In Harlem you'll experience New York's cultural diversity and discover the roots of a community in a neighbourhood far from the skyscrapers. If you complete your visit with a gospel service, you'll stop being a tourist for a while and become a local. There are different options for both visiting the neighbourhood and attending a gospel service, depending on your availability. Here's my favourite:
Walk through Harlem like a local
Perfect if you want to enjoy a stroll through the Harlem neighbourhood and also enjoy an authentic gospel mass. The tour is only available on Sundays.
The best way to immerse yourself in Harlem culture is to take a tour of the neighbourhood and attend a live gospel service at a local Harlem church. For that, I recommend this Harlem Sunday Gospel Mass tour, which will take you into the heart of an authentic gospel congregation to experience the culture first hand.
On this Harlem Sunday Gospel Mass tour you'll visit Harlem landmarks such as the Apollo Theater, the Morris-Jumel Mansion, the oldest house in Manhattan, Sylvan Terrace, a quirky street of identical houses, and the Cotton Club, a nightclub that has hosted historic concerts. Afterwards, you'll visit a local church and experience the gospel live. And if the day doesn't suit you, you can opt for the Wednesday gospel mass tour of Harlem.
Why I like this tour: Taking a guided tour of the area will help you understand the customs of the locals and enjoy the experience much more.
Recommended if... you want to spend a different day during your trip to New York immersing yourself in the local culture like a local.
This is what gospel masses are like in Harlem
Visiting a local church and experiencing a live gospel service in Harlem is an experience that, despite its popularity, still retains a certain halo of alternative activity off the beaten tourist track in New York.
There are hundreds of churches offering gospel services in New York City and therefore tours do not take visitors to a fixed church, in order to preserve the community and local character of the congregations and to ensure a genuine experience. You may visit a church in Harlem or even the Bronx, but they will always be churches where an authentic mass is offered and not a commercial show. The mass consists of a combination of singing and preaching (the sermon delivered with the energy of a gospel mass).
Here is an article on the best churches to go to a gospel mass in Harlem to help you if you want to experience it.
Sunday Gospel Mass Tour
The Sunday gospel mass tour is very interesting because it allows you to walk through the Harlem neighbourhood with a specialized guide on the busiest day of the week. You'll also attend an original gospel mass that will make you feel like a real Harlem citizen, and if you want your experience to be as complete as possible, you'll be able to enjoy brunch at an African-American restaurant.
A tour in which you will learn all about the history of the Harlem neighbourhood and you will walk along the most emblematic buildings such as the Apollo Theatre, the favourite stage for Harlem artists; the Morris-Jumel Mansion, the oldest house in Manhattan, totally different from the current buildings; the Cotton Club, one of the most famous restaurants and nightclubs in the world, or Sylvan Terrace, the 19th-century street that still has its wooden houses, something striking in the centre of Manhattan.
An ideal way to learn all about what happened during the 70s and 80s, when Harlem was the cultural and political capital of black New York.
Wednesday Gospel Mass Tour
The Wednesday gospel mass tour is the same experience as the Sunday gospel mass tour. For about 4 hours you will get to know the Harlem neighbourhood in depth by walking through the streets on a Wednesday morning to get to know the neighbourhood in its daily rhythm.
You'll learn about the history of this culturally rich neighbourhood from an expert guide, get to know its most emblematic landmarks and experience the unforgettable experience of attending a gospel mass. You can also choose to add lunch to your tour and sample traditional African-American soul food at a restaurant.
Tips for attending a gospel mass in Harlem
1. Take care of your attire
Remember that there is a dress code for attending a gospel service in New York: avoid shorts and tank tops. After all, you are visiting a gathering place of a spiritual congregation. Because of this, you probably won't be able to take photos and you will be asked to make a donation during the service.
2. Be aware of the duration
A gospel mass in New York usually lasts around two hours, but the programme is not set and the duration always depends on the participation of the congregation. In any case, the tour only takes you to the gospel mass for one hour.
3. Be on time
Be aware that if you do not go to the service as part of a tour, you will have to wait in line to get in, which may result in you not getting to see the service. So if you decide to go on your own, make sure you get to the church in advance. This post on gospel mass times will help you.
4. Avoid inauthentic "commercial" masses
Also, something that has become a growing problem in recent years is that there are congregations that put on shows recreating gospel masses for tourists, but there is nothing authentic about them. The tours I recommend will take you to see genuine gospel masses in either Harlem or the Bronx, but if you decide to visit Harlem on your own, beware of falling into a tourist trap.
5. Respect the space allotted to the congregation
You will enter the church moments before it begins and will usually be seated in an upper box from which to observe the proceedings. The main congregation usually sits on the ground floor, but you may also have parishioners sitting next to you in the box.
6. Prepare a donation
You will be asked to make a donation during the service. Although it is optional, I recommend you prepare about US$10 (about €9) for when the time comes.
Harlem beyond the gospel service
In the 1960s, underground clubs and street violence made Harlem a place to avoid. In recent years, however, Harlem has undergone a second renaissance to become a very attractive place for visitors to New York.
In West Harlem there are several places frequented mainly by locals. One of them is Riverside Park, where you'll find the General Grant Memorial and beautiful views of the Hudson River. If you don't want to stray too far, you can take a stroll through Marcus Garvey Park which, while not too special, can give you a break from walking on asphalt. East Harlem, also known as 'El Barrio', is an area that most New Yorkers will tell you to avoid as it's a bit of a trouble spot.
In any case, if you don't want to miss anything, I recommend this post on what to see and do in Harlem.
Taking a guided tour is the best way to discover and understand Harlem, the lifestyle of its residents and the history of the district.
What you'll see on a gospel tour of Harlem
On the Harlem gospel tour, you'll get a complete tour of authentic Harlem and soak up its history. Harlem tours usually last around 4 hours. This includes the tour of the neighbourhood's most significant landmarks and the gospel mass. Most Harlem tours depart from the Times Square area. Here's what you'll see during most of these guided tours:
1. Apollo Theater
The Apollo Theater was the birthplace of jazz, R&B, gospel and soul since 1934 when it began hosting musical contests and spawning a community of artists around it. African-American music icons such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, James Brown and Lauryn Hill gave their first concerts from the Apollo stage.
2. Morris Jumel Mansion
The Morris Jumel Mansion is the oldest house in Manhattan and today houses a museum that depicts the lifestyle of late 18th century New York. There are also a number of legends and ghost stories about the place.
3. Sylvan Terrace
Sylvan Terrace is a charming little street located very close to the Morris-Jumell Mansion, with two rows of identical houses and a cobblestone pavement.
4. Cotton Club
The Cotton Club was one of New York's premier nightlife venues during the 1920s and 1930s, and still hosts jazz shows and concerts today.
5. Strivers' Row
A residential neighbourhood filled with distinctive brown cement houses that throughout the 20th century was home to famous African Americans. Today it is visited for its unique architectural style.
6. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
A research centre where you can discover the history of the various elements that make up African-American culture. You can visit its library and attend lectures and exhibitions on slavery, hip-hop, or jazz.
7. Sugar Hill
An elegant neighbourhood where writers, artists, politicians and prominent personalities used to live, where you can round off your Harlem tour with a pleasant stroll.
Where to eat in Harlem after the gospel mass tour
Harlem's soul food is made up of dishes such as the famous fried chicken on a waffle, macaroni and cheese, peach cobbler and fried fish, among others. It's a type of food that originated in the American South during the days of slavery, and has evolved into an indispensable element of Harlem's African-American culture.
Since Harlem's cuisine is such an important part of the neighbourhood, here's an article on where to eat in Harlem that you might find interesting.
Tours similar to the Harlem Gospel Mass Tour
Harlem is not the only New York City neighbourhood to visit on your trip. Brooklyn, with its brick flat streets lined with trees on either side, is one of the neighbourhoods that adds the most identity to New York City. Manhattan, the Bronx or Queens are the other boroughs that also have a lot to discover, and the contrasts tour is a guided tour of the best of each. I'll tell you all about it here: New York Contrasts Tour.
If you like the idea of going off the beaten tourist track, I also recommend the Upper and Lower Manhattan tour, as, although it focuses on the borough of Manhattan, it shows you the most interesting places off the beaten track. You can read my experience with this tour here: Upper and Lower Manhattan Tour.