Harlem is known throughout the world as a center of African-American culture, music, and life. The neighborhood invites visitors to see historic jewels such as the Apollo Theater, architecturally splendid churches, cultural magnets like the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, as well as an ongoing list of new and renovated sites and buildings.
In Harlem, things are changing quickly. Luckily, its original charm and personalities are still around if you know where to look. While some iconic establishments have closed, newer spots aim to take their place by both paying homage to the area’s roots and appealing to the young families and professionals who are buying up new high-rise condos and restoring old brownstone and limestone buildings.
Harlem’s 125th Street is at the heart of the neighborhood. Bill Clinton's New York office is at 55 West 125th Street, and the legendary Apollo Theater stands at No. 253. Growth has brought outposts of Starbucks, Old Navy, and H&M (with Whole Foods set to open in 2015), which make it hard to distinguish 125th Street from the city’s other heavily commercialized areas. But there are still a few things that set it apart: an energy created by sidewalk vendors hawking bootleg DVDs, incense, and African shea butter; impromptu drum circles; and some of the best people-watching in Manhattan.
To get a taste of today’s Harlem, spend time visiting its past and present. On 116th Street, particularly between St. Nicholas and Lenox avenues (Malcolm X Boulevard), you’ll find some of the area’s most interesting religious buildings. Admire the ornate theatrical facade of the giant First Corinthian Baptist Church, or fill your soul with the mellifluous gospel music of the Canaan Baptist Church of Christ's choir during a Sunday service. Take a hint from the parishioners and follow up with smothered chicken and waffles at Sylvia’s, at 328 Malcolm X Boulevard.
After lunch, walk by the green-domed Masjid Malcolm Shabazz —a mosque attended primarily by West Africans and African Americans. Finish at Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market where you can bargain for African and African-inspired jewelry, masks, crafts, and caftans at good prices.
Nowhere is the "new Harlem" more visible than along Lenox Avenue and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, between 110th and 126th streets. Here you’ll find restaurants, bars, and a few boutiques. Grab a bar stool at Red Rooster, where celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson has created a restaurant-bar-lounge that draws tourists from across the globe and NYC residents from below 14th Street. While you might not be able to score a table, a visit here is more for the scene and creative cocktails than the food. Just west on 125th Street, check out contemporary African-American-oriented artworks at the Studio Museum in Harlem. If you're here on Thursday or Friday, exhibits are open until 9, and on Sunday admission is free.