This Gulf Coast Town Has an Unlikely History All Its Own

Tarpon Springs offers excellent fishing, superior Greek food and more

June 27, 2023 6:15 am
busy street with shops
Tarpon Springs is one of Florida's most vibrant history lessons.
Visit St. Pete Clearwater Florida

Located north of Tampa, Tarpon Springs offers one of the state’s most fascinating history lessons. In the early 1900s, natural sponge beds were discovered here, spawning the town’s main industry as divers used pressurized suits to harvest the aquatic species. Greek immigrants, who arrived here deeply experienced in sponge diving, flocked to the area — and their descendants remain today. You’ll see evidence of this in the many Greek restaurants, Greek Orthodox churches and businesses. 

Tarpon Springs earned its name in 1879, though it’s actually better known for mullet than tarpon. Industry and the railroad arrived in the following years, and many of the buildings from this era now make up the historic district. A weekend here promises excellent Greek food and loads of fun on the water. 

What to See and Do

The best way to understand Tarpon Springs’s history is to visit The Heritage Museum, which sits on Spring Bayou and traces the development of the Greek community here — as well as the snowbirds who followed them to the area’s winter resorts. Another essential spot is the Sponge Docks, where divers have sold their finds for generations in the souvenir shops — a statue here honors the contributions of those divers. For a first-hand look at the practice, consider a tour with St. Nicholas Boat Line, where an onboard diver shares its history.

The Tarpon Springs Performing Arts and Cultural Center hosts touring Broadway performers, while at the Replay Amusement Museum, visitors can play vintage pinball machines and arcade games for as long as they want, for a flat fee. 

Of course, the best action likely involves the water. Catch the ferry from the Sponge Docks to Anclote Key Preserve State Park, a barrier island with a quiet stretch of beach and wildlife spotting, to see 40 species of birds and dolphins. The park also offers overnight camping. And if you’re just looking for a day (or half-day) of adventure, you’ll find kayaking, scuba diving and snorkeling tours, as well as fishing excursions on which you might catch grouper, snapper and amberjack. Outfitters like Poseidon Charters offer four-, six- and eight-hour tours — and can recommend local restaurants that’ll cook up whatever you catch. 

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Where to Eat

Mama’s Greek Cuisine is a local favorite, owned by a native of Kalymnos, Greece — try the roasted lamb, grilled octopus and flaky baklava drizzled in honey. At the family-friendly Mykonos, look for dishes like flaming saganaki cheese, Greek-style fried potato patties and gyros. Since 1970, Hellas has served favorites like moussaka, egg and lemon soup and sweet treats at the onsite bakery. 

If you’re not in the mood for Greek, Tarpon Tavern is an English-style pub with standard bar food like buffalo wings, burgers and fish and chips. Alternatively, try Rusty Bellies for its tropical drinks and fresh, local seafood. 

Where to Drink

Grab a sip of the traditional Greek spirit ouzo at Tarpon Springs Distillery, which also makes gin and moonshine. The distillery is located in a former sponge factory and uses botanicals grown in its garden. Despite its small size, Tarpon Springs has a number of craft breweries, many within walking distance of one another. They include 5 Branches, Anclote, Brighter Days, Two Frogs, and Unrefined breweries.

Tarpon Springs isn’t a party-hard destination, but you can still find a few spots open late into the night: Neptune Lounge is a watering hole and music venue where you can imbibe until 2 a.m., and Cigar Cave Lounge in nearby Palm Harbor has a walk-in humidor and full bar — it’s open ’til midnight, and 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. 

Where to Stay

Chain options abound, but those looking for an exception to the corporate-bland rule should consider the 1910 Inn, a Victorian-home turned bed-and-breakfast a short walk from the Sponge Docks. Private rentals include waterfront bungalows and modern villas — look for one, like this Airbnb, with easy access to Sunset Beach. And if you don’t mind the drive, the Innisbrook Golf Resort in Palm Harbor has onsite links where you can tee off like the pros, who come every year for the PGA Tour’s Valspar Championship. You’ll also find luxurious rooms, a spa and multiple restaurants, including a steakhouse and a pub.


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