There aren't many Manhattan neighborhoods that remind me of what NYC was like when I was growing up here in the '70s and '80s, but East Harlem is one of them. Unlike adjacent Harlem, gentrification hasn't yet taken hold, so while there are glass condos here and there, the buildings are mostly a mix of public housing developments, tenements and brownstones. Also known as Spanish Harlem or El Barrio due to its longtime Hispanic population, East Harlem is actually quite diverse these days. Over by Pleasant Avenue, you'll find the remnants of Italian Harlem, and recently there's been an influx of Asian families as well as artists of all backgrounds.
What East Harlem lacks in amenities, it makes up for in vibrancy and old-school style. People still sit and talk and even barbecue on their stoops, or host parties in the many community gardens, plus colorful (and often political) street art abounds. Travel to its southwestern edge and you'll find a lovely, lesser-known corner of Central Park and two world-class museums: El Museo del Barrio and the Museum of the City of New York.
Throughout February, we'll be writing about the best places for families to see, eat, play and experience in East Harlem. For the purposes of our posts, our geographical boundaries are 96th Street to the Harlem River Drive between Fifth Avenue and the East River. We kick off our coverage with the top 25 things to do in East Harlem with kids.
- Celebrate Epiphany, a.k.a. the "12th day of Christmas," at El Museo del Barrio's annual Three Kings Day Parade held every January.
- Learn more about Hispanic arts and culture at El Museo's FREE family fest, Super Sábado!, which takes place the third Saturday of every month.
- Feed your sweet tooth at Coco Le Vu, a charming old-fashioned candy shop owned and operated by a pair of local sisters.
- Romp in the playgrounds, the Olympic-size outdoor pool, the ball fields and the rec center at the 15½-acre Thomas Jefferson Park.
- Introduce your kids to old-school pastimes like hippity hop and pogo sticks at Thomas Jefferson Park's annual Street Games fest held every spring.
- Run around the playgrounds and ball fields in Marcus Garvey Park, which straddles Harlem and East Harlem.
- Bike along the waterfront at the still in-progress Harlem River Park.
- Enjoy free-with-admission hands-on kids' activities on weekends at the Museum of the City of New York.
- Explore the northeast corner of Central Park, which includes the preschooler-friendly Bernard Family Playground and the larger Robert Bendheim Playground, plus the stunning Conservatory Garden.
- Check out an ever-changing canvas of vibrant street art at the Graffiti Hall of Fame in the Jackie Robinson Educational Complex schoolyard.
- Snap a pic of of Keith Haring's iconic anti-drug Crack is Wack mural in the playground of the same name (yes, it's really called the Crack is Wack playground!).
- Still want more street art? Go on a DIY tour of East Harlem murals, many of which celebrate the area's El Barrio history.
- Pick up ethnic eats at the historic but recently overhauled La Marqueta, right under the Metro-North line.
- Hit the Urban Garden Center to pick up a plant or enjoy a seasonal family festival.
- Skip the big box chain stores in East River Plaza and hit Third Avenue to browse discount shops like Save-A-Thon and Goodwill—the avenue is a bargain hunter's paradise.
- Pop into the independent La Casa Azul Bookstore to pick up tomes in English and Spanish, or see what's going on in its picturesque backyard.
- Relax in one of East Harlem's many community gardens; my two favorites are the 103rd Street Community Garden, which has a cute playground, and Maggie's Magic Garden, which hosts an annual Easter egg hunt.
- Unfortunately, this location closed in early 2016. Snag delicious .99-cent pancakes every Friday at the locally owned East Harlem Cafe.
- Share a pie at Old New York pizzeria Patsy's Pizza, where Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin used to go back in the day.
- Try the signature treat at Lloyd's Carrot Cake, made from all-natural ingredients including huge carrots.
- Stroll or bike across the recently opened 103rd Street Footbridge to access all the fun Randall's Island has to offer.
- Indulge in authentic French pastry in Spanish Harlem at the lauded La Tropezienne Bakery.
- Join the Giglio Society of East Harlem for the Dance of the Giglio Festival held the second Sunday of August.
- Although the future of the Julia de Burgos Cultural Center is currently up in the air, here's hoping this longtime institution will start hosting family programming again soon; in the meantime, you can check out the Taller Boricua art gallery, which is housed in the building.
- Learn about African history, culture and art at the Africa Center when it (hopefully) opens in 2015 (its debut has been long-delayed).
Read all of our posts about exploring East Harlem with kids.