Take a day trip to this historic town to find a few secluded beaches and a resurgent downtown.
- Great food (not just Greek).
- Rich Florida maritime history.
- Plenty for the kids to do.
- The beaches are tiny.
- Some may consider the Sponge Docks a tourist trap.
There are beaches in Tarpon Springs, but they are just an afterthought compared to what this small town is famous for — its sponge docks.
For more a century, deep-sea divers have been harvesting sponges on the coast of Tarpon Springs, which was incorporated in 1887. That made it the first and northernmost town in what became Pinellas County.
While Pinellas is known for its barrier-island beach communities, Tarpon Springs (named for the ornery game fish, which can grow up to 8 feet long and routinely leaps from the water.) and its bayou-heavy coastline became a center of industry.
A Philadelphia-born entrepreneur and banker named John Cheyney first discovered a gold mine of sponges off the coast of the town before the turn of the century. The trade exploded shortly afterward when Greek businessman John Cocoris convinced Greek divers to flock to Tarpon Springs to use their harvesting techniques and heavy-duty gear to collect even more sponges. To this day, the town is filled with Hellenic history, including a sizable Greek Orthodox population and a major Epiphany celebration each January.
With the growth of the sponge industry, restaurants and shops started opening near the docks and the community grew. The sponge industry outgrew the tourism and citrus industries, becoming the largest in the state at one point. But the sponge harvest collapsed after blight hit sponge beds in the 1940s, and new, synthetic sponges kicked the industry while it was down in later decades.
Sponge harvesting has recovered a little bit; Boats still go out and harvest sponges to this day, although the trade is not as lucrative as those prime years. The town uses the sponge trade as its major tourist attraction, with myriad sponge stores, restaurants and souvenir shops along Dodecanese Boulevard, the main drag along the docks. Visitors can see everything from sponge harvesting to the weekly auctions.
Tarpon Springs (especially the docks) can get pretty busy during festivals and on the weekends, and feel almost empty on weekdays.
Beyond the sponges, Tarpon Springs is the perfect day trip to try some authentic Greek food and, yes, hit up one of the town’s small beaches. After a walk down Dodecanese, you can stop by a resurgent downtown for more shops and brews.
The beaches here are in two separate parks along the Gulf of Mexico, Fred Howard Park and Sunset Beach. They’re pretty small, but offer nice respites from the city by providing just enough to replicate the experience of much bigger beaches.
Tarpon Springs is a little less than 25 miles from Tampa International Airport (TPA), the largest airport in the region and therefore is a destination for most airlines. St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport (PIE) is about 20 miles from Tarpon Springs. It is a smaller airport than TPA, but does fly to many locations.
There are many ground transportation options at both airports, including shuttles, car rentals and ride-sharing services.
The main route to Tarpon Springs is U.S. Highway 19, which brings you to the eastern end of town. You’ll have to drive west to reach downtown, the Sponge Docks and beachfront parks. Pinellas Avenue, also known as Alternate U.S. 19, runs north and south through downtown and the older shopping district. Once you’re in town, biking is feasible if you map it out.
There are bus routes serving the city, but the main way for visitors is usually the Jolley Trolley that runs up and down the coast, from the Sponge Docks to Clearwater and beyond. For hours and routes visit the Jolley Trolley website here.
The entrance to Fred Howard Park is at the intersection of Sunset and Seaside Drives, past a collection of bayous. Sunset Beach is at the far end of Gulf Road. Pay attention to your turns, as the roads get pretty curvy and roundabout.
Besides the beaches, most of the city’s businesses lie either on Dodecanese Boulevard on the docks, or downtown along Tarpon Avenue.
Tarpon Springs is a town of about 24,000 people, so street parking tends to be plentiful. The downtown area has free parking along Tarpon Avenue, including a couple of lots along Court Street off Pinellas Avenue. You generally don’t have to go too far off the main drag to find a spot, unless there’s a festival going on.
Parking can be expensive near the Sponge Docks, however, and pretty hard to find on the busiest days. There are several paid lots off Dodecanese Boulevard and Hope Street, all of which will either have attendants or pay stations. Bring cash to make your life easier.
Both beach parks feature decent-sized parking lots. On Sunset Beach, parking is free. In Fred Howard Park, parking is free on the mainland but $5 in the beach area.
Most of the coastline along Tarpon Springs is either residential property or mangroves, but it does feature two parks with small beaches, Fred Howard Park and Sunset Beach.
FRED HOWARD PARK
The larger of the two, Fred Howard Park is a 155-acre county park with playgrounds, picnic shelters and restrooms on the mainland. (A map is here.) There’s also a sizable beach at the far end of a mile-long causeway.
The beach is a quiet place for relaxing during weekdays, and is more popular on weekends. (The parking along the causeway can fill up, too, as people jam onto the sand all along the road.) It offers a clear view of the Gulf of Mexico from St. Joseph Sound, with Anclote Key to the north and Three Rooker Island to the south.
The sand is clean and there are plenty of palm trees to catch some shade. It’s family oriented, with lifeguards posted from March until Labor Day during posted hours.
You can rent all sorts of things out here, from paddlecraft to wheeled transportation, from a kiosk on the beach. There’s a launch area for Wave Runners off the causeway, and room for fishing on the north and south ends of the beach. Pets and alcohol are not allowed.
Locals like to walk along the causeway and read on the beach. You will see out-of-towners, too, with visitors ranging from retirees to little kids.
Head south of Fred Howard Park and you’ll find its sister park, Sunset Beach. This truly tiny beach, which is really a city park, is largely just a parking lot with some sand attached.
It still manages to pack in the amenities, however. There’s a playground and covered picnic tables, with restrooms, a pavilion, a boat launch and a volleyball court.
Like Fred Howard, the small strip of sand does have a beautiful view of the Gulf, although the sand is a bit dirtier and rocks are scattered on the shores. Sunset Beach doesn’t extend out into St. Joseph Sound quite as far, but you’re still clearly away from the mainland.
One cool feature of Sunset Beach is its free book collection. In the parking lot there’s a small box with several books that are meant for visitors to enjoy. The only catch is that if you take a book, you’re expected to replace it with another, so clear off your home bookshelf with a possible donation before you go.
WHERE TO STAY
There are limited hotel options in Tarpon Springs, and most of those are out on U.S. 19. This small extended stay option has monthly rates and a pool with a jacuzzi.
This historic B&B is in the middle of everything on Tarpon Avenue. A couple bought it in 2012 and began restoring it, providing personal service and an evening dessert to complement the daily breakfast.
This 1890s house north of downtown offers an intimate stay in an old-fashioned house. The hosts offer monthly rates, if you’re planning a lengthy visit.
THINGS TO DO
There are several city parks, but this one touts a free splash pad for the kiddos (and a space for dogs). Mind the posted hours and remember that it can close in the winter.
This boat tour based on the Sponge Docks gives the public the opportunity to see a real-life sponge-diving exhibition. The trip along the Anclote River gives visitors a more in-depth perspective of the historic sponge docks.
This gamer’s paradise is a museum full of vintage pinball machines and old-school video game cabinets. There is a flat rate for playing all of the games, so no need for pockets full of quarters to relive the bygone arcade era.
This free museum offers some insight into the sponging industry and what sponges actually are. While the gift shop is clearly the focus here, the museum features a free informational movie and is a fun distraction.
A modest museum showcasing modern and contemporary art. It’s supported in part by St. Petersburg College; The museum is located on the college’s Tarpon Springs campus.
You hear a lot about sponges in this town, but at the aquarium you can feed nurse sharks, touch stingrays and see eels and snakes. There’s a bounce house and ball pit for the kids, too.
Every January, Tarpon Springs hosts what is often called the largest Greek Orthodox Epiphany celebration in the United States, a century-old event marking the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan. Teenage boys dive into Spring Bayou to retrieve a wooden cross, then a daylong festival takes over the streets around St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church downtown. All the festivities are free.
This Greek festival in June is packed with Greek food, art and music at the Sponge Docks. Admission is free, as is parking down the street at the Splash Park.
Another event at the Sponge Docks, free Greek dance lessons, authentic Greek food and live music are on select Saturday nights throughout the year. Dinner reservations at some restaurants are available those nights.
Hippie Fest is one of the largest free summer events for Tarpon Springs, featuring several bands, a hula hoop contest, a VW car show, a best-dressed hippie contest and more.
WATERSPORTS AND FITNESS
Fred Howard Park’s rental shop has everything from kayaks to surf boards to Surreys. They have hourly prices as well as half-day and full-day prices.
Set off on a deep sea fishing charter aboard the Two Georges, an 85-foot party boat that’s a little more swank than your traditional center console.
The marina office is on Dodecanese Boulevard just off U.S. 19, and sells launch permits. The city’s boat ramps are at Sunset Beach and Craig Park on Spring Bayou.
This marina off the Anclote River in the Sponge Docks boasts a tiki bar for members, and a clubhouse open to the public on weekends.
This jogging and biking path runs from Tarpon Springs to St. Petersburg through the entire county. A segment runs from the county line south through downtown.
A county park on the east side of town serves as a great launching point for fishing trips on Lake Tarpon, away from the beach.
PLACES TO EAT AND DRINK
This bicyclist-friendly spot is known for their diner-style food, perfect for breakfast. This place is in the middle of downtown, right off Tarpon Avenue along the Pinellas Trail.
There’s no shortage of Greek restaurants here, but at Dimitri’s you can sit bayside for an authentic experience. There are dockside tables available, which makes an ideal date at sunset.
A local craft beer haven in the Sponge Exchange that provides a break from Greek salads and calamari with specialty grilled cheese sandwiches and more.
A wide selection of beers and above-average pub food makes for a good place to watch a game or catch up with friends. The Tavern Twister fries are worth the trip on their own.
This waterfront restaurant serves up stellar seafood. It’s open seven days a week January through April, but is closed on Mondays the rest of the time.
One of the best in downtown Tarpon Springs, Currents focuses on freshness, whether that’s produce, meats or their cocktails. There’s a gluten-free menu, too. Be aware that this is one of the pricier eateries.
Bring all sweet-tooth cravings to this cupcake shop. Their homemade, exquisitely-decorated cupcakes are baked fresh daily.
The Sponge Exchange is an outdoor shopping mall down on the Sponge Docks. It features clothing stores, restaurants and sponge shops selling high-end to low-end souvenirs.
This small boutique on the docks sells gifts unique to the town, as well as resortwear. Their jewelry, bedding and cooking wear are top-of-the-line.
A furniture and consignment shop that has really helped the downtown resurgence, you’ll find all sorts of weathered wood and chalkboard paint here. The store also offers workshops where you can learn to make things.
An Old World experience by a longtime brewery serving authentic Belgian-style farmhouse ales. The owner once ran his bottling operation from a storage unit, but now occupies a huge house with rooms to rent by the night upstairs, should you imbibe too much.
A cozy craft brewery that has adopted a nickname of the town’s namesake fish. The renovated space housing the bar and its drinking rooms was once the Tarpon Springs jail.
A brewery in the heart of downtown owned by the Croake family (get it?). Locals swear by their Key Lime Cider. The brewery also offers live music and yoga sessions.