Stretching 45 blocks north of Central Park, Harlem is New York’s most storied neighbourhood, a long-time centre for Black culture, shaped by waves of migration.
It’s best known as the setting for the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 30s; when the area exploded as a creative hotbed for Black writers, artists and musicians, and when jazz, literary and fashion scenes emerged and flourished. Today, its creative history lives on amid its historic brownstone-lined streets, but the neighbourhood is in the throes of a revival, thanks to a flurry of new openings, including its first-ever five-star hotel.
WHAT TO PACK
Open since summer 2023, on the site of the 1917 Victoria Theatre, Harlem’s first-ever five-star hotel, The Victoria, delivers glamour from the start. Head past the polished ticket booth, through the shiny revolving doors and into a sparkling refurbed lobby for check-in. Sleek, inviting rooms are set within a modern 27-floor skyscraper – those on higher floors have dreamy Central Park views. On the fifth floor is the Victoria Lounge, a contemporary all-day cocktail bar and restaurant that celebrates the neighbourhood’s African American culture in its style. The menu is filled with southern hits like hot chicken, jambalaya, and gumbo. An upbeat sultriness infuses the modern décor, a nod to Harlem’s historic nightlife scene: gold accents, velvet banquets, and darkened ceilings over low-lit nooks where books like AphroChic rest on coffee tables.
EAT + DRINK
Lucille’s Coffee and Cocktails
As of 2019, Lucille’s has been dishing up classic American fare in a plant-filled, dark-wooden dining room with old-fashioned jazz club meets European veranda vibes. Open from 8AM until late, breakfast and lunch is a hearty affair. Locals gather over avocado toasts, loaded bagels, fried chicken sandwiches and chit-chat. Come evening, zingy cocktails like guava margaritas can be paired with small plates of burrata and buffalo cauliflower, or square pizzas with comforting toppings like meatballs. Wednesday and Thursday nights are the time for jazz – from 8PM.
Perched at the end of a row of elegant brownstones this contemporary dinner spot has been open since 2018. It’s set in a single-story brick building painted white – once home to a storied jazz club. Plants, white walls and a cork floor inside give it a Scandi feel. Cocktails on a small list have fun-sounding names, such as Disco Nap – mixed with amaro, cold brew and soda. Seasonal ingredients and a mix of global cuisines inspire elevated, well-presented small plates – think confit duck leg, carrot, smoked farro, collard greens, and sumac. Don’t miss happy hour each evening from 5PM.
Manhattanville Coffee, Harlem NYC
Serving the local community since 2014, this hip-looking, local-favourite coffee shop has a distinct New York style – a bare brick façade with dark signage – and location, on a corner setting. Low benches and slouchy sofas surround a central communal table filled with a mix of Harlemites; home workers on laptops, friends catching up, parents grabbing a post-school pick-up or drop-off drink. Come winter months, a steamed apple cider or maple spice latte are the chilly cold-weather hits to see you on your journey.
Where To Shop
Souvenir shops abound in the city of dreams. Start at Nilu Harlem where Black, Indigenous and People of Colour suppliers are the focus of this treasure-filled boutique packed with thoughtful gifts, most curated from Black-women-owned brands. It’s fun to lose yourself browsing the packed-out shelves of artisan candles, colourful prints, books about Harlem, and other neighbourhood souvenirs, like illustrated tote bags, mugs and T-shirts.
The Harlem outpost of New York’s well-loved bakery, Levain, is famous for its cookies – often described as the best in the city. Chunky, palm-sized and served warm, signature recipes include dark chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, dark chocolate peanut butter chip, and chocolate chip and walnut. The latter put Levain on the map, created by the bakery’s fitness-loving founders to eat after competing in triathlon competitions. Best of all, you can buy souvenir cookies, gift-boxed to take home. Don’t leave without trying its other baked treats, like the light-as-a-feather chocolate chip brioche that you’ll be dreaming about for years to come.
Things To Do
Feel The Jazz
Harlem is jazz and a night spent soaking up its heady sound in its spiritual home is a must. Every Sunday at 3.30PM, pianist Marjorie Eliot hosts intimate jazz concerts at her apartment in Sugar Hill, accompanied by talented musicians who mingle with the audience in her living room. Another cosy stand-out is laid-back Patrick’s Place. Here, music is served alongside Jamaican dishes and Caribbean-inspired cocktails. There’s a Sunday brunch option, too, with a similar Caribbean vibe. If you want to trace the history of the genre, exhibitions at the National Jazz Museum take you from its birthplace in New Orleans to its early 20th-century explosion here during the Harlem Renaissance.
Catch A Show
Apollo Theater, recently reopened after a major expansion. Behind-the-scenes tours are available to book through the theatre website and offer a glimpse into its makeover and star-studded history. These days, it’s best loved for its Amateur Night, where wannabe star performers from across the USA brave the critical crowds – encouraged to boo and hiss – for a chance at stardom, following in the footsteps of countless legendary artists, from Ella Fitzgerald, Luther Vandross, Lauryn Hill and others.
Seek A Creative Hit
Harlem is scattered with small, independent spots to browse art, like historic female-founded Essie Green Gallery originally in Brooklyn. Today, it resides in a Harlem townhouse, showing works from Black Masters of the 19th and 20th centuries such as Romare Bearden, Louis Mailou Jones, Charles Alston, Jacob Lawrence and Edwin Bannister, as well as promoting the work of more recent African American artists. On a bigger scale, the Studio Museum – due to open in 2024 in a new and larger space – has supported artists of African descent since the 1960s. Don’t miss a peek at Louis Delsarte’s The Spirit of Harlem mosaic mural on the corner of 125th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard that celebrates the Harlem Renaissance.
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