At the head of the Pinellas Peninsula, Tarpon Springs is a city with a distinct Greek flavor. In fact, Tarpon Springs has the highest concentration of Greek Americans of any community in the United States.
These Greek origins go back to the birth of the local sponge diving industry in the late 19th century. Even now, the riverfront Sponge Docks are a little piece of Greece on the Gulf Coast.
There’s a line of Greek eateries here for souvlaki, dolmades and spanakopita, and you can board a tour boat to visit the nearby Anclote Key Preserve.
The waterfront will crop up a lot in my article. The city has an amazing 51 miles of shoreline, on the Gulf Coast, and along the gentle bayous flowing into it.
1. Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks
To get a feel for Tarpon Springs’ Greek heritage, you have to begin with this cute district along the Anclote River.
The docks here were the epicenter of a once lucrative—and still active—sponge industry. Worth many millions of dollars a year at its peak, this business was made possible by expert divers and crews from across the Greek Islands, but especially Dodecanese.
I can’t get enough of the Sponge Docks. Along a meandering stretch of Dodecanese Blvd there’s authentic Greek cuisine, masses of specialty shops, and wildlife watching tours.
Oh, and if you need a souvenir or gift, there’s no shortage of shops selling natural sea sponges.
The Sponge Docks are one part of the wider Tarpon Springs Greektown Historic District, where the city’s Greek community settled in the early 20th century.
2. Fred Howard Park
Even if you’ve never been within 1,000 miles of Tarpon Springs, I reckon you may know Fred Howard Park. This one-of-a-kind setting has appeared in dozens of movies, TV shows and commercials.
Most famous is a mile-long causeway that leads from the park’s main area to a truly sublime white sandy beach. With swaying palms, dolphin sightings, and dreamy sunsets, the beach is a Gulf Coast icon.
Elsewhere you’ll find a canoe/kayak launch, trails through a pine hammock, two playgrounds, nine picnic shelters, and a windsurfing area. The causeway is a big fishing spot, with people casting on either side of the road here.
3. St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral
As early as 1907 Tarpon Springs had a Greek population large enough to merit a Greek Orthodox Church.
Within a couple of decades that building was too small. In the 1930s the community began raising funds for this marvelous cathedral.
The St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral was consecrated in 1943, and has a neo-Byzantine style.
It’s a smaller replica of the Hagia Sophia, the religious and spiritual center of the Eastern Orthodox Church for almost a millennium up to the 15th century.
I would urge anyone to take a look inside. There’s a lot to see, from almost two dozen stained glass windows to the radiant iconography.
The cathedral is still a pillar of local life in Tarpon Springs. You can see for yourself during the distinctive celebrations on Epiphany (January 6).
4. Take a Cruise
If you’re blessed with stout sea legs, maybe the best way to experience Tarpon Springs is on one of the many cruises available from the Sponge Docks.
While marine animal sightseeing tours are big favorites, they’re far from the only game in town. The best destination for me is Anclote Key Preserve State Park, with its flawless sandy shores and historic lighthouse from 1887.
Odyssey Cruises, Spongeorama’s Cruise Lines, Dream Catcher Explorations, Island Paradise Charters, and Parrotdise Express are a few local operators serving this barrier island.
None of these companies offer overnight experiences, so if you want to camp at Anclote Key you’ll need to have your own transportation.
5. Tarpon Springs Historic District
Less than a mile south of the Sponge docks is Tarpon Springs’ historic central commercial district. Along Tarpon Avenue and intersecting streets, downtown is quaint, walkable, and known for its plentiful galleries and antiques stores.
One building that attracted my attention was the old depot for the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, by the Pinellas Trail.
Built in 1909, this now houses a museum run by the city’s historical society, with exhibits ranging from sponge diving to local medicine at the turn of the 20th century.
Mingling with the mom and pop stores there’s a long parade of cafes, craft breweries and restaurants. A fine way to round off your visit is to wander over to Craig Park, sitting on Tarpon Springs Bayou.
Often visited by dolphins and manatees, this park is also a venue for outdoor events, like Epiphany and the Tarpon Springs Seafood Festival.
6. Eat Greek
With such a rich Greek history, it’s no surprise that Tarpon Springs is loaded with Greek restaurants, bakeries, and coffee shops. For those who’ve never tried authentic Greek cuisine, your visit to Tarpon Springs would be the perfect opportunity.
Hellas, Mama’s Greek Cuisine, and Mr. Souvlaki are a few of my favorites. On the menu are the likes of spanakopita, baklava, dolmades (stuffed vine leaves), and classic Greek salad.
Most of what you’ll eat is homemade onsite by those with strong ties to the Old World. Though the restaurants can get busy during peak times, there’s ample parking nearby.
7. Sunset Beach
A close second to Fred Howard Park, Sunset Beach is another fabulous place to unwind by the Gulf of Mexico.
As with its near neighbor, human intervention has made this spot possible. The causeway at Sunset Beach was built in the 1920s, and the waterfront park became a hotspot for public events.
That tradition continues with free concerts on the first Thursday evening of the month. As well as a sandy beach and shallow swimming area, the park has several pavilions with grills.
The name is no coincidence, and I can’t think of many better places to be on a clear evening.
8. Pinellas Trail
On the corridor of two defunct railroads, the Pinellas Trail cuts through the peninsula for almost 50 miles, all the way from Tarpon Springs to St. Petersburg.
The northern trailhead is close to the Sponge Docks in Tarpon Springs. From here it heads south and cuts through the historic downtown.
If you don’t have your own bike you can rent one from Tarpon Tom’s Bike Shop close to the trail.
One nearby community on the trail is the adorable seaside village of Dunedin, spring training home of the Toronto Blue Jays.
9. Brooker Creek Preserve
Traveling inland from Tarpon Springs, I was surprised how remote things get, just a couple of miles out of town.
Within ten minutes you’ll be at the pine flatwoods and wooded wetlands of Brooker Creek Preserve. This is the largest natural area in the county, at around 8,700 acres.
So close to a dense urban sprawl you can venture into the wilderness on five miles of trails. My pick is definitely the Friends Trail, with a boardwalk twisting through pine flatwood communities.
Be sure to download the interpretive trail guide, filled with compelling insights about the ecosystem and the human history of this landscape.
Another key stop is the Education Center, in a Pioneer-style building, with interactive exhibits that will keep kids engaged.
10. Tarpon Springs Aquarium and Animal Sanctuary
With its abundant coastline, rivers, and bayous, Tarpon Springs has a huge variety of freshwater and saltwater aquatic life. For me, the most convenient way to see many of them is at the Tarpon Springs Aquarium and Animal Sanctuary.
The aquarium has recently relocated to a newer and larger facility. Among the residents are nurse sharks, grouper, gators, rays and many colorful reef fish.
There are shows throughout the day, and what really stood out for me was all the family-friendly interactivity. You can hold a baby alligator or a snake, touch stingrays, and feed and pet a variety of barnyard animals, from goats to ducks.
11. A.L. Anderson Park
On Tarpon Springs’ eastern boundary is the largest body of freshwater in Pinellas County. Lake Tarpon covers 2,500 acres, and has a catchment area of more than 50 square miles.
You can visit a tranquil parcel of the shoreline at A.L. Anderson Park, and it’s a refreshing change of pace from the likes of the Sponge Docks.
One thing that makes the park special for me is that it sits on high ground, and has far-reaching views over the lake.
There’s a majestic stand of cypress swamp by the water’s edge. Here, a boardwalk leads you past these soaring trees, and gives you a close look at the lake’s wildlife.
I must have seen half a dozen alligators on my walk, along with egrets and herons on the grassy shores.
12. Leepa-Rattner Museum
Set on the Tarpon Springs campus of St. Petersburg College, the Leepa-Rattner Museum features one of the area’s best collections of modern contemporary art.
Much of the collection is from the estate of Abraham Rattner (1895-1978). Born in New York, he was a contemporary of Pablo Picasso and spent the first half of his career in Paris.
Rattner’s work is prominent in the museum’s holdings, but there are also pieces by Picasso, Henry Moore, Fernand Léger, and Marc Chagall.
You can see selections from this impressive inventory at temporary shows. These are side-by-side with well-curated exhibitions featuring artists from across Florida and the Gulf Coast.
13. Shrine of St. Michael Taxiarchis
Another piece of Tarpon Springs’ Greek Orthodox culture awaits you at this votive chapel a few blocks from the Sponge Docks.
The Shrine of St. Michael was built in the early 1940s by Tarpon Springs’ resident Maria Tsalichis (1896–1994).
She credited a silver icon brought back from the Holy Monastery of the Taxiarch Michael in Panormitis, Greece with the cure of her young son, Steve from terminal illness. By building this chapel she fulfilled a promise to the saint.
Since the shrine was completed, a number of miracles have been ascribed to the icon. Whether you’re a believer or not, the shrine deserves to be seen as a testament to one family’s devotion.
14. Tarpon Springs Splash Park
If you’re looking for a free local attraction for kids, my recommendation is the Tarpon Springs Splash Park.
You’ve got slides, fountains, sprinklers, and jets, and a charming maritime theme. Dotted around the park are a replica of the Anclote Keys Light, and models of animals like a manatee, ray and tarpon.
Parents who’d rather watch the action from a safe distance will appreciate the covered seating areas.
You can’t beat the location either, as it’s just east of the Sponge Docks, on the Anclote River. Tarpon Springs’ fenced dog park shares this park, and there’s a boat launch for paddling adventures.
15. Tarpon Springs Seafood Festival
Taking place in mid-November when the Florida weather is perfect, the Tarpon Springs Seafood Festival is a culinary shindig, drawing crowds of seafood lovers for years.
All I can say is, bring an appetite. During this event Craig Park is full of vendors serving fried catfish, boiled crawfish, crab cakes, shrimp po’boys, paella, lobster rolls, coconut shrimp, fish & chips, breaded clams, fried oysters, and so much more.
Live entertainment, arts and crafts, games and contests abound, at the city’s most popular event. If you’ve never experienced the holiday season Florida-style, I think this is a great way to start.