Tarpon Springs is a cute little town with a very unique history. I had been wanting to visit since moving to Tampa, and during Labor Day we were finally able to!
As far as touristy towns go, the main area of Tarpon Springs is fairly small (only one street) and can easily be seen in a day. If you want to visit more of the museums or spend time on the water, than I would suggest staying 2-3 days. Another interesting thing is that Tarpon Springs is surprisingly inexpensive. Parking costs on average $5 for the entire day, and we were able to get that reimbursed by spending $20 at the gift shop we parked behind. Boat tours also only cost around $10. And the main souvenir, sponges; were only $1 each.
The History: At one time the sponge industry was Florida’s main export.
In 1887, Tarpon Springs was incorporated. It had a population of 52 residents. One resident named John Cheney discovered money could be made by harvesting the sponges growing in the waters of the Gulf. Although Tarpon Springs was successful as a resort, it wasn’t long before the sponge industry became the community’s most important industry.
By 1890, the sponge industry was firmly established in Tarpon Springs. The Cheney Sponge Company sold almost a million dollars worth of sponges that year.
In the next few years, experienced divers from Greece were brought to Tarpon Springs. By using rubberized diving suits and helmets, they increased harvests. By 1905, over 500 Greek sponge divers were at work using 50 boats.
The Hellenic influence remains strong today. According to census figures, more than one in 10 residents claim Greek descent, giving Tarpon Springs a higher percentage of Greek-Americans than any other American city. More than seven percent report that they speak Greek in their homes. The high school sports teams are nicknamed “Spongers.”
What to See and Do: As I mentioned earlier, the majority of these can be found on Dodecanese Boulevard. This is where the majority of the shops and restaurants are located, as well as the boat tours and sponge docks. The Tarpon Springs Aquarium and Sponge Museum (which is free) are also both here. It’s a charming street with hidden surprises, such as the decorated bikes you can find throughout.
What to Buy: Do not leave Tarpon Springs without buying at least one sponge and soap! They are unique to the area, inexpensive, and there are many options to choose from. And if you don’t use the sponge (although I recommend doing so at least once), it can make a great decoration in your bathroom.
Where to Eat: In my previous trips to Tarpon Springs for work, I ate at Mr. Souvlaki, which is very good and I would recommend if you have time to eat at more than one restaurant. But if you can only time to visit one, make it Hellas Restaurant and Bakery. Its everything you want in both food and atmosphere. We actually ate at the restaurant and then later picked up bakery goods to take home, since the restaurant and bakery are considered separate. Also, get the flaming cheese.
Overall, Tarpon Springs is a delightful water-front town and I would highly recommend visiting!
What are some of your favorite small towns to travel to?