The Greek Islands are a bucket-list trip, but if a budget-bending vacation isn’t in the cards this year, there’s somewhere a lot closer to home that can serve as the perfect stand-in. Tarpon Springs, Florida, located on the Gulf of Mexico just north of Tampa, could easily pass for Mykonos with just a tiny stretch of the imagination. The town got its start when sponge beds were discovered off its coast in the early 1900s. In 1905, Greek sponge divers were brought to the area, and the rest is history. The Greeks and the sponge industry built Tarpon Springs, and a century later, both have remained central to the town. In fact, Tarpon Springs has the largest percent of Greek Americans of any city in the U.S.
When you’re squeezing fresh lemon over your chargrilled octopus, while listening to the table next to you animatedly converse in Greek, you might forget where you are. And as you stroll along Dodecanese Boulevard watching boats flying Greek flags pull up to the dock, Florida may be the furthest place from your mind. Growing up, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and Mamma Mia! were two of my favorite movies, mostly because I couldn’t get enough of the gorgeous Greek villages they took place in. So, when I had the chance to fulfill a few of my Greek vacation dreams right here in the South, I jumped at the opportunity. Here’s how to spend a dreamy weekend in Tarpon Springs, Florida.
The Best Things To Do In Tarpon Springs
Mimic the exhilarating shock of touching down in a foreign land and immersing yourself in a new culture by starting your Tarpon Springs vacation at the Historic Sponge Docks. This was once the center of Tarpon Springs’ booming sponge industry, and thousands of sponges were delivered to the docks by sponge boats each week. Today, sponge boats pulling up after a dive aren’t quite as common, but this is still the center of activity in town. Greek restaurants line the bustling streets, gift and souvenir shops sell sponges pulled fresh from the Gulf, and there’s always a line outside the many bakeries. Spend time browsing in the 30 specialty shops of outdoor shopping village The Sponge Exchange, take a picture with the sponge smiley outside of Sponge Diver Supply, and buy homemade olive oil soap at Lori’s Soap & Sponge.
If you’re curious to learn more about Tarpon Springs’ history and heritage, book a sponge diving boat tour with St. Nicholas Boat Line. You’ll cruise around the Anclote River, while owner and Tarpon Springs native George Billiris shares the history of sponge diving in Tarpon Springs and even sends a live diver (dressed in traditional diving equipment) to the ocean floor to retrieve a sponge. A 5-minute drive from the Sponge Docks, you can learn more about Tarpon Springs at two downtown landmarks, the Tarpon Springs Heritage Museum and Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, both of which are open to the public. After you visit the museum’s exhibits, take a stroll around Spring Bayou at Craig Park, which is located just outside the museum. The deep blue waters are the sight of the town’s annual Greek Orthodox Epiphany Celebration and cross-diving ceremony.
From the park, you can walk a few blocks and find yourself in the center of downtown Tarpon Springs. You won’t see as much Greek influence here, but in its place there’s plenty of charm and lots to explore including coffee shops, boutiques, and antique stores. For modern home goods, gifts, and local art, stop into Sunshine Supply Company, or get a hit of nostalgia at Replay Museum, where there’s a collection of 100 vintage arcade and pinball games that adults can play all day for $14.
If your idea of a Greek vacation involves a place in the sand and an uninterrupted view of the ocean, Tarpon Springs can deliver on that as well. Head to Fred Howard Park, a 155-acre natural area that’s popular for fishing, kayaking, canoeing, and more. Take the mile-long causeway out to the white-sand beach at Howard Park Beach. Set up for the day and enjoy splashing around in the calm waters of the Saint Joseph Sound. If the Atlantic Ocean is calling you deeper offshore, you can take a quick ride to the neighboring town of Dunedin and join a boat tour with Parrotdise Express. The 4-hour excursion will take you to a semi-private island where you can snorkel to see colorful fish, rays, and seahorses. You can also dive for sand dollars, starfish, and shells in every shape, size, and color imaginable.
The Best Places To Eat In Tarpon Springs
The only thing that rivals the views in Greece is the food, and the same is true in Tarpon Springs. Here, you’ll find some of the most authentic Greek cuisine anywhere off the actual islands. For a crash course in all things Greek dining, put yourself in the capable hands of the Salivaras family, who own Mykonos and Dimitri’s on the Water. The brother-sister team of Koula and Dimitri took over the family restaurant business from their parents and are committed to serving fresh, high-quality ingredients and traditional recipes. You may have to wait for a seat at Mykonos, but it’s well worth it for the exceptional chargrilled octopus, dressed simply with a squeeze of lemon, and the flaming saganaki cheese. The portions here are huge, but if you’ve got a crowd, order the Lamb Fricassee, a caveman-sized lamb shank covered in sauteed endive and swimming in an egg-lemon-dill-sauce.
Across the street at Dimitri’s on the Water, you’ll find a more upscale dining experience with a view of the Anclote River and a menu of steakhouse favorites, as well as updated Greek specialties. Order the Whole Fish of the Day Plaki Style, you’ll get dinner and a show when a waiter will debone it for you tableside and drizzle it with creamy lemon sauce. There are dozens of other worthy Greek restaurants to check out at the Sponge Docks, but one that’s worth deviating from the tourist track for is Katerina’s Taverna & Grill. The traditional pork gyro, wrapped up with tomato, onion, tzatziki, and fries, is excellent, as is the Avgolemono (Greek chicken lemon soup).
For traditional Greek sweets, join the all-hours-of-the-day line at Hellas Bakery, where you’ll have the difficult job of choosing from overwhelming display of Greek pastries and desserts that stretch far beyond baklava. We recommend picking an array, but then snagging a box each of Melomakarona (Greek Christmas honey cookies) and Kourabiedes (Greek shortbread-style butter cookies) to take home.
Greek food is the ticket in Tarpon Springs, but you absolutely shouldn’t leave town without making a reservation at Rusty Bellies, a waterfront restaurant that started as a family fishing business and seafood market. Three generations and three decades later, a table at Rusty Bellies is one of the most sought-after in town. Most of the seafood served at the restaurant is brought in fresh everyday by the family’s own fishing and shrimping boats. The portions are gargantuan, and the freshness is unmatched. The menu features everything from seafood tacos and sandwiches to steak and chicken for the seafood averse. Order the E. Sea Rider (grilled shrimp skewers, sea scallops, and your choice of fish) for a taste of it all.
The best breakfast in Tarpon Springs can be found at downtown’s Toula’s Trailside Café. Located along the Pinellas Bike Trail, it’s a popular spot for hungry riders as well as locals looking for a hearty homemade breakfast or lunch. From sweet and savory crepes to Benedicts, stuffed French toast, and a Greek-inspired scrambler called the Bougiourdi (feta, tomatoes, sweet and hot banana peppers, basil, garlic), you’re guaranteed to leave happy.
If you want to celebrate your pseudo-Greek vacation with a tipple, Tarpon Springs has plenty of places to grab a pint (especially for its size). Options include Two Frogs Brewing Company, Brighter Days Brewing Company, Unrefined Brewing, Sponge City Brewing, and 5 Branches Brewing. There’s also Tarpon Springs Distillery, a retirement project of couple Barry and Lisa Butler that took on a life of its own once their spirits started winning awards. The small-batch artisanal spirits range from a hot and dirty gin distilled with green olives, juniper, coriander, and peppers to rye malt whiskey. The tasting room’s bartenders are endlessly creative, which means your cocktail could feature anything from the traditional Greek liquor ouzo (distilled in house) to aquavit.
The Best Places To Stay In Tarpon Springs
Though it’s got a big personality, Tarpon Springs remains a small town, so lodging options are somewhat limited. If you want to live like a local, there are several private rentals on Airbnb and Vrbo that can suit anything from a Big Fat Greek Wedding-style family reunion to a getaway for two. Another great option is The 1910 Inn. Located in a seafoam-painted Victorian home with stacked circular porches, the inn is hard to miss. Inside, the home’s been restored to its original glory and is filled with one-of-a-kind vintage pieces. Innkeeper Annie Samarkos is a Tarpon Springs native and perfect person to introduce you to her little slice of Greek paradise.
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