All photos courtesy of VisitStPeteClearwater.com
Tarpon Springs became a fully-fledged city way back in 1887, with a population of 52 residents and a reputation as a winter retreat for wealthy northern socialites. It wasn’t long before some enterprising individual discovered massive numbers of natural sponges in the Gulf’s warm waters, and, by 1890, Tarpon Springs had a burgeoning new industry.
More than 500 specialised divers were brought to the city from their home country of Greece, and, by 1905, there were over 50 boats harvesting sponges. Several restaurants sprang up with an eye toward serving familiar Greek foods to the dock workers, and a new tourism focus, built on visitors interested in watching each day’s harvest come in, began to outweigh the desire to serve rich folks seeking refuge from colder climates.
That focus holds true today, and you’ll find this charming little community located 1 hour and 45 minutes east of Walt Disney World. It’s worth the drive for a day away from the hustle bustle, for the deep blue sea, picturesque fishing boats and fantastic Greek restaurants that are easy on the eye as well as the budget.
To reach the coastal mini-metropolis, take I-4 west to FL-60 West in Tampa, then take Exit 2A from FL-60 West across the pretty waters of Old Tampa Bay to Highway 19 north, with a jog east on Martin Luther King Jr Drive until you reach Pinellas Ave. Pinellas Ave will take you straight into the main drag of Tarpon Springs.
It is possible to find free parking around town, so take a little drive when you arrive and get an overview of the place before you shell out for a parking spot. Can’t find one? Don’t worry. Most parking fees are reasonable, and you’re likely to find a spot for anywhere from $2 to $10 for the whole day.
Then, the first thing you should do is head straight for the sponge docks. If you plan your visit for a day when the weekly sponge auctions take place, it’s an experience you won’t want to miss.
The main strip of Dodecanese Boulevard is lined with shops featuring everything from the predictable sponges to award winning olive oils, and just browsing here is an adventure. Many of the shops are incredibly quirky, so an hour or more strolling the boulevard isn’t out of the question.
We don’t have to tell you to make Spongeorama Sponge Factory part of your touring, because there’s just no way you can pass up a building boasting that sort of funky name. In truth, it’s a small history museum and gift shop, plus a blissfully air conditioned movie theatre that provides an overview of the industry that makes the town famous. Make it one of your first stops, and don’t bother pulling out your wallet unless you want to buy a souvenir. The museum and movie are free.
Ready to get out on the water? Whether your interest is in taking an eco tour, a sight-seeing tour, a sunset tour, a dolphin cruise or a sponge diving exhibition, excursions catering to every taste head out into the Gulf of Mexico, and some make an island stop so you can do a bit of shelling, too.
We recommend taking a sponge diving exhibition tour, which gives you a real up-close look at how the industry works. A highlight of the tour comes when a diver on board your boat suits up in an authentic, old fashioned diving suit and helmet, plus heavy boots, and makes a short jaunt down to the sea bed to pull up a sea sponge. But don’t worry; these aren’t living animals you’re seeing, they’re the fibrous skeletons of small sea creatures.
When it’s time for lunch or dinner, you’re spoilt for choice. Among the most popular restaurants are Hellas, Mykonos and Mama’s Greek Cuisine. Each has its own personality, and you won’t go wrong with any of them. Visit Mykonos for its grape leaves and moussaka (plus succulent vegetarian options), or Mama’s for the Greek Combo Platter of pastitso, moussaka, dolmades, and gyro with tzatziki. But whatever you do, don’t leave town without stopping in at Hella’s fantastic bakery, and definitely make time for a traditional Greek coffee. Strong enough to strip paint off the walls, but totally addictive!
One menu item we think is the must-try speciality of any authentic Greek meal is charred, grilled octopus, and while we hear you screaming in revolt, we’re here to gently shush those screams and urge you to try it. Soft, buttery, and oh, so delicious, and it’s one of the specialities of the house at Mama’s. Still terrified? You’re ocean-side, which means you’ll find some superb but familiar seafood restaurants here, too.
Work off all that fantastic food with a stroll through Tarpon Springs’ historic district, where you’ll find Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, and while the term “cathedral” may conjure up an image such as the grand edifices of Paris’s Notre Dame or Canterbury in Kent, this particular venue is much more humble, but no less sincere. It is open for all-comers on Monday through Friday from 9am to 3pm, and worth a look for its Neo-Byzantine architecture, gorgeous altar area and vibrant ceiling frescos.
Designate your driver for the trip back to Orlando, then pop in at dive bar Neptune Lounge on South Safford Ave for a cocktail and a chat with the locals; go full-on historical with a craft brew at Silverking Brewing Company on East Lemon Street, housed in Tarpon Springs’ former jail and fire station; or hit up Two Frogs Brewing Company on East Tarpon Ave, with an atmosphere reminiscent of a wild west saloon, but cleaner and with a much friendlier crowd.
Tarpon Springs also hosts several festivals throughout the year, including Greek Independence Day (March 31), OPA! Palooza (mid-June), Tarpon Springs Hippie Fest (mid-August) and a handful of Christmas events in December. See the full events list on Spongedocks.net.
Set aside a day during your holiday to see why Florida cherishes its immigrant heritage, with a visit to this delightfully different Greek outpost. We think you’ll agree it’s worth the drive!
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