Tarpon Springs is a city in north Pinellas County known for its sponge diving industry and Greek population. The city started to boom in the 1890’s when divers from Greece came to harvest the plentiful sponges. To this day, Tarpon Springs still remains one of the most prosperous natural sponge markets in the world and is home to the largest Greek community in the United States. This coastal town is full of rich Greek culture and delicious food, plus plenty of gift shops and handmade goods.
Tarpon Springs makes a perfect day trip from anywhere in central Florida like Tampa or Orlando. The historic area is contained to just a few streets so it’s easily walkable within an afternoon.
Here are some of our favorite things to do on a day trip to Tarpon Springs:
1. Stroll Down Dodecanese Avenue
This street is the main tourist area in Tarpon Springs. This is where you’ll find the majority of Greek restaurants and shops, plus the actual sponge docks. There is plenty of metered parking along the street and paid parking lots.
2. Sample Authentic Greek Food
If you love Greek food, Tarpon Springs is a must see! We tried Mama’s Greek Cuisine which is a big restaurant and bar with all your favorite greek foods. The flaming cheese was quite a treat! For dessert we tried some delicious pastries from Hella’s Restaurant and Bakery. I couldn’t resist the Greek Fries as well, which were basically fries covered in olive oil and feta. So good! We’ve also heard great things about Rusty Bellies for their seafood and tiki bar.
3. Shop for Sponges and Handmade Goods
The main draw in Tarpon Springs is of course the sponges, but you’ll also find an abundance of handmade soaps, sauces and jellies, cigars, jewelry, shells and sundries at the gift shops. This is a great place to look for gifts or souvenirs.
4. Take a Boat Cruise
There are several different boat cruises offered from Tarpon Springs. You can board dolphin cruises, sunset cruises, and even partake in island excursions. Your guide will tell you all about the history of Tarpon Springs and about the nature and wildlife in the area. Most of the boats offer beverages (for a fee) and restrooms aboard. We strongly recommend making reservations in advance on weekends, as the boats fill up quickly. Taking the boat was a nice way to spend the hottest part of the afternoon, plus we were able to stop and explore Anclote Key. The two biggest companies are Odyssey Cruises and Spongeorama Criuselines.
5. Explore Anclote Key Preserve State Park
Anclote Key Preserve State Park is comprised of four islands and is only accessible by boat. Most of the sightseeing boat tours offer an excursion onto the island, but your time on the beach will be limited to usually about half an hour. At the key you’ll find pristine beaches, shells, nesting birds, and even a historic 1887 lighthouse. If you have your own boat transportation, you could easily spend hours roaming around the islands. Keep in mind there are no provisions on the key so bring your own water/supplies.
6. Watch Sponges Come Right Off the Boats
Dodecanese Avenue is right along the Anclote River, which means you’ll get to see the actual sponge docks where sponges are unloaded from the boats, fresh from the ocean. You’d be surprised – there’s no fancy equipment involved here. Workers literally unload the sponges by hand into a big pile on the sidewalk. It’s quite a sight!
7. Catch Live Entertainment
In a city as rich in culture as Tarpon Springs, there is plenty of unique entertainment. Belly dancing and live music are popular during the evening at many restaurants including Mama’s. You may also check out the Tarpon Springs Performing Arts Center for local productions and film festivals. Once per month the city also hosts a Night in the Islands event where you can dine outside and enjoy Greek dance lessons and live music.
8. Visit Tarpon Springs Aquarium
Although we didn’t make it to the Tarpon Springs Aquarium, it’s always had consistently great reviews and most people recommend it. We’ve heard it is small, but a nice way to get inside out of the heat for a while, especially with kids. There is a large touch tank where you can (safely) touch and feed stingrays and sharks! Admission is $7 for adults and $5.75 for children. They will be moving to a new location within the next few months, so you may want to call ahead before visiting or check their website for updates.
9. Watch the Sunset from Fred Howard Park
Although Fred Howard Park is not within walking distance from the other activities, it’s so worth it to get in the car to see the gorgeous sunset over the gulf. It’s only about 3 miles away from the main Dodecanese Avenue in Tarpon Springs. It’s a lovely park with a beautiful beach and a boardwalk nature trail to explore. If you’re new to the area, just visiting, or haven’t seen a West Coast sunset yet, this park is a great opportunity.