The most magical small towns are those that successfully retain their original character and culture. Just an hour’s drive northeast from downtown Tampa is one of central Florida’s most colorful examples of this magic, Tarpon Springs.
With its rich Greek heritage, unique Greek Village and Sponge Docks, historic attractions and a plethora of specialty shops and eateries, this small coastal town is well worth a day trip.
How Tarpon Springs became Greek
First established in 1887 as a winter resort town, the focus soon shifted to harvesting the plentiful sponges that could be found in the Gulf of Mexico. The industry grew quickly after entrepreneur John King Cheyney established the Anclote and Rock Island Springs Sponge Company.
Encouraged by a Greek sponge buyer named, John Cocoris, Cheyney started to introduce the cutting-edge equipment and harvesting methods used by expert sponge divers in the Dodecanese Islands of Greece.
Word spread overseas quickly, and by 1905, the immigration of over 500 experienced Greek sponge divers and their families had begun. The Greek immigrants flourished and the sponge industry became the largest industry in Florida (even bigger than tourism or citrus) with Tarpon Springs becoming known as the “Sponge Capital of the World.”
Today, this charming small town boasts the highest percentage of Greek Americans of any city in the country, and the sponge industry is once again dominating the world’s supply of natural sponges after rebounding from a blight that devastated the industry in the 1940s.
What to do
The Sponge Docks are the main attraction, so begin your day with a tour of its narrow lanes and whitewashed buildings. This quaint commercial area originally grew around the burgeoning sponge industry to service the boats and the crews that worked them.
Visitors can stroll Dodecanese Boulevard which faces the docks. Here you can watch the sponge, shrimp and other fishing boats getting ready for their next journey. Many of the boats, as well as the shops and restaurants that line the surrounding streets, are still owned by descendants of the original Greek immigrants.
All about sponges
This is definitely the place to learn about and shop for natural sponges, and there are more than a few shops dedicated to the sale of locally harvested sponges. In case you’re not familiar, sponges are simple multicellular animals known as Porifera that live stuck to the floor of the ocean.
Eco-friendly and sustainable, they are harvested by licensed divers who hand-cut the sponges, leaving a piece of the sponge which will regrow back to its full size.
Get the background on sponges and how they are harvested at Spongeorama and The Sponge Factory, both located on Dodecanese Boulevard, where you can watch a free movie showing sponging history. Also be sure to check out the Sponge Exchange, also on Dodecanese Boulevard.
In 1908, the Sponge Exchange was built to store and auction the sponges. Today, there are still shops selling sponges alongside a selection of new boutiques, restaurants and bars.
For an even more in-depth understanding of sponges and the harvesting process, or just to tour the local waterways and islands, jump on one of the local tour boats. Numerous kiosks are set up along the docks with a variety of trip options. Near the Sponge Exchange is the family-owned St. Nicholas Boat Line, one of the oldest tourist businesses on Florida’s west coast, that offers half-hour cruises with a demonstration of traditional sponge diving.
A brief sponge buying guide
Natural sponges are both decorative and useful for a wide variety of household and personal chores, being soft, durable and antibacterial. When shopping for sponges, be sure to read the signage carefully as not all the sponges are harvested locally and different sponge varieties have different uses.
Below are sponge types that are commonly harvested from the Gulf of Mexico along with popular uses.
Where to eat
As you might expect, Greek and seafood restaurants dominate the Sponge Docks. If you get there early, you might want to start the day with coffee and a fresh, warm pastry from one of several bakeries in the Greek Village. Check out the blue and white Hellas Bakery and its vast display cases of sugary goodness including all your Greek favorites.
Lunch and dinner options abound for those with a taste for Greek specialties. Check out the Limani for authentic, casual fare with outdoor seating and a walk-up window. For a more romantic meal with a water view, try Dimitri’s on the Water, a family-owned restaurant featuring classic Greek-style steak and seafood dishes.
For seafood, the unanimous winner is Rusty Bellies, located at the very end of Dodecanese Blvd. This local favorite gets fresh fish and shellfish daily and also has a seafood market attached. The outdoor patio is perfect to enjoy the weather and there is a view out over the bayou.
Other things to do…
Spring Bayou & Craig Park
After lunch, jump on the handy Jolley Trolley (which costs only $5 a day and runs hourly) to the Tarpon Avenue stop for a short stroll to enjoy the scenic Spring Bayou. Visit the Tarpon Springs Museum in Craig Park for further insights into the local Greek community including exhibits on daily life, religion, celebrations and, of course, food.
Next, trip on over to the Tarpon Springs downtown area, a charming historic shopping district with an eclectic proliferation of antique and specialty stores. There are also several museums and historic monuments to explore. Train buffs will enjoy a visit to the Tarpon Springs Historical Train Depot Museum.
Finish the day on a high note by heading back to the Sponge Docks for a Greek dinner, or stay downtown and have dinner at Olive the World Bistro. Their menu features a variety of tapas and pasta-based dishes that celebrate all varieties of olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette.
If you’re looking to go upscale, check out Currents for sophisticated décor and contemporary seafood cuisine.
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