Four Days in Harlem: A Trip to NYC's Vibrant Jazz Capital and Home to Soul Food You'll Remember

By Amy Klein March 12, 2018

New York City's Harlem became a bastion of culture, food and music in the 1920s. Now, nearly a century later, this northern slice of Manhattan —bordered by Central Park on 110th Street and continuing up to 155th Street—is once again a cultural hotspot.

For those looking to explore a place loaded with American history, cutting-edge jazz and modern art, Harlem is a top destination. Here, restauranteurs are experimenting with new menus and venues, without losing a connection to the old. And music is bursting from classic halls into the streets.

While the neighbourhood is experiencing a changing demographic, it remains dedicated to its vibrant history, authentic hipness, and effortless glam. Below are recommendations for four adventure-filled days in Harlem.

Day 1: Nothing like a good tour

For the "do it yourself" traveler, Harlem is a great place to take advantage of the many free walking app tours. Free Tours by foot offers a complimentary audio walking tour of Harlem that will help you discover places to eat, sleep, and hear music from jazz to gospel.

For a guided option and authentic look at the neighborhood, there are also tours led by locals. Harlem Cultural Walking Tours offers, for example, a three-hour gospel tour, a history and civil rights tour, a music renaissance tour, and even a movie tour with options to walk or take the bus.

And of course, there's the food. Splurge on Taste Harlem's Historical Food Tour, which promises six stops of soul food like Black-eyed peas, oxtails or chicken and waffles, and rugelach, a chocolate filled pastry typically made by Jewish grandmothers, but in Harlem, handmade "by a brother."

Day 2: Harlem through your ears

Especially on balmier days, street corners are filled with live music — people tooting on a trumpet or singing in a barbershop quartet. It's a free concert, right outside your door.

The best place to hear gospel music is in a local church, like the New Mount Zion Baptist Church or the First Corinthian Baptist Church, where you'll find choir singing, spirituals, and dancing. (Even though regular worshippers are welcoming, keep in mind these are actual services; arrive early, dress respectfully, and avoid picture-taking.)

If you want your music without a service but with supper, splurge for dinner and jazz at the upscale Minton's Playhouse, where you'll feel like you've been gifted with a taste of the Harlem Renaissance. For Afro-Punk, Hip Hop and who-knows-what-you'll-get, head to the downstairs area at Silvana for world music in this Moroccan-themed eatery.

To get in touch with the greats, such as Billie Holliday and Fats Waller, check out Bill's Place—a crowded speakeasy with all jazz (and no alcohol) where some of the world's most famous musicians have reigned.

Day 3: The history behind the music

To learn more about the history behind the jazz, make time for the National Jazz Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate that offers educational programs for all ages. Here, families can delve into the archives from the swing era or recordings by Kareem Abdul Jabar. The Studio Museum Harlem is another local hub for artists that showcases art inspired and influenced by black culture.

Even if you don't make it to the show on Broadway, you may want to visit Alexander Hamilton's house, Hamilton Grange—the founding father's two-storey house originally built on 32 acres in 1802. Recently moved to St. Nicholas Park, visitors can now get a 360-degree view of the city knoll.

Finally, no cultural visit to Harlem would be complete without a stop at the Apollo Theater. From its famed Amateur Night to Late Nights at the Apollo, you'll enjoy an evening of comedy, music, dance, or family-friendly fun.

Day 4: Food for the soul

It's easy to spend four days in Harlem and never eat at the same place twice (unless, of course, you find your own favorite local spot).

On your final day in Harlem, start your morning off at Levain Bakery, where you can treat yourself to a coffee and giant, face-sized chocolate chip cookie. (Unlike the one on the Upper West Side, there's no line around the corner for this famed pastry.)

For a last hurrah, visit the Harlem Tavern—a fun, cavernous group hangout with indoor and outdoor seating. Here, you'll find traditional digs—burgers and pasta—and local flair like buttermilk fried chicken or garlic green beans. On the weekends, catch live big band music.

If you're craving one last round of soul food, head to Amy Ruth's for the chicken and waffles, named best eats by The New York Daily News and voted number two chicken and waffles in the country. If you're instead in the mood for a high-end departure and celeb spotting, head to chef Marcus Samuelsson's Red Rooster, where his Louisiana crab cake biscuits, gravy soup, and shrimp and grits are the kind of soul food you won't forget. (The same team runs Ginny's Supper Club next door, which also hosts a Gospel Brunch—and a bustling dance party.)

By the time you lift your napkin from your lap, you'll be ready for that cozy seat on the plane.

Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of CIBC or their partners.

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