There have been many vital musical venues, but few have the pedigree of the Apollo Theater. The historic New York concert hall originally opened as a burlesque house in 1914 only to white patrons. The theater began its new life in 1934 geared towards the African-American community in Harlem. Many African-Americans made their name performing at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, including Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown and The Jackson 5. Today, you can still attend live performances to affordable prices.

Apollo Theater, Harlem

Apollo Theater

Shopping

Sugar Hill Market has to find room on any Harlem itinerary. This unusual flea market is a popular spot for those with an eye for fashion, home styling and beauty. It’s a space where emerging artists are able to present their work in a market atmosphere but have the added bonus of the aesthetics of a private home. Every Sunday, Sugar Hill features locally produced items from candles to face creams, as well as a large variety of crafts, clothing and jewellery.

Flo+Theo vegan products stand at Sugar Hill Market Harlem

Flo+Theo vegan products stand at Sugar Hill Market

Museums

Conveniently located blocks from the 125th Street subway stations, the Studio Museum in Harlem is a contemporary art museum devoted to the work of local and worldwide black artists, and to artwork revolving around black culture. The collection and exhibitions, consisting mostly of 19th and 20th-century works, are vibrant, spirited and inspiring. Founded more than four decades ago, this cultural gem is the home of an archive of works by James Van Der Zee, the legendary Harlem Renaissance photographer.

Studio Museum, Harlem

Studio Museum facade (photo courtesy of nycgo.com)

Nestled right next to Riverside Park there is a tiny, lesser-known museum dedicated to a talented and prolific Russian artist, Nicholas Roerich. Housed in this three-story Upper West Side house, the free-entry museum hosts over 200 works of art ranging from paintings of the Himalayas to scenes from historical references to sketches from his early days designing sets for Russian ballets. About an hour is enough to see all the rooms.

Cafes & Restaurants

A great place to take a break while touring Harlem is the Hungarian Pastry Shop, an old-world bakery and cafe near Columbia University. Since JFK was in the White House, the iconic cafe has been very popular among uptown writers and hyperliterate students due to its bohemian style and free coffee refills. It’s also where a scene in Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives was filmed. In addition to the charming atmosphere, the Hungarian Pastry Shop offers a good selection of pastries at affordable prices. Make sure to bring cash, as they don’t accept cards.

The Hungarian Pastry Shop, Harlem (

The Hungarian Pastry Shop (Photo courtesy of Diario del Viajero)

Are you looking for a one-of-a-kind dining experience? Then, you should head to The Cecil, an airy brasserie serving Afro-Asian-American fusion fare and cocktails. The menu combines the rich culinary traditions of the African Diaspora with a noticeable global twist. Try juicy, cinnamon-brined fried guinea hen or the Gullah jumbo shrimp burger topped with kimchi and scallion. On top of the unique, inventive, and super creative cuisine, the drinks and the service stand out as well.

The Cecil, Harlem

The Cecil Restaurant

Here, my favourite alternative things to do in Harlem. Sing up to the newsletter for new alternative travel adventures!

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