Take the Kids: Biking through Harlem

Last year, Rainer Jenss traveled around the world with his wife and two sons, and blogged about his experience here on Intelligent Travel. This year, he’s back with a new column that focuses on traveling with kids.

Photo: Biking in Harlem, outside the Apollo TheaterAsk a typical New Yorker (if there is such a thing) when they last went to the top of the Empire State Building, visited Ellis Island, or been on the Circle Line. If they did any of these things, it was most likely to entertain out-of-towners.

So this past weekend, when a friend from Los Angeles asked me if I was interested in joining her on a bike tour of Central Park and Harlem, I figured this might be a nice opportunity to do some bonding with my 13-year-old son. I happily agreed to try an activity usually designated only for tourists. With enthusiastic approval from Tyler, I was able to secure the last two spots on Bike the Big Apple’s Sensational Park and Soul Tour, which covers a leisurely 12 miles in just over five hours.

We all met up at their location on 68th Street & 3rd Avenue and were paired up with vacationers from Holland, maxing out our group size at twelve, which included our guide Jesse, and his assistant Wendy, who together made sure that no one got lost or was hit by a car.

Photo of Bike Tour in New York CityI must admit that I did a double take when I recently saw New York rank among National Geographic Traveler’s Great Bike-Friendly Cities.

After all, this is the city where people sometimes question the necessity for lane markers. So I asked Jesse if these tours were popular with families and what their minimum age requirement was. Even though there were no other parents or children on the tour with us, he assured me they get a fair share of families and that they usually accept kids 10 and over, and will consider 8 or 9 year-olds as long as they are comfortable handling a bicycle. Most Europeans, he noted, are particularly experienced on two-wheelers, so it’s usually not an issue for them. After only a short time on the road, I became much more relaxed about the traffic and potential hazards when I noticed Tyler easily holding his own.

We covered most of the Central Park loop during the ride, stopping several times to admire the Great Lawn, Strawberry Fields, and the Lasker Rink and Pool located at the northernmost part of the park. This held particular interest to our new friends from Holland, since this large public pool was situated right next to the Harlem Meer, an 11-acre lake, which Jesse explained was constructed by the original Dutch settlers. During our ride, we also peddled by extravagant brownstones and famous landmarks in Harlem, such as the Apollo Theatre, City College, and the fascinating Strivers’ Row.

I had never heard of this tiny three-block enclave of beautiful townhouses between 137th and 139th Streets that was protected by a vigilant group of residents while most of Harlem fell into despair after the 1940s. I also had no idea that Alexander Hamilton lived in Harlem and that his house is being renovated into a museum in, of all places, Hamilton Heights.

But the highlight for Tyler, and perhaps for most in our group, came when we got off our bikes and sat in on a live Sunday gospel service at one of Harlem’s 400 churches.

Complete with traditional Baptist singing and rousing choruses of “Amen,” we got a taste of New York City history and culture so many New Yorkers don’t take the opportunity to see. So maybe being a tourist in your own hometown every once in a while, especially with the kids, isn’t such a bad idea. On our drive back home, Tyler and I already were kicking around ideas for the next outing.

Do you have a favorite bike tour for kids? Let us know in the comments or tweet Rainer at @JenssTravel.

Photos: Rainer Jenss


  1. summer camp
    June 3, 2010, 11:56 pm

    This looks very enjoyable.

  2. Jesse
    May 19, 2010, 6:43 pm

    A clarification from Jesse, the tour guide:
    Harlem Meer was not constructed by the original Dutch settlers.
    The Dutch were the first Europeans to settle Harlem (1640s) and they named it after Haarlem in Holland.
    However, the Harlem Meer was built in the late 1800s during the construction of Central Park. It was named Harlem Meer (as opposed to Harlem Lake or Pond), in part, to honor the first Dutch settlers, but mostly just because ‘meer’ sounded fancy and classy. Appropriating anything European or ‘worldly’ during this time was in vogue. In addition, all things Dutch became especially fashionable since the Dutch were the first Europeans here. With the massive wave of immigrants coming to the city, the established New Yorkers struggled to create a true New York identity. As a result, ‘true’ New Yorkers began to cling to anything that was Dutch in an effort to embrace their ‘New York roots.’
    To learn more, come ride with us! http://www.bikethebigapple.com