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  • Writer's pictureJefferson Graham

Hidden Backroad Gem: Safety Harbor, Florida

If you're like me, you've heard of Tampa, Florida and other West Coast beach towns like Clearwater and St. Pete, but Safety Harbor hasn't made your radar.

I stumbled onto it when I went to Florida on business recently, near Tampa, and got invited to lunch on Main Street in this cute, tiny town of 17,000 people, about 20 minutes from Tampa.

(I was in town filming my latest class for KelbyOne on iPhone photography. Go check it out! With all the vintage and so colorful 100 year old + homes on the sidestreets, a fun downtown with American flags proudly waving and cool shops, cafes and restaurants, and a waterfront pier to die for, well, now you know why I fell in love.

I also spent time in nearby Clearwater while in Florida, and the contrast couldn't have been more pronounced. Clearwater is a big town with tons of traffic, parking issues and hordes of tourists. (Plus one incredible beach worth checking out!)

Safety Harbor is quiet, less trafficked, charming, one of those great finds on a road trip.

So let me tell you all about it.

The town was originally inhabited by the Tocobaga Native American tribe, who relied on the nearby natural springs for freshwater and used the bay for fishing and transportation. The area was largely undeveloped until the late 19th century and in the early 1900s, Safety Harbor was officially incorporated, and it grew to become a popular snowbird winter stop. I met two of them, visiting for a month from the Boston area, and on a warm day in the 70s, they were so happy not to be home.

I can easily say that the photo highlight for me during my Florida trip was getting to Safety Harbor at 6:30 a.m. one morning to watch the sun rise over Tampa Bay from the SH pier. Where I live here in the South Bay, we don't get to watch the sun rise over any body of water, as the sun is usually behind us, we just see the sunsets. So this was special. It was quiet, the birds were chirping like crazy, the pier makes a wonderful foreground and the weather was warm. What's not to like?

Let me walk you through a day's visit to Safety Harbor.

Start here, Safety Harbor Waterfront Park, 110 Veterans Memorial Lane, as there's a parking lot to leave your car, 21 acres to explore, plenty of places to sit and look out at the water, a marina and that great pier.

Then cross the street, approx. 2 blocks, turn left and start heading up Main Street. There are 7 blocks of shops, cafes and restaurants, but much of the action is on the lower side, the first 4 blocks. You'll want to stop and see the Baranoff Oak Tree, some 500 years old. This is one huge tree, which would weigh 800 tons if you had the strength to pull it out of the roots. There's also a nice gazebo.

From here, nod to the gazebo, at 401 Main Street, turn right and start heading down the street, where you will begin to see many cool historic homes.

One of the first you'll see, at 136 4th Street, was built in 1908 and has been described as a "classic Victorian style sporting traditional gingerbread" built by the man who became the first mayor of the city. With the flag waving outside, and the muted grey and red colors, it is the cutest in town. Keep on walking and you'll discover Florida yellow, blue, green and other colorful homes, until you end up at the most colorful of them all.

You can't miss the Safety Harbor Art Center, (706 2nd Street) which has a giant pink elephant named Ellie outside, a mannequin dolled up in a New Orleans mask and colors of every stripe all over the building.

Take a good look around and then head back to Main for lunch, hopefully at the Sandwich on Main, (308 Main) a down home, Main Street sort of place with sandwiches, soups and the like.

I won't suggest you come back for sunset, as the sun will be behind you, but if you can swing it to return for sunrise, you won't be disappointed. The colors are amazing, and so is the birds soundtrack.


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