Some think of Tarpon Springs as a small Greek village. They flock here merely for dolmades, those delicious, lemony rice-filled grape leaves.
Others shop in the city’s downtown antique and gift shops and never make it to the Greek cafes across from the famous sponge docks.
Still others bypass the moussaka, gyros and spanakopita near the docks — and never go downtown, either. They head to the picturesque beaches — one located in the 155-acre Fred Howard county park — or to Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art, miles south.
Long a darling of guidebook authors, Tarpon Springs is anything you want it to be. It’s a place where you can buy shrimp right off the boat from a market near the docks, or treat yourself to what one local calls “the best hamburger in the world” at the downtown Tarpon Tavern.
You can board a deep-sea fishing boat for an all-day outing, or take a cruise into the Gulf to see the Anclote Lighthouse.
You can stroll through the dock-front shops and bakeries, indulging in sugary Kourabiedes cookies or syrupy-sweet baklava, or stop by a tiny shrine to St. Michael on a street called Hope to light a candle for a loved one.
If you want a taste of history, you can spend an hour or more in the informative Historic Train Depot Museum housed in the old depot at 160 Tarpon Ave. It’s filled with artifacts about Tarpon’s famous sponge industry, its role in wars and even in show business. Some episodes of “Sea Hunt” were filmed in Tarpon Springs. So was “Beneath the 12-Mile Reef,” starring Robert Wagner as a young sponge diver.
Exhibits tell about the Orange Belt Railroad that began bringing passengers to Tarpon Springs’ first depot in 1887. Built of wood, it burned down and was replaced in 1909 by the current brick building. It doubles as a visitor center, so it’s a good place to get brochures and information on things to do; hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.
History buffs and antique lovers also can tour the restored home of Anson P.K. Safford, one of the town’s original developers and the third governor of the Arizona Territory. Built in 1883 at 23 Parkin Court, it features Safford’s desk and other pieces from the late-1800s and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
In shops down by the sponge docks, you can find a doll that speaks Greek, or a Greek soccer T-shirt. You can buy Pandora jewelry and Vera Bradley purses in the Shoppes of Five Fish. Or, if you like hot sauces and high-quality spices, you can stroll some more and wander into the Spicemans Kitchen or The Spice and Tea Exchange. You can even buy authentic rum-colored sponges from overflowing baskets at the Sponge Exchange and other shops.
Or you can simply enjoy the town’s waterfront, where sponge boats idle next to shrimp boats just in from a day’s catch.
Eight-year-old Erin Johnson says she loves everything about her birthplace. “I love all the stores and all the Greek culture, and I always love the bakeries,” she said on a visit to the depot history museum with her mom, Elizabeth Dolezal Teller.
While her mom browsed through displays, Erin colored sponge divers in a coloring book at a kid-sized table.
Teller, an artist and photographer who has lived in Tarpon Springs for 16 years, describes it as having “a small-town feel, but still with a lot of the amenities of a large town. It has so many great restaurants, you could pick any one near the sponge docks — Hellas, Costas, Paul’s Shrimp House. ... You can’t go wrong with any restaurant. They are all awesome.”
But they take advantage of more than just the Greek food. They ride bikes on the Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail, which runs through downtown north to the sponge dock area, and love going to Sunset Beach near their house for outdoor movies and concerts.
Most people probably know Tarpon Springs for its annual Epiphany celebration, when hundreds of people arrive to watch the Greek Orthodox archbishop toss a cross into Spring Bayou for teenagers to find. The ritual symbolizes Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist and is the largest event of its kind outside of Greece.
The town also draws thousands to Craig Park, overlooking the same bayou, every April for its fine arts festival, one of the biggest and best in the area.
But any time of year you’ll find the town teeming with tourists interested in seeing the sponge docks or yearning for a taste of Greek food and Greek culture.
It’s a place with its own small-town casual rhythm. In some cafes, workers and patrons move easily from English to Greek. And in every cafe, you’re likely to see local regulars — many of them Greek — among diners from all over the country.
You’ll see that same rhythm at Spicemans Kitchen, where clerks happily offer sample after sample to shoppers looking for the perfect hot sauce. They don’t seem bothered at all if it takes six or seven tries to find one that isn’t too-too hot or too mild.
And you’ll see it in Timeless Treasures, a consignment/gift shop downtown at 22 Hibiscus St., where one of the owners will put just one greeting card in a bag tied with red and yellow ribbons. It doesn’t matter how much you spend, she said. Her shop puts every purchase in a gift bag.
Just around the corner at 21 N. Safford Ave., the Tarpon Tavern, home of “the world’s best hamburger,” sets the standard for friendly service and delicious food. One night a server, the spitting image of a young Brad Pitt — his name is even Brad — will softly sing ’60s songs as he goes about his work and chats with the patrons. Another night, a different server will greet a couple with a friendly, “Hello, my darlings. You drink dark beer, right?”
That’s the type of service that keeps Tarpon Springs so popular.
Its spiritual side is another reason. St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, at the corner of Pinellas and Tarpon avenues, draws worshippers from all over the world. Built in 1942, it has a distinctive copper dome, 23 hand-painted stained glass windows and an altar, bishop’s throne and choir stall made of white marble from Mount Pentele in Athens, Greece. The marble was originally part of Greece’s wing at the 1939-40 World’s Fair in New York.
Some also find their way to a shrine at 113 Hope St. that a Tarpon Springs woman had built to fulfill a promise to the archangel she credits for curing her dying son. There, you’ll see Greeks and non-Greeks lining the pews and praying to St. Michael, a patron saint of sick people.
Inside in an enclosure by a stained glass window, and outside in a little alcove, people light votive candles for loved ones who are sick, in trouble or in need of answered prayers. There are so many candles that the heat burns your face if you stand looking long enough. Some people leave photographs of their loved ones. Others leave messages pleading for a cure.
Across town, at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art, two rooms are filled with the majestic paintings of George Inness Jr., who lived in Tarpon Springs in the 1920s. The paintings, known for their powerful light, are usually housed at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tarpon Springs on Grand Boulevard. But sinkhole problems at the church caused them to be moved to the museum.
Some are of Tarpon Springs scenes — one is of Spring Bayou — but others are more ethereal. Three depict passages of the 23rd Psalm. Another of a green forest is said to reflect nature as a spiritual force.
Today is their last day at the museum on the Tarpon Springs campus of St. Petersburg College, 600 Klosterman Road.
Downtown, on Tarpon Avenue, you’ll find antique treasures of a different kind at Court of Two Sisters & the Upper Court, at Tarapani’s Department Store and in some other shops. They feature everything from pub tables, depression glass and bronze statues to artwork and even stained glass windows.
The young and hip shop at the Mad Hatter General Store for T-shirts, dresses, books, postcards, aprons and other gifts.
Everyone in town, it seems, goes to Fred Howard Park, named for the Tarpon Springs mayor who helped secure the land for a Pinellas County park.
The front of the park is canopied with ancient oaks and features nine picnic shelters, two playgrounds, a ballfield, restrooms and walking trails. A mile-long bridge leads to the beach, where you’ll find kayak rentals and people swimming, paddleboarding and flying kites. The park is a great place to watch sunsets. Good thing, since its address is 1700 Sunset Drive.
Teller, the photographer mom, says the park is just one of many great places Tarpon Springs has to offer.
“It’s a great little town,” she says. “A great little big town.”
For details about museums, beaches, shops and restaurants in Tarpon Springs, visit tarpon springschamber.com, call (727) 937-6109, or see www.spongedocks.net.