24 Things Harlem is Known and Famous For

Harlem. One of the most legendary neighborhoods in New York City. It gained a reputation when the Harlem Renaissance put it on the world map as jazz musicians and authors gathered to create works that have stood the test of time.

Unfortunately, the neighborhood is often overlooked when tourists come to New York and stay on the lower half of Manhattan island. There is beauty in Harlem, and it packs so much into the stretch between 110th street and 155th street in New York City. So, what is Harlem known for?

street signs in Harlem

Harlem is famous for its Black history, musical influence, and delicious food from the African and Latin American diasporas. This part of Manhattan has given a lot to the world, and there is palpable energy on every corner. There is much to experience and learn in this iconic New York neighborhood!

1. Harlem Renaissance

A stamp printed in USA shows Langston Hughes, Black Heritage. Harlem is famous for its Black heritage.
Editorial credit: neftali / Shutterstock.com

Harlem is perhaps most famous for The Harlem Renaissance, a period that is roughly defined as ranging from the 1910s to the 1930s where Black culture flourished and Harlem became a gathering point for Black people from all around America.

This migration towards Harlem and sense of community fostered the development of literature, music, dance, and theater. This period also saw the development of civil rights organizations such as the NAACP, helping further the fight for equality and justice in a country that was still not far removed from slavery.

This was a defining period for Harlem as we know it today, as it established the neighborhood within the context of the United States and gave the name “Harlem” the recognition that now spans the globe.

2. The National Jazz Museum 

exterior of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem

Harlem is famous for its contributions to jazz. The National Jazz Museum flies under the radar relative to the rest of New York City’s museums, but it is a gem that is worth a visit. Curated in part by Grammy award-winning artist Jon Batiste, the museum offers comprehensive and interactive exhibits highlighting the history of jazz music and its role in the history of the United States and Harlem.

If a traditional museum visit isn’t your thing, the National Jazz Museum still might have a thing or two for you. On weekends the museum hosts yoga classes featuring live jazz, as well as live music and educational film screenings.

Harlem played a crucial role in bringing jazz music to the world, providing the opportunity and community for countless artists that have become household names. Think of Thelonious Monk, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and John Coltrane. They all spent time in Harlem, leaving a mark on the genre, and Harlem leaving a mark on them.

3. Soul food

exterior of Sylvia’s restaurant in Harlem

As a result of the Great Migration, southern cuisine, known as soul food, became common throughout Harlem.

Perhaps the most famous Harlem soul food is a restaurant called Sylvia’s, which has been a local mainstay and a celebrity hotspot since 1962. Sylvia’s most famous dish, fried chicken and waffles, has attracted politicians on the campaign trail for decades.

It’s hard to go wrong when picking from the array of soul food restaurants in Harlem, but check out Melba’s or Charles Pan-Fried Chicken for some of the best.

4. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture 

entrance to the Schomburg Library

Harlem is famous for its history, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture strives to preserve and display that history. Schomburg has an extensive library, and is an excellent place for researchers to come and review primary sources, or consult staff.

The center frequently hosts cultural events and performances, and has a cycle of changing exhibits. The gift shop alone is worth a visit, with a carefully curated collection that mixes classics of books from the Black cultural canon, and the latest works from up-and-coming authors.

Schomburg is a stone’s throw away from the National Jazz Museum, as well as a number of excellent soul food restaurants, making it a perfect addition to a day exploring Harlem.

5. Chopped Cheese

Homemade Chopped Cheese Sandwich with Ketchup and Mayo

Corner stores known as Bodegas are a uniquely New York institution. They have become gathering places for those living in the neighborhood (my go-to is on 147th and Broadway). There are thousands of them throughout the city, and each has its own unique culture.

But one of them, named Blue Sky Deli, is credited with inventing the sandwich called the “Chopped Cheese.” Originally known as Hajji’s Deli, the bodega is located on 110th street and 1st avenue in East Harlem, and has been serving the chopped cheeses since the 1990s.

So, what’s in a traditional chopped cheese? It starts with hamburger meat that is chopped and sauteed on a flat-top grill alongside onions and peppers. Then that mixture is topped with American cheese, and thrown onto a hero roll with some lettuce and tomato. It’s truly a delicious, affordable sandwich, and a New York icon.

An employee named Carlos Soto is given credit for its creation. There are a number of theories as to how he came to its current version. Either he had dental issues and needed the burger chopped up and easy to chew, or he had originally run out of hamburger buns, or he was influenced by a similar dish eaten by his Yemeni coworkers.

Whatever the true origin is, it’s worth a pilgrimage to East Harlem to get a taste of this Harlem classic at the source.

6. Literary legends

portrait of author James Baldwin

Harlem is famous for its literary tradition, having been home to some of the world’s most impactful writers for many years. Langston Hughes was a key figure of the Harlem Renaissance, and even has a poem titled “Harlem.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Baldwin was born and lived in Harlem for many years, writing about the neighborhood in a number of his works, including “Go Tell it on the Mountain” and “Another Country.”

Ralph Ellison came to Harlem in the 1930s and wrote about the neighborhood in his novel “The Invisible Man”, which won him a National Book Award. There is also a sculpture that displays the cutout of a silhouette on 150th street, named after the aforementioned book.

To pick up some of the written works of these legends, the Schomburg Center has an excellent selection of books, as well as Sister’s Uptown Bookstore on 156th Street.

7. Three Kings Day

Atmosphere during Three Kings celebration and parade on 106th stree in Manhattan in New York
Editorial credit: lev radin / Shutterstock.com

One of the biggest celebrations in Harlem, and in “El Barrio” (“the neighborhood” in Spanish) in particular, Three Kings Day draws thousands of spectators and participants every January 6th. 2023 saw the 46th annual parade through the neighborhood.

Three Kings Day is recognized throughout Latin America, and through the connection of a large immigrant community, the celebration was brought to El Barrio. The day is meant to celebrate the day that, according to the Bible, the Three Wise Men brought gifts for the newborn Jesus.

This spectacular day is filled with live music, good food, and plenty of costumes, and even live camels. It is a great way to spend a few hours enjoying the east side of Harlem, experiencing the influence of Latin America on the neighborhood.

8. Graffiti Hall of Fame 

Graffiti Hall of Fame wall in Harlem

Another key landmark of El Barrio that adds to the beauty of the neighborhood is the Graffiti Hall of Fame. It’s one of my favorite works of art in the city, as it is ever-changing. A local leader named Ray Rodriguez coined the walls “the Graffiti Hall of Fame” in the 1980s, and it’s been an outside art installation ever since.

Occasionally, artists are invited to come to the enclosed park to showcase new works of graffiti. It is typically closed to the public because it now lies within a local school complex, but it can still be admired through the chain-linked fence that lines the park.

New York has always been one of the epicenters of art, and graffiti as an art form in particular, and this mural is an ode to that legacy.

9. Swing Street

Entrance to Bill’s Place

Harlem is perhaps most famous for its contributions to jazz music, and there lies a mythical stretch of Harlem located on 133rd street, between Malcolm X Boulevard and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. Its name is Swing Street.

The street gained popularity during the 1920s and 1930s during the Prohibition era, as the street was lined with speakeasies that also catered to live music. It featured famous venues such as the Nest Club and Tillie’s Chicken Shack, which artists like Duke Ellington would frequent. Billie Holiday was also discovered on this street, then performing under her birth name, Eleanor Fagan.

There are fewer jazz venues in Harlem than there once were, but there are still plenty of places to get lost in some saxophone, piano, and bass.

For an intimate jazz experience on the famed Swing Street, head to Bill’s Place. Tucked into the basement level of an old Harlem apartment lies the venue owned by Bill Saxton. A Harlem-born Jazz musician that has played for over 30 years, he and the Harlem All-Stars play small live shows every Friday and Saturday night. It’s one of the best experiences to be had not only in Harlem, but in all of New York City.

10. Crack is Wack mural

Crack is Wack mural in Harlem

Wedged into the far Eastern corner of Harlem lies a work of art from one of New York’s most famous artists of the 1980s, Keith Haring. The mural, which was painted in 1986, is a bright orange color and contains the unique cartoon figures that Haring was known for. It was previously a blank wall on a rarely-used handball court.

The piece was an anti-crack painting, and both a warning and a statement of frustration with the lack of government intervention against the destructive effects of the drug. He was actually arrested after he painted it, only to have the charges dropped after public outcry.

The work received a fresh paint job recently, and it stands like a billboard for cars exiting East Harlem.

11. West African cuisine

Facade of Senegalese restaurant, Pikine

West African immigrants have called Harlem home for many years, and there is even a stretch of blocks in Southern Harlem that is nicknamed “Little Senegal.” A film by the same name was released in the early 2000s, highlighting a boy who came to Harlem from Senegal to trace his ancestry.

There are stores that sell West African ingredients, and in this part of the neighborhood, you’ll often hear Wolof spoken, one of the larger languages spoken throughout Mauritania, Senegal, and The Gambia.

A visit to Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market is a great way to experience this unique part of the neighborhood and check out the variety of vendors with products from all over West Africa.

There are plenty of excellent places to eat West African food in Harlem, but one particularly good option is Pikine, an intimate restaurant on 116th Street.

12. Civil rights

portrait of Thurgood Marshall

Harlem is known for its contributions to the civil rights movement.

Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American U.S. Supreme Court Justice called Harlem home. W.E.B Dubois, the founder of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), lived in Harlem as well, in addition to many others such as Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (Congressman), and Roy Wilkins (NAACP official).

Harlem became a gathering point for marches and speeches from Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., and remains an important neighborhood for the fight for racial equality and justice.

13. Strivers’ Row  

Sign outside Strivers’ Row in Harlem

Harlem is known for the well-maintained stretch of homes known as “Strivers’ Row.” Spanning the 138th street block from Frederick Douglass Boulevard to Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, these were the residences of some of Harlem’s community leaders.

Key figures of the neighborhood called Strivers’ Row home, including congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., in addition to prominent African American architects, business executives, and doctors.

The block was designed for the wealthy in the late 1800s when those who had money were looking to get some air away from the crowded streets of Lower Manhattan. Harlem at the time was almost seen as the countryside, and the newly designed homes were, in fact, so spacious that they included driveways and horse stables.

You can still see pieces of this early history, as the old “Walk your horses” signs remain! The block is now protected through its designation as a historic district, and remains one of the more beautiful places to look at architecture in all of Harlem.

14. Central Park

Aerial view of New York’s Central Park on a fair day

If you enter Central Park from the south and walk all the way to its conclusion at 110th street, you’ll find yourself in Harlem. The northern part of the park that borders Harlem is much less touristy than the southern half, and because of this, it’s my personal favorite part of the park.

The Harlem-facing section of the park offers some well-known Central Park landmarks, including the Harlem Meer, a small lake that often attracts catch-and-release fishermen, as well as a nice dirt path for walking or running.

The North Woods is a wonderful respite from the city for Harlem residents. A densely wooded section of the park, that includes a waterfall, it’s easy to lose yourself in nature for a minute despite the subway 3-train running directly beneath the park.

There is also the infamous “Harlem Hill,” a steep, winding section of the park that is dreaded by runners and bikers alike. Myself included!

15. The Apollo Theater

Apollo Theater marquee

Harlem is famous for being home to one of the most famous music venues in the United States, the Apollo Theater. The Apollo opened in 1914, and has played a role in featuring many of the most famous musicians of all time, with a wide range of genres from jazz, to blues, to R&B, to soul.

The Apollo has featured many legendary performances, including the recording of James Brown’s “Live from the Apollo” album, a campaign fundraising event for Barack Obama, a morning blues show for local children by B.B. King, and frequent shows with Aretha Franklin.

Luckily for those of us who call Harlem home, the Apollo is very much an active theater, a non-profit, and a fixture in the community. The marquee has become a fixture of the neighborhood, and at 125th street it sits in the center of Harlem, both symbolically and literally.

16. East African cuisine

Sharing a vegetarian injera meal, with shiro, lentils, egg and a variety of vegetables

Harlem is also known for its East African cuisine. While not the most prominent immigrant community in New York City, the cuisine of Somalia and Ethiopia has played a role in shaping the food scene in Harlem.

One of New York’s most famous chefs, Marcus Samuelson from Ethiopia, opened Red Rooster in 2010, and the restaurant has become nationally renowned. Soul food is more of the restaurant’s focus, but it’s famous for a reason. I’ll also let you in on a little secret. There’s a speakeasy called Ginny’s Supperclub underneath the restaurant, which is decked out in 1920s-themed decor and features live music.

For uniquely East African food, there are many Ethiopian options, including Abyssinia on 135th street, or Tsion Cafe on St. Nicholas Avenue. For Somali cuisine, Safari on 116th Street is one of my favorite restaurants in the neighborhood. 

17. Hip-hop

Kurtis Blow performs at Thunder Valley Casino Resort in Lincoln, California
Editorial credit: Randy Miramontez / Shutterstock.com

Harlem has been a center of rap and hip-hop culture going back to the genre’s very beginnings. Some of the earliest hip-hop stars called Harlem home, including Kurtis Blow, who helped bring mainstream attention to the budding genre.

While the Bronx is widely accepted as the true birthplace of hip-hop, DJs and MCs from just across the Harlem River contributed much to pushing the sound towards what we hear today. The group that produced the hit single “Rapper’s Delight” from 1979, was actually from New Jersey, but named themselves after the sub-neighborhood of Harlem known as Sugar Hill.

Many household names grew up or were born in Harlem, including Q-Tip, Juelz Sanatana, Cam’ron, and A$AP Rocky. Rap and hip-hop remain a soundtrack to the neighborhood, and I frequently witness the filming of music videos throughout Harlem.

18. Harlem YMCA

The Harlem YMCA, established in 1901, has been called the "living room of the Harlem Renaissance."
Editorial credit: Daniel M. Silva / Shutterstock.com

The Harlem YMCA has been around since the Harlem Renaissance, and was a refuge for many Black writers and artists that came to the city without a place to stay.

It became a place for the playwrights and actors of Harlem to showcase their work, often with a goal of portraying Black characters in ways that were less offensive than what was shown down on Broadway during the early 20th century.

Langston Hughes, the famed poet and writer, called the YMCA home. The actor, musician, activist, and athlete named Paul Robeson acted at the “Y” in some of his earlier plays.

The skyline in Harlem hangs low relative to the skyscrapers of Midtown and Downtown Manhattan, leaving the tower of the YMCA building to stand proudly and prominently in the neighborhood.

19. Hamilton Grange

facade of House Hamilton

Harlem is famous for preserving the Hamilton Grange Memorial. Not only is it surprising to stumble upon the home of one of the USA’s founding fathers, but not many know that the house has been picked up and moved multiple times!

Alexander Hamilton was the first Treasury Secretary, fought in the Revolutionary War, and helped develop the legal system in the United States, and had a sizable impact on the development of the country.

Hamilton wanted an estate built just north of New York City, and had the house built in what was then a wooded countryside (now we’d call it 143rd Street) with sweeping views of the surrounding area.

As the city grew north and swallowed up the Hamilton Grange, it was forced to move. Twice. The current resting place of the Hamilton Grange is at the edge of Harlem’s beautiful St. Nicholas Park. It’s yet another reminder that the history of Harlem is deep, layered, and that it has always been an important part of American history.

20. Harlem Walk of Fame 

The Dizzy Gillespie star in Harlem

Harlem is known for its many famous residents, whether they were born in Harlem or transplants. Lining both sides of 135th street in Central Harlem, a series of stars are scattered on the sidewalk, showcasing Harlem and New York’s most impactful residents.

There is a wide range of stars, from musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald, to politicians like David Dinkins (New York’s first Black mayor), to activists like Malcolm X.

21. Rucker Park

A view of the scoreboard at Greg Marius Basketball Court in Holcombe Rucker Park in Harlem
Editorial credit: Here Now / Shutterstock.com

Harlem is known for being home to a basketball mecca. Located right near the Harlem River at the northwest corner of Manhattan at 155th Street, Rucker park became known as one of the best places to either play or watch amateur basketball in the world.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, professional basketball players, including Hall of Famers such as Kareem Abdul Jabar and Julius Erving, mixed with streetballers in pickup games. It was also one of the locations that helped popularize the streetball brand “And1,” which featured the park in a number of early highlight mixtapes. 

The park recently received a makeover, after it fell into relative disrepair through the 2000s and 2010s. Today, Rucker Park remains one of the nicer places to play basketball in New York, even if it doesn’t draw the massive crowds that it once did in its heyday.

22. Harriet Tubman Memorial

the Harriet Tubman statue in a busy intersection

Smack dab in the middle of a busy intersection in Central Harlem sits the Harriet Tubman memorial statue. Harlem is known for its iconic statues, from Duke Ellington to Frederick Douglas, but few are as powerful as the Harriet Tubman memorial.

The statue is symbolic and detailed. Look closely and you’ll see that there are roots extending from her dress, meant to symbolize her pulling out the roots of slavery. There are also tiles at the base of the statue that display moments in Tubman’s life.

23. City College

beautiful building in City College

Harlem is known for being the home of City College, one of the oldest institutions of higher learning in New York. It was founded in 1847, and was focused on providing immigrants and economically disadvantaged students access to higher education. The college was, in fact, tuition-free until the 1970s.

The campus you see today was constructed in the early 1900s when the school moved to Harlem from Lower Manhattan. The campus sits atop the hill of St. Nicholas Park, overlooking Harlem to the East. It is a gorgeous campus, famous for its neo-gothic architecture and carefully designed archways.

Taking a stroll through City College is not only a great way to feel some reprieve from the intensity of the rest of New York, but it offers excellent views and plenty to look at for fans of spectacular architecture.

24. Patsy’s Pizzeria

A Pizza Taken from an Oven

Before Harlem became a predominately African American neighborhood, it was actually a Jewish and Italian neighborhood. One of the remaining Italian influences on the neighborhood is the original Patsy’s Pizzeria.

The original Patsy’s is known for its coal oven and its cozy atmosphere inside, which appears little changed since it opened in 1933. There is also a slice counter attached to the sit-down restaurant, so busy New Yorkers can still get a taste of the Sicilian-style pizza on the go.

Patsy’s is often listed near the top of the endless amount of “NY’s best pizza restaurant” lists, and I can personally attest that few places in New York can compete with that classic Patsy’s crust!

Wrapping up

Welcome to Harlem sign

Harlem, as just one neighborhood in New York, has more influence, things to do, and history than most entire cities. It became a hub of culture in the 1920s, and it has remained that way ever since. Come for the jazz or the hip-hop music, stay for the food, and soak up some history along the way. 

It’s a place that is near and dear to my heart, where I call home, and I believe that anybody that comes to New York without paying a visit to Harlem is missing out on a special opportunity. Most people have heard of Harlem, but relative to the rest of the city, few have been. So, what are you waiting for?

1 thought on “24 Things Harlem is Known and Famous For”

  1. Great tool to highlight some important but overlooked landmarks. Can’t wait to try the food! It will be fun to locate all these spots on a map and plot out a tour next time we are there.


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