When visitors think of Tarpon Springs, one word quickly comes to mind: Greek. The famous sponge docks are lined with Greek restaurants serving moussaka, souvlaki and flaming saganaki. (Opa!) Percentage-wise, there are more Greek Americans here than in any other U.S. city. Some schools even teach Greek.
But while Tarpon Springs embraces its rich Greek heritage, this charming little city in northern Pinellas County has much more to offer: museums, a lovely park, a revitalized downtown where you can dine on Creole cuisine, enjoy a craft beer and play pinball for hours. You can even throw an ax.
“It really has two different flavors,” says Diane Wood, director of the city’s Cultural & Civic Services Department. “There’s the sponge docks, and then downtown Tarpon has become very vibrant and eclectic.” That makes Tarpon Springs a fine spot for a day out.
You might start your visit at Spring Bayou, where thousands gather every Jan. 6 for a highlight of the city’s annual Epiphany celebration. Young men ages 16 to 18 dive into the water to try to retrieve a cross; the winner is said to be lucky and blessed for the entire year. Nearby is the city’s Heritage Museum, whose well-designed exhibits include one on the Golden Crescent — so called because of the bayou’s shape and the wealth once concentrated along its shores. Rich Northerners made Tarpon Springs a popular winter resort in the 1800s and built many of the striking Victorian homes that still encircle the bayou.
Behind the museum is Craig Park, whose stately oaks provide shade for a picnic. Or head downtown, a once sleepy area that now boasts an impressive array of shops, eateries and fun things to do. Try a smash burger or fried calamari at Tarpon Tavern, a 1920s building with outdoor seating. Like many other restaurants it is close to the Pinellas Trail, making it a convenient stopping point for cyclists.
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The Bistro offers Mediterranean and American food, while H’ours Creole Smokehouse serves up New Orleans fare like shrimp and crawfish etouffee. You can also go Italian at JoJo’s, Caribbean at Shaka or have a meal designed to your specific tastes at Quirky Fork. For dessert, stop by the Orange Cycle Creamery and get a cone with one of 24 flavors of locally made, small-batch ice cream.
Want to browse? There are antiques stores, clothing stores, a home furnishings store and cute shops in which to buy chocolates or a gift for baby. St. Nicholas Cathedral Bookstore has a large selection of religious books, CDs and icons. A must-stop for gamers is Replay Amusement Museum, which has what it says is the world’s largest pinball machine. For $14 ($8 for kids), you get a wristband that entitles you to drop in as often as you want during the day and play any of 120 arcade and electronic games, including such classics as Donkey Kong and Mortal Kombat. The museum is next to Bear Haven Land Company, which buys and sells vintage toys and teddy bears.
A short walk away is Stumpy’s Hatchet House, part of a growing national chain. Staff will set up food and drinks while “throwing coaches” teach you how to hurl an ax at a target. (As a safety precaution sandals and open-toe shoes are not allowed.)
Of course no visit to Tarpon Springs is complete without spending time at the historic sponge docks. Locally, the industry began in the 1800s when sponges were harvested near shore. Business took off in 1905 when divers and crews were recruited from Greece to bring up sponges farther out in the Gulf of Mexico. Other Greek immigrants built the sponge boats and made the metal helmets that divers wore as they went as deep as 60 feet. Though well past its heyday, when sponges were one of Florida’s leading maritime industries, Tarpon Springs still has a small active industry.
Along with the plethora of Greek restaurants, the sponge docks are home to tourists boats offering day trips of various duration. Take home a souvenir from one of the many gift shops, including Lori’s Soap & Sponge Market. Among its popular items: soaps made with goat milk and embedded with a sponge for exfoliation.
After you leave the boisterous atmosphere of the docks, step back in time at Safford House Museum. Built in 1883, the two-story house with broad porches was the home of Anson P.K. Safford, one of Tarpon Springs’ founders. A video and docent-led tours give the history of the house, filled with period original furnishings and appropriate reproductions.
Make a final stop at the tranquil shrine to St. Michael, the healing saint. Mary Tsalichis built it in 1941 to honor St. Michael for purportedly curing her young son of a brain tumor, and many others are said to have been healed there ever since. There is no cost to enter; the only price is for a candle to light with a prayer. Before heading home, sit a spell on a bench shaded by a flowering tree.