How to Spend a Perfect Day in Harlem
For the better part of a decade, the buzz around New York City has been all about Brooklyn. Now, it may just be Harlem’s time to shine.
Visitors to Harlem today will find tree-lined streets full of row houses, historic churches, and bustling soul food restaurants. These familiar sites are interspersed with a new crop of stylish restaurants, bars, and coffee shops—many of which are owned and operated by locals. The result: a perfect blend of old and new. Here’s a guide to experiencing the best of what Harlem has to offer in a single day.
Morning: Coffee & The Cathedral
Start your day at Frederick Douglas Boulevard and 118th street with a cappuccino to go from Double Dutch Espresso, then swing by Patisserie Des Ambassades—a West Harlem mainstay—for one of the Senegalese bakery’s dense, chewy chocolate almond croissants. Stroll across Morningside Park to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which skirts Harlem’s western border. The world’s largest cathedral features a fascinating architectural history, stunning stained-glass windows, and a bronze altarpiece by Keith Haring, as well as beautiful surrounding grounds. Vertical tours offer visitors the opportunity to ascend to the roof of the cathedral for spectacular views of Manhattan.
Noon: Lunch in West Harlem
Retrace your steps to Frederick Douglas Boulevard for lunch. Option A: shrimp steampots and cold beers at the island-inspired Lolo’s Seafood Shack. Grab a table outside on Lolo’s kitschy, colorful back patio if you can. Option B: Head across the street for rotisserie chicken and all the fixin’s at Marcus Samuelsson’s casual counter-service spot, Streetbird Rotisserie.
Afternoon: Central Harlem
Walk off lunch on your way to the Studio Museum, a contemporary art center that celebrates the work of African American artists from the 19th and 20th centuries, including Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Chris Ofili, and Kara Walker. A block north, you’ll find Harlem’s diminutive National Jazz Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate that gives visitors a crash course in the history of an art form that flourished in the surrounding neighborhood.
Stop by Lenox Coffee, a stylish café on 129th Street that is perennially packed with locals looking for the neighborhood’s best caffeine fix. They do an excellent iced latte, brewed from Portland’s Stumptown Coffee Roasters. Get one to go and walk south to Marcus Garvey Park, where you can ascend a set of stone steps to the top of a high rock outcropping and take in a bird’s eye view of the neighborhood.
Evening: Dinner and Jazz
Throughout the decades, Harlem has been perhaps best known for its world-class jazz scene, which continues today at venues like Minton’s, Showmans Jazz Club, and The Cotton Club. Ginny’s Supper Club, a lounge tucked beneath Red Rooster, is Marcus Samuelsson’s modern take on the speakeasies of the 1920s. Live jazz performed by local and national musicians provides the perfect backdrop for dinner, or simply sipping cocktails.
Late Night: A Nightcap
Make your way west again to where you started the day for a nightcap at Mess Hall, which stays open until 4 a.m. on weekends. The bar is stocked with a deep selection of craft beers and bourbons, and decorated with the kinds of hipster flourishes more commonly associated with Williamsburg (read: taxidermy). Try the Mess Hall Mash, which combines bourbon, lemon, and orange with a touch of red wine.
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