Best Tips For Visiting Tarpon Springs, Florida

By Alex Kallimanis: Tarpon Springs, Florida, just 30 miles northwest of Tampa, has the highest percentage of Greeks of any town in the United States. Around 25% of around 29,000 residents are of Greek descent. The area first saw a significant wave of Greek immigrants in the early 1900’s, primarily from Dodecanese islands like Kalymnos. Those immigrants helped build the sponge docks, and the sponge industry remains an important part of the local economy. A huge variety of fantastic Greek restaurants, bakeries and shopping make Tarpon Springs a great tourist draw. Authentic Greek food and friendly locals gives the town a true Greek islands vibe along Dodecanese Boulevard.

When we resided in Tampa, we visited Tarpon Springs regularly, and we recently returned with my father and some good friends to celebrate his 90th birthday. We love it so much, we even just bought a house in Tarpon Springs, Florida! Here are  great local tips for visiting Tarpon Springs!

A man standing in the middle of sponges on the Sponge docks in Tarpon Springs, Florida
Sponges galore on the Tarpon Springs, Florida Sponge Docks

 Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks and the Sponge Industry

Tarpon Springs is considered the sponge capital of the world. In the early 1900’s, around 500 Greek sponge divers immigrated primarily from the Dodecanese Islands and helped grow the industry. Prior to the 1940’s, the sponge industry brought in even more money than tourism to the state of Florida!
To harvest sponges, divers take 20 day trips into the Gulf of Mexico to sustainability hand cut sponges from the bottom of the sea. They leave a small sliver so the sponges grow back. I love using a sea wool sponge in the shower – it’s such a natural and soft way to clean yourself! While on the Sponge Docks along Dodecanese Boulevard, you may see a boat that has just returned with a huge bounty of various sponges.
There are a lot of shops to purchase a variety of natural sea sponges. The Sponge Factory offers some of the best prices on natural sea wool sponges. They also sell a variety of other quality products from hand made soaps to Greek hand creams featuring olive oil and chamomile. There is a fun display out front that includes a painting of an original sponge diving suit that you can get photos with.

Where to Stay in and Around Tarpon Springs

Luxury

Innisbrook Golf Resort in nearby Palm Harbor is an excellent choice to spend your vacation. The resort has outdoor pools with water slides, 11 tennis courts and 4 golf courses. There is also a full-service spa with massage service and sauna, as well as a fitness facility. Guests can choose between 5 on-site restaurants like Packard’s Steakhouse. A flat-screen cable TV and kitchenette are provided in all suites. Some suites have a fully equipped kitchen, balcony, and sofa bed.

Mid Range

Hampton Inn and Suites Tarpon Springs is 3 miles from Tarpon Springs’ historical district. A gym and business center are available, along with on-site laundry facilities. Hampton Inn offers a reliably comfortable stay with plush beds and a good complimentary breakfast for a chain hotel.

Budget

Quality Inn and Suites Tarpon Springs has an outdoor pool, hot tub and fitness center. All guest rooms have a coffee maker, desk, hair dryer, cable TV, iron and ironing board. Some rooms have a microwave, refrigerator, sofa sleeper and balcony. Other amenities include a free breakfast, free wireless high-speed Internet, free daily newspaper and free phone calls. Quality Inn and Suites Tarpon Springs is a short drive from the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks, Clearwater Aquarium, Howard Park Beach, Caladesi Island State Park and Brighthouse Fields.

Tarpon Springs, Florida Restaurants

Tarpon Springs offers some of the best bang for buck eating on the coast of Florida. Highlights among the many restaurants include delicious traditional Greek dishes, fresh seafood and several wonderful patisseries and bakeries. Enjoy Greek wine as the country produces quality wines beyond retsina and they’re well priced in the restaurants of Tarpon Springs. A popular appetizer to order around town is saganaki (halloumi sheep cheese set ablaze table side). Here are some of the very best places to eat in Tarpon Springs:

Dmitri’s on the Water

Great food, reasonable prices, friendly service and a lovely waterfront location make Dmitri’s on the Water one of the best places to eat in Tarpon Springs. Traditionally, Greeks eat family style. So order dishes to share among your table. Their octopus stifado (octopus cooked in tomato sauce with feta cheese) is delightful. All their seafood is fresh and the whole fish is well priced. Their complimentary bread and olive oil dip (mixed with balsamic vinegar, garlic and spices) is excellent and sets the tone for a great meal ahead.

Collage of family and friends delicious lunch at Dimitris On The Water, and food
Octopus Stifado and Greek Salad at Dimitris On The Water in Tarpon Springs, Florida.

Yiannis

Yiannis Greek restaurant is fantastic place to enjoy authentic Greek dishes and fresh seafood right along picturesque Dodocanese Boulevard. Their chargrilled octopus, lamb dishes and so much more are absolutely divine. The chargrilled octopus is doused with a generous amount of authentic Greek extra virgin olive oil, lemon and spices. It’s a mouthwatering dish that melts in your mouth.

Grab a table inside or on Yiannis outdoor terrace, to people watch. On weekends, Yiannis features live music, including talented local Greek musicians like Demetrios. From sea to table, Tarpon Springs fishermen catch the fish and Yiannis expertly prepares it for patrons.

Katerina’s Taverna and Grill

Just off the tourist trail of the Sponge Docks, the food at Katerina’s Taverna and Grill is fantastic. Their village salads, piled with excellent feta and Greek croutons reminds us of the most delicious salads we’ve enjoyed on islands like Crete and Naxos. Many of the dishes at Katerina’s are very authentically Greek. One exception is that they gave us butter instead of olive oil to dip the bread in. Just ask them for olive oil if you prefer that, like we do. They will happily oblige with excellent extra virgin olive oil! And the staff are very generous to offer more complimentary bread without even asking.

Hellas Restaurant and Bakery

Saganaki, flaming Greek halloumi cheese at Hellas in Tarpon Springs
Saganaki, flaming Greek halloumi cheese at Hellas Restaurant in Tarpon Springs.

Hellas Restaurant is one of the most popular Greek restaurants and bakeries in Tarpon Springs. Given its festive ambiance, we decided to give them another try with my father and friends. The food is good, but not the best in Tarpon Springs. They also don’t serve quality olive oil to dip your bread in like Dmitri’s on the Water.

Hellas’ bakery is impressive though, with a wonderful variety of Greek, Italian and American desserts. I recommend passing on their restaurant and swinging by for a coffee and pastry at the bakery instead. Enjoy a Greek coffee, Espresso Fredo or excellent Frappe au la mode there. There are so many excellent choices from baklava to key lime pie – covering dessert highlights from Greece to Florida. Or try a lesser known sweet like Diples – a fried Greek pastry with honey and nuts. They also bake delicious Melomakarona (honey & spice Greek cookies), made with walnut, spices, orange & honey. Melomakarona are traditionally a Greek Christmas cookie, but you can find them year round at Hellas and around Tarpon Springs bakeries.

A huge selection of Greek cakes and pasteries at Hellas Bakery in Tarpon Springs, Florida
Just a fraction of the huge selection of desserts at Hellas Bakery in Tarpon Springs, Florida

The Limani

The Limani Greek salad topped with pork on the Sponge Docks in Tarpon Springs, Florida
Greek salad topped with pork souvlaki pieces at The Limani in Tarpon Springs, Florida

The Limani is the place to go for a fast and delicious lunch that won’t break the bank. While not a full-service restaurant, they have outdoor tables on the water. They prepare an excellent Greek salad topped with delicious souvlaki style pork for under $10. Combined with a great view of the Sponge Docks, this is one of the most popular places to eat in Tarpon Springs. Note that the counter service location is cash only.

Tarpon Springs Bakeries

Fournos Bakery

This small bakery at 520 Athens Street is wonderful for Greek desserts, small bites and fresh baked bread. Try their tahini- ropita – its a huge sweet treat smothered in tahini. Their spanakopita (spinach pie) or tiropita (cheese pie) are great if you want a tasty and quick lunch or savory snack. Fournos Bakery bakes excellent bread if you want to make sandwiches, or just dip it delicious Greek extra virgin olive oil or honey (which they also sell). Grab a huge fresh baked loaf of their village bread or Athens bread for just $2!

Tarpon Springs Breweries, Wineries and Distilleries

5 Branches Brewing

Tarpon Springs has several great craft breweries, multiple wine bars and a distillery. If you’re strolling around the Sponge Docks, 5 Branches Brewing is conveniently located on Athens Street, near Dodecanese Boulevard. They recently won the Silver Medal in the Imperial Stout category at the Great American Beer Festival for their Doggin Wrench Imperial Stout. They were also awarded the Very Small Brewing Company Brewer of the year at the Great American Beer Festival.

One of my favorite beers at 5 Branches Brewing is their Red Tail Red IPA. The brew is perfect for those that like a well hopped beer that doesn’t skimp on maltiness. They also brew a delicious German dunkel and often rotate through a variety of small batch offerings including Belgian quadruples. They feature live music from 7pm-10pm on Saturday nights. They also host open mic nights on Wednesday from 6:30pm – 9:30pm. Pop into this veteran owned establishment for a tasty brew and some fun!

Unrefined Brewing

Unrefined Brewing offers a quaint and fun space to enjoy delicious craft beer in Tarpon Springs. They feature 20 taps with a variety of brews from stouts, IPA’s to sours. Try their Number 6 Dance, a Double Imperial Milk Stout with dark bitter chocolate and hints of vanilla. They brew a wide variety of interesting sours, more than most brewers. Their Bacchus sour is aged in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels with lactose and vanilla beans. We especially love the fruited sours there as they aren’t too sweet, and have a refreshing tartness. Try their I’m in Crisis Sour, a kettle sour with blackberries, cherries, lactose and vanilla.

Sunset Beach

Sunset Beach is a lovely spot to soak up some sun and fresh seaside air along the Gulf of Mexico. Lay out during the day or enjoy a stunning sunset on the beach. The vibrant orange, pink and red colors in the sky, set to a vista of palms trees is dramatically beautiful, making the beach appropriately named. Pack a picnic filled with local Greek treats you pick up from bakeries in Tarpon Springs! There are lot of picnic tables on Sunset Beach with lovely views of the palm trees and Gulf of Mexico.

Alex and Bell kissing with sunset in the background on the aptly named Sunset Beach in Tarpon Springs, Florida
A sunset kiss on aptly named Sunset Beach in Tarpon Springs, Florida

Fred Howard Park

Fred Howard Park is a fantastic spot for beach goers. A scenic one-mile long causeway connects the park with the mainland. Enjoy the white sand beach, which offers lovely views of windsurfers navigating the Gulf waves. The park has picnic shelters, a butterfly garden, softball field, beach volleyball court, playground and a hiking/biking trail. It is just 1.3 miles (2.2km) from Sunset Beach to Fred Howard Park. You can drive, bike or even walk between the two beautiful parks!

Tarpon Springs Boat Tours

Dodecanese Boulevard is a great place to eat, shop and sightsee. Several companies offer boat tours that leave right from the picturesque Sponge Docks. Enjoy beautiful scenery while viewing wildlife, learning about sponge history and perhaps visit beautiful Anclote State Preserve. You can often save the $5 Tarpon Springs parking fee if you’re taking a boat tour too.

Odyssey Cruises

Odyssey Cruises offers a 2 hour trip down the Anclote River into the Gulf of Mexico. Common sights on their afternoon cruises include dolphins, manatees, sea turtles, fish, tropical foliage and a variety of birds. An optional shore excursion is available to disembark at the Historic Anclote Key Lighthouse on Anclote State Preserve. Explore the beautiful island’s wildlife up close or stroll the beach looking for precious shells.

St. Nicolas Boatline

St. Nicolas Boatline is a third generation family run operation that launched in 1924. This picturesque narrated boat tour sails down the scenic Anclote River as visitors learn how Tarpon Springs became the “Sponge Capital of the World.” One highlight of the tour is watching a sponge diver in a traditional inflated sponge diving suit dive from the boat into the river. Watch as he moves quickly across the river floor to harvest a live sponge and return to the boat with it. Learn about the different types of sponges, their uses and proper care to ensure they last a long time.

 Tarpon Springs Shopping

Dad and I posing for a fun photo at the Sponge Factory in Tarpon Springs, Florida
Fun photo options at The Sponge Factory in Tarpon Springs, Florida!

There’s a wide variety of good shopping options in Tarpon Springs, from kitsch Florida souvenirs to high-quality Greek made products like soaps and creams. The town was built on sponges and that’s still a big draw of Tarpon Springs today. Every time we visit Tarpon Springs we purchase some sponges to take home and to give as gifts. If you want sponges to wash yourself with, pay a little extra for the wool sponges, which are softer.

Huge pile of sponges along the Sponge Docks of Dodecanese Boulevard in Tarpon Springs
Huge pile of sponges along the Sponge Docks of Dodecanese Boulevard in Tarpon Springs, Florida.

Swing into Leather Outlet for great deals on jewelry (including emeralds from Colombia), along with beautiful leather wallets starting at $10 and leather bags. You can also stock up on Greek olive oil and other goodies from overseas for reasonable prices.

Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral

Beautiful frescoes inside Saint Nicholas Cathedral in Tarpon Springs, Florida
Beautiful frescoes inside Saint Nicholas Cathedral in Tarpon Springs, Florida.

Saint Nicholas Cathedral is the parish for Greek-American life in Tarpon Springs, Florida. Located at 36 North Pinellas Avenue, the storied Neo-Byzantine church features beautiful frescoes and marble from Greece. Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of the sea, so many Greek churches and cathedrals are named after him.

St. Nicholas hosts an annual Epiphany celebration on January 6, where Greek Orthodox boys aged 16 to 18 dive into the Spring Bayou to retrieve a white wooden cross. It draws thousands of spectators and is televised in the Tampa area. Legend says the finder of the cross will be showered with good luck for the year. The diving of the cross is the largest event of its kind in the Western Hemisphere, with thousands in attendance. A statue of an epiphany diver is located in front of St. Nicholas Cathedral.

Tampa, Clearwater and St. Petersburg Tours

While you’re in the area on vacation, consider one of these great tours!

A St. Petersburg Historical Segway Tour is a fun way to get to know the town. Learn about the Sunshine City’s historic sites and Victorian homes as you loop around town. Tours are from $60 per person.

Take a Tampa History Cruise. Learn about Tampa’s history through live on-board commentary while you sail. Multiple departure times make it easy to fit into your itinerary. Light refreshments are provided. Tours start at $30.77.

A 2 Hour Cruise Around Clearwater Beach with Optional Dining. Enjoy an afternoon on a narrated 2-hour sightseeing cruise along Tampa Bay and Clearwater’s beautiful inland waters. Aboard the lovely StarLite Majesty yacht, enjoy the open-air deck or select the climate-controlled indoor cabin if it’s too warm. This is a great opportunity to see dolphins in the Gulf! Tours start at just $17.52 with the opportunity to add lunch.

Tarpon Springs Recap

Tarpon Springs is one of the best destinations in the USA to experience Greek culture in a picturesque setting. Enjoy authentic Greek cuisine and desserts seaside and lap up the ambiance with your loved one or your family. Don’t forget to purchase some sponges too. They’re wonderful for bathing and cleaning so they make for ideal gifts. Tarpon Springs is one of the best Florida vacation destinations for culture!

Dad and I, Alex Kallimanis Sr. celebrating his 90th birthday in Tarpon Springs, Florida.

Have questions about planning your Florida vacation? Leave a comment below or email me at alex(at)wanderlustmarriage.com! You may also want to read my articles on Great Day Trips from Tampa and Alternative Orlando Gems You Don’t Read About.  

Pinterest pin of Tarpon Springs

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