A Guide to 24 Hours in Historic Harlem

Updated: Mar 24


A closeup of the Apollo Theater sign in Harlem, New York City with a blue sky in the background.


Bordering the nearby neighborhoods of East Harlem and Morningside Heights, Harlem is a Manhattan neighborhood where history flows through its streets, inviting travelers to imagine life during the Harlem Renaissance, attend an event at the iconic Apollo Theater, and feel inspired by some of New York’s most influential minds.


Here’s our curated itinerary of both iconic and off the beaten path neighborhood locations to plan your day in Harlem.


Morning


To start your day at one of many classic weekend brunch spots, stop by family-run BLVD Bistro (2149 Frederick Douglass Blvd). The soul food restaurant is owned by husband and wife duo, Carlos and Markisha Swepson, and has a menu bursting with flavor, from brioche french toast to jumbo shrimp and grits.


After enjoying your brunch of choice and beginning your walk around the neighborhood, you’ll want to ease into the day by paying a visit to the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library. You can find helpful information about hours, public programs, and other events here.


Today, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is a fancy, polished research division of the New York Public Library, but imagine it as it was in the 1920s during the peak of the Black cultural blossoming of the Harlem Renaissance.


Prolific writers like Langston Hughes would pay visits to the branch, flipping through the musty pages of culturally significant tomes. Young Black creatives and scholars wandered the piled stacks for their next source text. The branch’s popularity during this period of the 1920s and 1930s built the foundation of the Schomburg Center’s legacy and collection -- a collection that to this day is widely regarded as one of the most exhaustive in Black America.


Afternoon


As you continue walking through the neighborhood, there are numerous historical locations and hidden details to explore in Harlem.


If you’re looking for history paired with a bit of captivating architecture, look at the Masjid Malcolm Shabazz (102 W 116th St), a famous Sunni Muslim Mosque where renowned orator, writer, and religious leader Malcolm X preached in the late 1950s and early 1960s.


Diving into the world of literature, Harlem has been a home to many writers over the years. For example, 58 West 120th Street was once the townhouse of world-famous poet Maya Angelou. Angelou resided in this building during her later years, before her death in 2014 at the age of 86. While she always called North Carolina home, she often traveled between Winston-Salem and Manhattan. It was here in Harlem that Angelou joined the Harlem Writers Guild in the 1950s, and here, with the guidance of groundbreaking novelist James Baldwin, that she began to write the book that would seal her fate as a literary legend: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.


While Angelou is perhaps most famous for this autobiography and for her poetry, she was a true Renaissance woman, spending time as a singer, dancer, actress, composer, Hollywood’s first female black director, playwright, editor, civil rights activist, and educator.


Also in the neighborhood, 20 East 127th Street is where Langston Hughes spent two decades of his life living and writing. After travelling internationally in his youth, Hughes lived on the top floor of this rowhouse from 1947 to 1967. While here, he penned some of the poetry and fiction that remains canonical today. His lyricism swam through the streets of Harlem in the 1920s, in conversation with the jazz music that was omnipresent in this neighborhood during the Harlem Renaissance.


Hughes was prolific, producing personal tales, poems, and plays, as well as the fictional books featuring his beloved character Jesse B. Simple, whose adventures underscored the challenges of living in a racist society.


In addition to local literary history, you’ll also find plenty of public art in Harlem. On the handball courts of the Crack Is Wack Playground, you’ll find Keith Haring’s famous Crack Is Wack mural. This mural, which is one of Haring’s most spectacular works, was painted in the very midst of the crack epidemic in the 1980s. While the first iteration of the mural was almost immediately vandalized, the city asked Haring to repaint the mural. He did so, changing some of the finer details, and this second iteration remains here to this day.


There are always seasonal exhibitions in outdoor spaces like Marcus Garvey Park, so check to see what’s on view in the neighborhood when you’re planning your trip.


Night


For dinner, you have many options in the neighborhood such as Belle Harlem, Massawa, or The Edge. Most importantly, you’ll want to end your day with a performance at the iconic Apollo Theater.


Over its 100 year run, the Apollo has launched the careers of legends like Stevie Wonder and James Brown, in addition to hosting countless others. Billie Holiday, Josephine Baker, Miles Davis, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, and Prince are just a few of the names that have been illuminated by the theater’s sparkling marquee.


No history of the Apollo Theatre would be complete without mentioning the weekly Harlem Amateur Hour, the first of which was held in 1933. This talent search pits new performers against each other to prove themselves a star, while audience members loudly weigh in. Sound familiar? The show served as inspiration for modern shows like Star Search and American Idol. And no wonder -- some big names were early Amateur Hour winners, like a 15-year-old Ella Fitzgerald.


You can check the Apollo’s calendar to see what events are happening during the time of your trip.



 


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