The historic riverfront town of Tarpon Springs – just 20 minutes north of Clearwater – has a way of transporting you thousands of miles away to a coastal village in Greece. Heavily influenced by Greek culture, the town is best known for its sponge docks, Greek fare and serene beaches, but there's plenty more to see and do here.
When most people think of sponges, they think of rectangular objects used for scrubbing dishes. In the waters here, however, sponges of a different kind – the natural kind – grow. Natural sponge beds were discovered here in the early 1900s, which attracted Greek sponge divers here. The famous Sponge Docks are situated on the Anclote River before it flows into the Gulf. Learn the complete history of the area's sponge diving at Spongeorama, a kitschy theater and museum dedicated to the area’s sponging industry.
Tracing the scenic riverfront, Dodecanese Boulevard has too many little gift shops to list. Find everything from souvenirs to practical home goods – trinkets flown in straight from the Old Country, rejuvenating olive oil soap and those famous natural sponges. Along downtown’s Tarpon Avenue, you’ll find more than one antique shop peddling its quaint wares, if you’re up for a stroll.
You’ll also discover a plethora of Greek restaurants on this waterfront strip. Savor the smells – strong coffee, baklava, tzatziki (a yogurt cucumber garlic dip) – emanating from bustling eateries. Top eatery choices include Mama's Greek Cuisine, Hellas and Mykonos.
Toward the far end of bustling Dodecanese Boulevard, you’ll find the Tarpon Springs Aquarium, where you can pet the baby sharks and stingrays and learn about the sea life that populates the nearby Gulf of Mexico.
No trip here is complete without a visit to St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral. Designed in the New Byzantine style, it’s an ornate, historic building off Pinellas Avenue. This place of worship also houses a “weeping” icon that drew national and international attention in the 1970s.
Perhaps the area’s most unsung attribute, the beaches near this town are deserving of much praise. Sunset Beach Park is perhaps the best example of this. Named, of course, for the phenomenal Gulf beach sunsets, this place is a welcoming, serene destination after a long day spent antiquing, shopping and exploring.
The town’s most highly anticipated annual event is the Epiphany celebration held each January. A golden cross is tossed into Spring Bayou, and throngs of teenage boys dive into the chilly waters in search of the cross. Whoever retrieves the cross is said to have a year of good luck. A ceremony ensues, followed by a huge street festival. The event garners tons of media attention and attracts locals and tourists alike. In addition, the town hosts many other art, music and cultural events throughout the year.