Tarpon Springs is a quiet, coastal town with azure blue water and sponge diving boats. The town has its own Sponge Dock and Hellas, Tarpon Springs and other bakeries sell baklavas and Greek pastries. The locals greet each other in Greek and the delicious smell of gyros wafts down the main street, Dodecanese Avenue. Various shops sell sponges, handmade soaps, Mediterranean flavored oils and vinegars. You might have to pinch yourself to remember that you are on Florida’s Gulf coast. Tarpon Springs has a large number of Greek American residents and a strong Greek influence and decidedly Mediterranean feel.
C & I discovered this gem while we were planning our Key West road trip to celebrate S’s first birthday. (Don’t get me wrong, Tarpon Springs is nowhere near Key West; rather it’s a good 8 hr drive and 450 miles away. Yeah that’s how we roll. On that note if you are going to Key West check out Coral Castle, Florida’s Stonehenge.) We love exploring unique sleepy, coastal towns. We also love discovering quirky takes on food. Tarpon Springs, Florida has plenty of both. When we saw all that Tarpon Springs has to offer, we just knew we had to visit!
Where is Tarpon Springs, Florida?
Tarpon Springs is located off Florida’s Gulf Coast. Located less than an hour away from Tampa and 2.5 hrs away from Orlando it makes a perfect day trip from both major cities. Visitors often spend an entire weekend in the area and find plenty of things to do in Tarpon Springs, Florida.
Why is Tarpon Springs worth a visit?
Tarpon Springs is famous for its Sponge Dock. Tarpon Springs is, in fact, the sponge capital of the world. It also has the largest percentage of Greek Americans among all US cities. Greek American residents mean yummy Greek cuisine. And quirky restaurants like Hellas. The town markets itself as ‘Visit Greece without leaving Florida’. And Tarpon Springs owes it all to the Sponge Dock. To understand more, we need to take a brief look at the history of Tarpon Springs, Florida.
History of Tarpon Springs
Tarpon Springs is named after Tarpon fish that frequented its waters. It has been home to fishermen and sponge industry since the 19th century. In early 20th century, the technique of sponge diving was introduced to Tarpon Springs to harvest sea sponges; the industry employed Greek sponge divers and boat crew since they were skilled at sponge diving in the Aegean Sea. As the sponge industry flourished, more and more Greek immigrants settled into the city; they brought along their unique culture, cuisine and heritage.
Today, sponge fishermen still dive for naturally occurring sponges and are the main attraction of the Sponge Docks. The city has undertaken massive beautification projects in Downtown area, around the Sponge Docks and Dodecanese Avenue where the wonderful Hellas restaurant is located. (We will get to Hellas, Tarpon Springs soon enough, I promise.) Tarpon Springs truly resembles a small touristy coastal town in Greece and visitors flock to the Sponge Docks on weekends.
What to do in Tarpon Springs, Florida
The town has enough beauty to charm all kinds of visitors and a myriad of tourist activities to keep them busy. Though most activities can be done in a day, many visitors prefer to stay in the many hotels located in Tarpon Springs’ area and experience the city at leisure. Here are the top things to do in Tarpon Springs, Florida.
1. Take a stroll along the Sponge Dock
Most visitors start their day in Tarpon Springs by walking along the Sponge Dock and it is most popular among things to do in Tarpon Springs. The walk along the waterfront is delightful and you can take in the sponge boats and crew working on the boats. There are also many public art projects, Greek restaurants and shops along the Dodecanese Avenue where the Sponge Docks are located.
2. Shop on Dodecanese Avenue
There are many quirky souvenir shops, natural soap shops, Mediterranean spice shops (these reminded me strongly of Jordan‘s spice souqs), candy shops and shops selling flavored oils and vinegars on Dodecanese Avenue. And off course, you need to buy some of the famous natural sponge which is available in all shapes and sizes. There are also many bakeries which sell delicious Greek pastries; Hellas bakery being the best of all.
3. Take a sponge diving boat tour
Sponge divers still dive for sponges and you can join them on a sponge diving boat tour and learn more about the sponge industry. The boat crew does an excellent job of explaining naturally occurring sponges, different types, their ecosystem and how they are harvested. They also talk about the Sponge Docks and their history. Other cruises offer opportunity to view dolphins, sharks and other wildlife.
4. Take a picture with some of the most beautiful, Instagram worthy bikes
The Tarpon Springs area has lot of public artwork. The many decorated bikes placed throughout the area are unique and a photographer’s delight.
5. Eat Greek cuisine at Hellas, Tarpon Springs
And finally, I can let you in on Tarpon Springs’ best attraction – Hellas Restaurant and bakery. The strong Greek influenced area has a plethora of restaurants serving Greek cuisine but I fell in love with Hellas. You need to visit Hellas for their innovative cocktails and delicious Greek pastries. Do you want to drink baklava martini? Or eat baklava cheesecake? Hellas, Tarpon Springs is the place to go!
Hellas, Tarpon Springs
Hellas in Tarpon Springs has rather kitschy, flashy décor which might be off-putting to some visitors but I personally thought the unique decor added to the Greek character. Hellas décor consists of blue Led and fluorescent lights, Greek murals, tiled floors and tables, and waterfalls inside the restaurant. Don’t make the mistake of judging Hellas based on its décor; the food, drinks and pastries are excellent.
They have a very innovative cocktail menu with giant pictures of novel drinks like Baklava martini, Tiramisu Martini and coffee cocktails. They also serve Greek beer, wine and Mediterranean fruit infused sangria.
In keeping with the Tarpon Springs tradition, Hellas has an extensive Greek menu. We ordered the Shrimp ala Hellas and Greek style scallops; both were delicious. Their gyros are supposed to be the best in town. The broiled octopus is also recommended. Flaming saganaki appetizer is the highlight and greeted with ‘Opa’ cheers. The portions are pretty big and service is good.
Hellas restaurant is connected to the Hellas bakery. The bakery has delicious baklava and other Greek pastries. It also has unique deserts like chocolate baklava cheesecake. Hellas, Tarpon Springs is truly the best of them all.
Hellas Restaurant & Bakery – 785 Dodecanese Boulevard, Tarpon Springs, FL 34689
Other Restaurants in Tarpon Springs
There are many other great restaurants in Tarpon Springs, Florida. If you want Greek food try Mykonos, Dimitri’s on the Water, Mr Souvlaki, Yiannis, or Mama’s Greek cuisine. Rusty Bellies Grill, Mystic Fish Grill or Tarpon Turtle Grill offer delicious fresh seafood. Most Greek, seafood and other restaurants in Tarpon Springs serve excellent food, have long wait lines on weekends and don’t disappoint. I plan to try many more the next time I visit.
Other things to do
St. Nicholas Greek Cathedral is a beautiful cathedral located in Tarpon Springs. The town also has an aquarium and a couple of museums on the sponge industry. There are many beautiful beaches including the popular Sunset Beach and a winery near Tarpon Springs’ downtown. The beaches are very popular with families.
The Epiphany Celebration, held on 6th January each year, is a world famous festive tradition of Tarpon Springs. Greek Americans from all over the country travel to Tarpon Springs to attend the festival and participate in the festivities. The celebration takes place at the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral. The festival concludes with the Feast of Epiphany accompanies by traditional Greek dancing.
Tarpon Springs also celebrates Greek Independence Day with parades and Opa! Palooza Greek festival in summer. Opa is a celebratory Greek cheer often heard at Greek dances, celebrations and weddings or when Saganakis are set aflame or when someone breaks a plate (on purpose or a slup) and celebrates all life events, whether big or small. A visit to Tarpon Springs is an exciting glimpse into Greek culture and an invitation to celebrate Greek zest for life with Opa!
I visited Tarpon Springs, Florida in Oct 2016
Have you been to Tarpon Springs Florida? Do you know of any other charming towns that I should check out? Tell me about it in the comments! Read all articles on Florida here. Or check out Dotted Globe home page.
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Disclaimer: I was a regular paying customer at Hellas, Tarpon Springs. All opinions are my own.