Did you know there’s a town in Florida that has the highest percentage of Greek Americans anywhere in the country? Yep, more than one in ten people in Tarpon Springs, Florida claim to have Greek descent…I would say that qualifies Tarpon Springs as Florida’s “Little Greece.”
This cute little town is the perfect day trip if you’re in the Tampa area and want something different than the usual Florida beach scene.
What Tarpon Springs is Famous For
The Greek Community: Well you already know this. There are a LOT of Greek people in Tarpon Springs. Greek sponge divers began to settle in Tarpon Springs in the early 1900s and over 100 years later the town is home to some of the best Greek restaurants and bakeries in the country.
The Sponge Capital of the World: Once upon a time, Tarpon Springs was known as the “sponge capital of the world.” Soon after sponging was discovered in the area, experienced sponge divers started to come from Greece. They had specialized suits and helmets that allowed them to harvest soooo much that soon the industry was booming (not to mention the high number of divers that started to follow after the initial ones found success).
For over 30 years the sponge industry was Florida’s biggest industry-even bigger than tourism and citrus! But blight (a disease that leaves sponges brittle and unharvestable) hit the area in the 1940s and all but put the industry under.
But the Greek community that had developed around the sponge docks remained and has weathered a few rounds of sponge resurgence and more blight.
Today, the sponge industry in Tarpon Springs survives (although it’s not in its heyday), but the Greek restaurant scene around the historic sponge docks is what’s thriving.
Tarpon Springs Must Dos
Hellas Restaurant and Bakery: Many people come to Tarpon Springs to sample the authentic Greek cuisine and if you’re only going to eat at one spot, make it Hellas. This is the mainstay of Tarpon Springs and it manages to expertly handle the high volume of being such a popular tourist spot while still feeling like a family restaurant.
This place is everything you probably think a Greek restaurant should be if you’ve ever seen “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” Fountains and statues of Greek gods everywhere, grape vines hanging from a ceiling painted to look like the sky, lights and “fancy” decor, the whole family working there, and a lot of people shouting “OOMPA.” I’m not even kidding. Expect a line if you go at peak times.
We had an order of hummus, lamb kabobs, and shrimp ala Hellas. Everything was divine. And our waiter was VERY good about explaining things and making suggestions so even if you don’t know anything about Greek food, they’ll make sure you have a great experience. There’s a separate bakery next door and you can order dessert from the table, but it’s a LOT of food and I would suggest doubling back to the bakery after you’ve walked off your meal a bit.
Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks: The sponge docks are what built Tarpon Springs and this is the area you want to visit. Lining Dodecanese Blvd (west of highway 19) this is also where all the Greek restaurants and sponge shops are. It’s basically the center of tourism in Tarpon Springs and 100% where you want to go. Parking is all over the place. There are a TON of lots you can pay $5 to park in, but I drove all the way to the end of the road, circled around and was able to find a spot on the edge of a neighborhood.
Shopping for Sponges: You can’t go to Tarpon Springs without buying a sponge! Natural sponges have antibacterial properties (they don’t get moldy like synthetic sponges) and they’re hypoallergenic. They last for YEARS so if you’re trying to cut back on plastic usage (bye bye loofah), they’re a great option, and they have different kinds/grades for different uses.
There are dozens of shops along the sponge docks where you can buy sponges, but my favorite was Lori’s Soap and Sponge. Besides sponges, this place has a full line of olive oil based soaps and moisturizers.
Other Things to Do in Tarpon Springs
Having lunch or dinner and strolling around the sponge docks won’t take all day, so if you’d like to make a full day out of your trip to Tarpon Springs, here are a few things you could do as well:
Fred Howard Park: This is a popular local hangout and one of the best beaches in the area.
Take a Cruise: Hop on a boat right at the sponge docks and take a 2 hour tour down the Anclote River to the Gulf of Mexico where you’ll spot dolphins, sea turtles, manatees, and even stop on a hidden island for some shelling. Find more info here.
Anclote Key Preserve State Park: If you like to get off the grid, you’ll love these undeveloped islands three miles off the coast of Tarpon Springs. They can only be reached by private boat or ferry. Find a list of ferry providers here (some even leave from the sponge docks). Note: there are no concessions or provisions on the islands so pack everything in.
Check closer to event times for details…
Opa! Palooza: A huge Greek festival usually held in the beginning of June.
Sponge Docks Seafood Festival: Seafood and live music usually held mid November.