Tarpon Springs, Florida
Tarpon Springs is a unique gem in the state of Florida. Located where a series of bayous meet the Gulf of Mexico, it boasts the largest percentage of Greek Americans of any city in the United States and is world famous for its Sponge Docks, a popular tourist attraction not unlike the seaside villages found in Greece. Tarpon Springs was originally named for the Tarpon fish seen jumping out of the bayous throughout the area by the original settlers. But it's what was found on the bottom of the water that put the town on the map. Greek immigrants came to the area to dive for sponges on the bottom of the sea and soon a sponge harvesting industry was born. The divers immigrated from Greece where sponge diving was more common around the Greek islands.
As the industry grew, sponge factories and warehouses grew up along the waterfront at Dodecanese Boulevard. However, in 1947 a red tide algae bloom destroyed most of the sponge fields in the area. Many of the structures along Dodecanese Boulevard (the area's Main Street) were converted into boutiques, restaurants, and museums honoring the historic industry. Today tourists can visit the Sponge Docks and learn more about the town's sponge diving past through its museums and other attractions. The town has an authentic and unique feel to visitors who can still hear Greek spoken in the streets and enjoy the large number of Greek restaurants, diners, bakeries, and markets.
A short drive from the Sponge Docks district is downtown Tarpon Springs. This area is a bit quieter than the Sponge Docks but also well worth a visit. Tarpon Avenue is the Downtown's Main Street and features many shops and restaurants, including a large variety of antique shops, many of which specialize in certain kinds of antiques. Between these two districts, the shops and restaurants and the unique feel of the area, Tarpon Springs is well worth the visit.
Tarpon Springs is located at the northern end of Pinellas County on the Gulf of Mexico. Tarpon Springs is approximately 30 miles north of St. Petersburg, Florida and approximately 32 miles northeast of Tampa, Florida. Dodecanese Boulevard is the Main Street for the Sponge Docks district and Tarpon Avenue is the Main Street for downtown Tarpon Springs. You can easily follow the signs to reach either destination from U.S. Highway 19, the main highway through the area.
Tarpon Springs has two main commercial districts that we will be exploring, the Sponge Docks and Downtown. We'll start with the Sponge Docks at the corner of Dodecanese Boulevard and Pinellas Avenue (U.S. 19 Alt.) and will work our way west on Dodecanese. This is a large restaurant at the northwest corner of Dodecanese and Pinellas that looked closed at the time we were in Tarpon Springs.
So we head west on Dodecanese Boulevard, which is the Main Street for the Sponge Docks area of Tarpon Springs, Florida. The road gets its name from the Dodecanese Islands area in Greece, an area where many folks immigrated from so they could participate in the local sponge diving industry. Along here, you will find many shops and attractions dedicated to the city's sponge industry.
Here is another outlet dedicated to the sponge industry (and Cuban Cigars). Tarpon Springs was originaly founded as a wintering spot for wealthy northerners. But soon natural sponges were found in the waters and folks came from all around to dive in the waters to retrieve them. Since this was already a huge industry in Greece, many people from that country came to this area to support the booming business.
Across the street is the City Marina and the waterfront. The Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center are also right inside that building along with public bathrooms.
Here is the first of many Greek restaurants you'll see in the area. Tarpon Springs has the highest per capita of Greek residents in the United States.
Across the street is a seafood restaurant with a pirate theme. The area has a large number of tourists so the businesses do cater to them. Also, these pictures were taken around Christmastime, so yes, you will be seeing a lot of Christmas decorations in these photos.
Also on the water side of the street are more Greek restaurants and the Spongeorama Sponge Factory. The area is a great place to come and buy sponges (of course). We have not reached the heart of the area yet so we're still walking by a lot of parking lots. Your best bet is to probably park around this area.
On the north side of Dodecanese Boulevard you have the waterfront and on the south side you have a higher concentration of shops such as this gift shop, selling hats and t-shirts.
And here is yet another Greek restaurant. Be careful where you park. Many of the parking lots are private and owned by the businesses that they are next to. You can really see the Christmas decorations in this shot.
Across the street is another restaurant and a gift shop. This one sells sponges not unlike the ones hanging on the wall out front making the smiley face.
You'll see all kinds of crazy ways to use sponges in Tarpon Springs, including this bicycle, probably more decorative than anything. But gift shops also sell things such as pots for plants made out of natural sponges.
Here are racks of sponges for sale in Tarpon Springs. You can find a lot of uses for them besides just cleaing. Today, many of the sponges are imported, but there has been an effort to boost the local sponge harvesting industry again and sell more local sponges.
Across the street, you get a good view of the Anclote River, where various boats are docked. Many are available to take a tour of the area. One of them in this photo even appears to be a Casino ship.
As we continue west, we get to the intersection of Athens Street and Dodecanese Boulevard. There are some historic buildings along here, including the M. Gonatos building built in 1927, which you could pretty much tell by looking at the front of the building. Bikers speed past on the beautiful December day.
We take a slight detour down Athens Street where we find more shops and eateries.
We head back out to Dodecanese Boulevard and head west. The mural on the right side of the picture depicts a diver going down to the bottom of the water to retrieve sponges. Also, notice the direction signage. At the top, the town uses a diver's helmet as a symbol for the Sponge Docks area. Similar signs in downtown will have a different symbol for that area as we will see later.
The Sponge Exchange is an outdoor shopping plaza with shops and restaurants. It's adjacent to Dodacanese Boulevard so we'll step inside and take a look around.
Here's another view of the inside of the Sponge Exchange, including some of the nautical decor that adorns the place.
We head back out to Dodecanese Boulevard. The mural on the left is part of the Sponge Exchange (like the other mural we saw previously), along with the signs advertising the stores inside. Trees shade the wide sidewalks. Ahead you can see more Greek restaurants and bakeries.
Across the street, a statue honors the divers who dove for sponges around Tarpon Springs. You can see the water and boats behind him.
Also, on the water side of Dodecanese Boulevard are some gift shops selling merchandise such as t-shirts, shells, and of course, sponges.
Back on the south side of Dodecanese Boulevard we have more gift shops selling a wide array of goods.
If we pull, back in this picture, we can see some more of the historic buildings that line Dodecanese. The sidewalk here is more narrow. Notice the railing. It's as if they are concerned about pedestrians getting hit by traffic. Also notice that there is no on-street parking along this stretch, so the cars drive by pretty quickly near the sidewalk.
Hella's Restaurant and Bakery features one of the most distinct signs along the skyline. The Sponge Docks are not just known for the Greek restaurants but also for all the many Greek bakeries as well.
We make it to the intersection of Hope Street and Dodecanese Boulevard. Speaking of distinct signs on the skyline, the Lighthouse Shoppes shopping center features a large lighthouse that we can see from about a block away.
Across the street we find a store selling fudge. Also there's a sign for a deep sea fishing excursion, one of many boating tours you can take from the shores of the Sponge Docks.
On the land side of the street we see some shops selling apparel, accessories, and handbags.
Back on the waterfront side, we have a large gift shop and a sign proclaiming Tarpon Springs to be the Sponge Capitol of the World.
Here's a closer look at the Lighthouse Shoppes, which also features an indoor mall as well.
Across the street is another strip shopping center featuring gift shops, an ice cream parlor, and even an aquarium. You can also see another example of the Sponge Docks signage.
We almost reach the western end of the Sponge Docks commercial district when we get to the roundabout created by the intersection of Dodecanese Boulevard and Roosevelt Boulevard. But there's still just a little bit more to see.
Just past the roundabout are several more seafood and waterfront restaurants. If we keep going a bit further we'll reach the water and one of the many bayous that surround the area. Now let's head over to downtown Tarpon Springs.
A short drive away and we're in downtown Tarpon Springs. We parked at a public parking lot at the corner of Court Street and Safford Avenue. This is a view of Safford Avenue looking north. The trail running up the middle is the Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail, part of a rails to trails project. The trail actually connects to downtown Dunedin, another Main Street community, several miles south.
Appropriately on the left is the old Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Depot built in 1908, a clue that this trail was once part of a railway. Today the building houses the Historic Depot Museum and Welcome Center. We'll get a better look at the front later.
Across Safford Avenue are more shops and eateries with outside cafes to serve the folks walking, driving or even biking by. The murals on the walls add an interesting touch.
Also on Safford some more interesting murals along the side of a tavern and even a cycle shop. The perfect place for one since this trail is popular with cyclists.
We make it to Tarpon Avenue, which is the Main Street for downtown Tarpon Springs. First, we'll turn right and head east to check out what's down there. Most of the action is west but there are a few businesses east of Safford.
Here is another view slightly further east on Tarpon Avenue, looking down to Ring Avenue. At this point, we'll turn around and west on Tarpon Avenue.
This is a view of the northwest corner of Tarpon Avenue and Safford Avenue. This building was once an old dry goods store but today is an antiques store and a boutique store selling trendy merchandise.
Here's a closer look at that same building. Mad Hatter General Store is a modern version of an old fashion general store selling vintage style apparel, jewelry, accessories, hats, gifts, home decor, and toys.
Across the street, on the left you can see the front of the Historic Depot Museum we were looking at earlier. Also there is a sign for the Municipal Parking Lot where we parked earlier and started our tour of downtown Tarpon Springs.
We continue heading west along Tarpon Avenue. Vasile Faklis Department Store, built in 1912, is the oldest continuous business in town.
One of the biggest draws to downtown Tarpon Springs is all the antique shopping it has to offer.
Here is another view of the antique stores along the south side of Tarpon Avenue. Tarapani's Department Store is on the right. Opened in 1911 as a department store, it is still run by the Tarapani family, but today it is primarily an antique store.
The Taylor Arcade built in 1910 once held a movie theatre and pool hall. Today, it is home to a cafe and a collection of other shops and businesses.
If we look closer, we can see inside the small indoor mall that is now the Taylor Arcade.
More businesses across the street. The Replay Museum is home to hundreds of arcade games and pinball machines, including the world's largest pinball machine. The building on the right is the G. W. Fernald Building and was built in 1894. It is the oldest building in Tarpon Springs and was built after a fire had torn through the downtown area.
The Meres Building was built in 1914 by Ernest Meres. Over the years, the building housed many businesses from the Greek American Bank to one of the city's first movie theaters. Today it contains several shops, including an antiques shop and a barber shop.
Across the street are some more businesses, including a pizza place that just opened, so you can get something to eat in downtown Tarpon Springs after you're done shopping.
As you get close to the western end of the shopping district in downtown Tarpon Springs, we come across this small park and another public parking lot. Notice the sign and map on the right? The symbol on the top is a clock tower and represents downtown Tarpon Springs. Sort of like how the diver's helmet symbol on the other signs represented the Sponge Docks.
If you continue heading west on Tarpon Avenue, things get a little quieter. But you'll also find some Bed & Breakfasts such as The 1910 Inn, built in 1910, where it got its name. This one was constructed in the Queen Anne's style of architecture.
At the end of Tarpon Avenue is Spring Bayou. Just across the way and within a short walking distance is Craig Park and the Tarpon Springs Heritage Musuem.
Turning around, we see the Tarpon Inn Motel, overlooking the Spring Bayou.
Spring Boulevard circles around Spring Bayou. You can walk around the bayou and take in the scenic nature or take in the scenic homes overlooking the bayou. This concludes our tour of Tarpon Springs, but from here, if you're still hungry, you can still grab dinner around downtown or at one of the many spots at the Sponge Docks.
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Tarpon Springs and the World Famous Sponge Docks
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