With the hype surrounding the theatrical release of In the Heights, people are giving some much overdue love to the neighborhoods of Upper Manhattan. Harlem, Washington Heights, Morningside Heights, and Inwood are vibrant communities with great food, unique architecture, awe-inspiring landscapes, and surprising historical significance. It’s almost overwhelming what these places have to offer. But take a deep breath: I’m here to help. If you’re not sure where to start your uptown explorations, these interesting and underrated places in upper Manhattan are a good place to begin.
Graffiti Hall of Fame
106 & Park is not just the name of the beloved hip hop music video countdown show from the aughts; it’s also where the greatest graffiti artists show off their work. Since 1980 graffiti artists that are “Strictly Kings or Better” have been making their mark on the schoolyard walls of what is now the Jackie Robinson Educational Complex. Despite what you may think about graffiti, the work on display here isn’t spray-painted scribbles. This Hall of Fame is full of colorful and sophisticated pieces. Budget some time to really look at them. Speaking of time, you may want to plan ahead before visiting the Graffiti Hall of Fame. While the wall facing Park Avenue can be seen by anyone at any time, the art on the inside of the schoolyard is only available for public viewing on weekends. If you visit during the week, you’ll have to settle for peeking at the remaining art through a wire fence.
Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market
Run by the Malcolm Shabazz Mosque (which itself is a lot to take in visually and historically), the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market has African clothing, art, jewelry, and body products all under one canopy. If you visit, be sure to bring cash or have Cash App or Venmo installed on your phone, and be prepared to haggle a little. If you’re on a strict budget, it’s in your best interest to skip this place entirely. Even if you think you’re just going to browse, you’re going to end up leaving with something. Trust me.
General Grant National Memorial (aka Grant’s Tomb)
How fitting though unfair is it that this underrated president has ended up with an underrated monument? It sucks for Grant, but we’re the ones who are truly missing out because Grant’s Tomb is a stunning work of architecture. If you’re into the neoclassical style of the buildings in Washington, D.C., then you’ll love every detail of this mausoleum. Just as fascinating as the visuals at Grant’s Tomb is Grant’s life story. There’s a snippet of it in a previous post here, but if you chat up the National Park Rangers at the site, they’ll be more than happy to tell you all about him.
If you like stately houses, you’ll like the Morris-Jumel Mansion. But if you’re into juicy, scandalous history, you’ll feel right at home. From revolutionary war stories to ghost stories to failed plots to get to the top of New York society, the tales this house has to tell will keep you entertained for hours. After your tour of the house, relax in the romantic garden area or walk across the street to Sylvan Terrace, a street of nearly identical rowhouses that will transport you to 1880s New York.
The High Bridge
What a coincidence that Manhattan’s oldest house and its oldest remaining bridge are within the same neighborhood. The High Bridge opened in 1848 as a crucial part of the Croton Aqueduct system delivering pristine Westchester water to the parched, dirty city. By the 1860s the High Bridge became a popular spot for people to stroll between Manhattan and the Bronx, while taking in views 140 feet above the Harlem River. After decades of neglect and disrepair, the High Bridge is seeing a resurgence in popularity. But don’t worry: it’s nowhere near as crowded as the Brooklyn Bridge.
The Little Red Lighthouse
This hundred-year-old lighthouse is a strong contender for the most heartwarming spot in Upper Manhattan. Originally serving Sandy Hook, New Jersey, in 1921 the lighthouse was relocated to Jeffrey’s Hook, a particularly treacherous part of the Hudson River for ships to cross. But with the construction of the George Washington Bridge, by 1931 the lighthouse lost its purpose, as the lights from the massive bridge also illuminated the river. The lighthouse was decommissioned and slated to be dismantled, but its story caught the attention of Hildegarde H. Swift, who made it the subject of a children’s book in 1942. “The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge” was a hit with kids, who sent letters to officials, pleading with them to keep the lighthouse. I guess no one wanted to be the bureaucrat who broke the hearts of thousands of children, so the lighthouse was allowed to stay and was even landmarked. Embrace your inner child by paying a visit to the lighthouse in Fort Washington Park.
You don’t have to be a monk to appreciate the Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that houses its collection of medieval art. Here you’ll find pieces like stained glass windows, tomb effigies of saints, and the famous Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries. The art is not only within the building; the building, constructed from remnants of actual medieval cloisters and other holy sites in Europe, is itself a masterpiece. While you’re in the area, take some time to explore Fort Tryon Park with its Rockefeller-worthy views of the Hudson River and New Jersey Palisades.
Inwood Hill Park
Maybe I’m biased because I recently moved to the area, but Inwood Hill Park is a shiny emerald in the crown that is Manhattan’s parks. Now, don’t go to Inwood Hill Park expecting the manicured lawns and gardens of Central Park. Inwood Hill Park is wild. Really. It’s home to Manhattan’s last few acres of untouched forests and its only remaining salt marsh. Not to mention, it has caves once used by the Lenape, remnants of long-gone mansions and revolutionary war forts, and jaw-dropping views of the Hudson River. Grab a friend and your hiking boots and let me know if you catch a glimpse of the park’s resident seal.
So there you have it: nine sites that put an end to the great guidebook myth that the rest of Manhattan disappears into the (poor, dark, loud) ether north of 96th Street. What other underrated places in Upper Manhattan would you add to this list?
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