Lucy Schaeffer

The rumors are true, Harlem's heartbeat is pounding. Here's how to avoid the tourist traps and get a taste of the real thing.

September 30, 2015

Harlem's status as a cultural force has never been in question. Even before its current rebirth, it's been a go-to destination for those looking for emotional residency in true Americana. And now an influx of creativity and resources have transformed the area, pushing it squarely into the viewfinder of 21st-century coolness. With so many go-to shops, restaurants, and cultural institutions, it's easy to miss a few gems. Here's how to make sure you catch the highlights:

Best Dinner Spot: The Cecil

Chef Joseph Johnson combines the best elements of African and Asian cuisines to create flavor profiles that are somehow both traditional and futuristic. Dishes like the citrus jerk halibut and the cinnamon-scented fried guinea hen electrify the palate. The Cecil's hibiscus-glazed ribs with blue cornmeal cake is another dish that is routinely raved about amongst foodie circles.

Best Place To Score a Few Amazing Mementos: Sugar Hill Market

Whether you're a tourist from the west coast or from Long Island, a visit to the Sugar Hill Market has to find room on any Harlem itinerary. Local artists abound here, selling their craft s and clothes every Sunday inside one of the areas stately brownstones. Vendors sell everything from ties to vintage album cover posters to specialized chocolates and tea. It's a place where emerging artists are able to present their work in a marketplace atmosphere, but have the added bonus of the aesthetics of a private home. Prices vary from vendor to vendor, but nothing is particularly expensive.

Best Place To Hang Out With the Locals: The Edge Cafe

The Edge Café has that "everybody knows your name" quality that escapes so many NYC eateries. Nestled a block away from St. Nicholas Park, in one of the area's hidden neighborhoods, it's a haven for locals. Justine Masters, who along with her sister Juliet owns the café, explains that the plan all along was to create a place that felt comfortable enough to encourage repeat visits. "We have real a good energy here and I think that's because our clientele is extremely diverse," she explains. "We have locals, tourists who are using Airbnb, young professionals and old Harlemites who have been here for 30 years."

Best Place To Address Beauty Needs: Vivrant Beauty

With an inventory of over 30 brands, Vivrant Beauty is the area's most interesting destination for hair and skin products. Many of their products are made of natural ingredients and maintain a focus on supplying products for women of all racial backgrounds.

"There are a lot of sophisticated shoppers here in Harlem," says shop owner Desiree Verdejo. "We have a lot of women of color and mixed race moms of all backgrounds. There isn't a shop above 96th Street that has our range of products for someone with curly or kinky hair and I felt like that needed to change."

Best Place For Live Music: The Shrine

Harlem's long reputation as a go-to spot for jazz still has merit, but if you're in the mood for afrobeat, rock and hip hop, The Shrine is where you'll want to go. Its nondescript front notwithstanding, a strong argument can be made that it's the areas best location for live music. The look of the club won't astound, but the sound system is good and the bands that perform routinely put on energetic shows.

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