5 Awesome Things to do in Crystal River, Florida

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I've got a thing about kitschy, Old Florida towns. I love the history and the quirky character of them. In the past, Apalachicola on the Gulf Coast used to be my favorite.

But I think I have a new favorite Old Florida town now after visiting the coastal town of Crystal River, Florida.

Kayaking the Chazz
Kayaks on The Chazz

Located about an hour and a half north of Tampa, Crystal River is exactly the sort of funky, slightly touristy, laid-back Florida town that I love. The small city is a main attraction on Florida's “Nature Coast,” and is situated around Kings Bay and dozens of natural springs.

There's great seafood, nearby beaches, and more than enough to do to keep you busy for a short visit – including getting to know Crystal River's resident manatees.

Many people skip this part of Florida (or simply don't know about it), but here are five good reasons why you shouldn't skip Crystal River and the surrounding area.

5 unique things to do in Crystal River, Florida

Here are some truly unique things that make Crystal River a must-visit in Florida for me!

1. Swim with manatees

Swimming with Manatees in Crystal River, Florida
A friendly manatee

Crystal River is known for being one of just a few places in Florida that native manatees flock to each year during the cooler months (because yes, Florida does have its own version of winter!).

The town and its surrounding waters are dotted with natural springs that remain a balmy 72 degrees year-round, drawing in the manatees that can't survive in colder water.

Hundreds of these gentle giants stuff themselves into springs and rivers around Crystal River each winter (and a handful are “resident” Crystal River manatees who live in the area year-round), making manatee sightseeing tours really popular.

I went swimming with manatees on my visit to Crystal River, and it was nothing short of incredible!

The manatees can be friendly and playful, and swimming with them is a unique experience you won't really find anywhere else in the world.

Want to get up close with these gentle giants in the water, too? Book your own manatee-swimming tour here.

Swimming with Manatees in Crystal River, Florida
Swimming with manatees

You can also book boat and kayaking tours to get up close to these gentle sea giants; no matter how you see them, this is a must-do in Crystal River!

Here are some of the top manatee tours in Crystal River:

(If you decide to go looking for manatees without going on a tour, just remember that these ARE wild animals, and that you should always give them their space. Don't approach a manatee too closely, and respect signs if they tell you not to swim into a specific area.)

2. Visit Three Sisters Springs

One of the most famous places that the manatees gather in Crystal River is at Three Sisters Springs, a collection of (you guessed it) three natural springs that feed the Crystal River.

There are three different ways to experience the Three Sisters Springs:

  1. Walk the boardwalk above the springs
  2. Paddle into the springs with a kayak or paddleboard
  3. Swim into the springs

These springs are within the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, which is a restored wetland habitat that covers 57 acres. You can visit the boardwalk and swim in the springs year-round, keeping your eyes peeled for everything from birds to reptiles to of course manatees.

Three Sisters Springs
Three Sisters Springs

Visiting the Three Sisters boardwalk is a must-do – but you can't just drive your car here since it's within the wildlife refuge. You'll need to head to the Three Sisters Springs Center instead, and hop on a trolley to the boardwalk. (The trolley is included in the price of admission to the springs; find more info here.)

Once there, you'll be able to wander around and talk to the US Fish & Wildlife Service volunteers who watch over the springs.

It's a beautiful location well worth visiting. (And yes, the water really is that color!)

(Note that entering the water from the boardwalk is NOT possible. If you want to paddle or swim in the springs, keep reading!)

Three Sisters Springs
No manatees, but still beautiful!

Another way to visit the springs is by boat or paddle craft (like a kayak or paddleboard). You can put-in at any of the public boat ramps or kayak launches in Kings Bay (or book a tour like this one) and then paddle into the spring. (Though these are not allowed into the springs during manatee season, which generally runs from November 15 through March 31.)

Lastly, you can swim into the springs. Swimming in the springs (like you'll do on a manatee tour) is amazing because the water is so clear.

Just note, though, that during manatee season there are strict rules about where you can and can't go. There will be buoys/signage denoting where the official “manatee sanctuaries” are, so please respect them.

3. Kayak “The Chazz”

Kayaking the Chazz
Kayaking the Chazz

One of my favorite non-manatee things I did in the Crystal River area was kayaking on the beautiful Chassahowitzka River. The 5-mile-long river is located in southwestern Citrus County, just a 20-minute drive from Crystal River.

Like many rivers in this part of Florida, “The Chazz” is spring-fed, and is bursting will all sorts of life.

Along with Tara from Citrus County tourism and Dennis who runs the campground/RV park where you can rent boats and kayaks, I paddled leisurely along the Chazz to its source – a natural spring everyone just calls “The Crack.”

The Chazz is another spot where you may encounter manatees. And while there were no manatees around when I was paddling there, we did see plenty of mullet (fish that like to leap out of the water and scare you) and lots and lots of birds (it's home to hundreds of species of birds, including bald eagles!)

The Chazz is part of the larger Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, and should be on your list if you're looking for a chilled-out morning or afternoon.

Book a similar tour here (though this one is in clear kayaks, which is ever cooler!).

Kayaking the Chazz
Me kayaking The Chazz

4. Catch a beach sunset

Crystal River itself isn't directly on the coast, but Fort Island Gulf Beach is a short 15-minute drive away (so it's basically a Crystal River beach).

This beach on the Gulf of Mexico is perfect for an afternoon picnic or beachy sunset. Watch from the sand, or from out on the fishing pier.

Sunset at Fort Island Gulf Beach
Sunset at Fort Island Gulf Beach
Sunset at Fort Island Gulf Beach in Florida

I got lucky with a brilliant pink sunset when I visited.

Sunset at Fort Island Gulf Beach in Florida
The fishing pier is a great spot for sunset

5. Meet Lu at Homosassa Springs

Lastly, you should make a stop at Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, located less than 15 minutes from Crystal River. Originally opened as a kind of zoo in the early 1900s, today the park is run by the state of Florida.

When the state took over the park a few decades ago, it slowly started whittling down the animals living there to only ones that you'll find in Florida, keeping humane captivity in mind. Today, there are resident manatees, alligators, bald eagles, and even an orphaned Florida panther.

Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park in Florida
Gators at Homosassa Springs

One odd non-native animal you'll still find here is Lu the hippo. Hippos are certainly not indigenous to Florida, but when the state took over the park, the locals petitioned for Lu the hippo to be able to stay since he'd been a staple at the park for so long.

The state ended up granting Lu honorary Florida citizenship so he could continue living at Homosassa Springs. And keep living he has – he's over 60 years old now!

Lu the Hippo at Homosassa Springs
Lu the Hippo, an official Florida resident!

At the Wildlife Center, you can view animals in the Fish Bowl Underwater Observatory, walk the Pepper Creek Birding Trail, take a 15-minute boat tour, and attend one of the manatee programs at 11 a.m. or 1 p.m. More info here.

Where to stay in Crystal River

For my stay in Crystal River, I stayed at The Plantation on Crystal River, a lovely historic hotel that was built in the 1960s (so no, it was never an actual plantation). The rooms are large and comfortable, and the pool is the perfect spot to relax after a day of sightseeing.

The Plantation also has an on-site restaurant and offers its own dive shop and manatee tours, meaning you don't have to go far at all if you want to book a tour or rent a boat for the day.

The Plantation on Crystal River
The Plantation on Crystal River
The Plantation on Crystal River

Check out TripAdvisor reviews here | Book your own room at The Plantation here!

Some other hotels worth checking out in Crystal River include:

If vacation rentals are more your speed, there are some great (and affordable) rentals available in Crystal River. Some to check out include:

When to go to Crystal River

When is the best time to visit Crystal River? I personally think the best time is between November and March, when you'll find cooler temperatures (great for outdoor activities) and have a better chance of seeing manatees.

Want to swim with manatees? Then try to visit from late December to late February, generally the coldest months in Florida (meaning that's when manatees are most likely to be seeking out the warmth of the springs). You might still be able to see manatees into March, but it's never guaranteed.

READ NEXT: What it’s Like to Swim with Manatees

More essential info

Who's ready to book a trip to Crystal River?

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Many thanks to Visit Citrus County and Visit Florida for helping with my trip! As always, all opinions are my own.

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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77 Comments on “5 Awesome Things to do in Crystal River, Florida

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  1. Its weird seeing the town that ive been in my whole lie a tourist destination. Its a great place and i live on the chazz river, but sometimes i wish it wasnt as popular for the more people that come, it loses its peacefulness. I never plan on leaving my small town

      That’s always the trade-off, Kristina. Hopefully it won’t ever get *too* popular.

      (Also, the Chazz is beautiful!)

    I feel lucky to live in this town. My 60 year old home is in the “historic” part of the city. There is so much to do and see here. There is also sport fishing and golfing. Only a couple hours from the theme parks in Orlando and Tampa this is a great place to stay while in this part of the state.

      I love that Crystal River residents are all so proud of where they live! That says a lot about a place. 🙂

    I lived on Crystal River over twenty years and just wanted to and in another great attraction. Scallop season! Its June 27th thru September. Snorkel in the gulf gathering up these yummy little creatures to take home and eat!

      Yes I’ve heard about that, too! Sounds delicious!

    I’ve lived in crystal river for 30 years. It’s funny to see so many people loving our lil town. It amazes me that there are people who have never swam with manatees. I guess I am spoiled growing up here. There is definitely enough to keep you busy for a few days, but only a few days. We like that people don’t stay longer than that. Just joking. Kind of 🙂

      Haha I totally understand that – wouldn’t want people sticking around for ages!

    We lived in Crystal River from 1987 until 2003. We loved living there, except for the Florida heat! Thanks for sharing about your time there 🙂 BTW, “Lu” was originally named Lucifer. I think the townsfolk didn’t care for the connotation his name had, so they shortened it. LOL He’s been there since our kids were little. They’re now 30 and 26!

      Haha, yup, they told me his name was really Lucifer – I definitely like Lu better! 😉

      I don’t think I could ever live anywhere in Florida because of the summer heat, but Crystal River is definitely somewhere I’ll go back to!

    Great post. Lovely pictures and rich information. I loved it.

    I miss being able to drive over to Crystal River and go snorkeling or diving for the weekend. I have been several times and somehow missed there is a hippo in one of the springs.

      Haha, guess you’ll have to go back to meet Lu! 😉

    Hi everyone, my names olivia and ive lived in crystal River my entire 16 years and i would just like to say its an amazing town and i would suggest checking out Old Homosassa -a sister town to crystal river. its really historic and pretty. Also I go to a Charter High School called the Academy Of Environmental Science thats right on the Salt River. If you’ve ever been to Fort Island Beach, its the funky looking buildings on your way down Fort Island Trail. So i also recommend the salt river, there is alot of wildlife including- Dolphins, Stingrays, and lots and lots of birds and fish that are native to Florida.

      Thanks for the suggestions, Olivia! I think it’s awesome that you’re so proud of where you live and that you’re encouraging others to visit!

      I have lived in Beverly Hills, FL for the past 12 years (a transplanted New Englander) I love Fort Island beach, Homosassa Springs State Park, and Crystal River in general. I like to go with Captain Mike’s River Cruises on the Withlacoochie River.

        It’s definitely a special part of Florida!

    The town looks beautiful – Springs Boardwalk is just my kind of activity!

      I wasn’t really all that bothered about going to the Boardwalk at first, but I was really glad I went – it was SO pretty!

        Amanda- did you get a chance to meet the people and tour the local bars, stores, or parks? I am wanting to move my small family to FL and am thinking Crystal River!

          I spent a lot of time with a local woman from the tourism board, which is how I got to see so much (other than just the manatees). It’s a really cool little town – I’m already planning to go back next year!

    Okay, this is super embarrassing but I remember my dad taking me and my sister here when I was little and my family was living in Florida, and *screaming* because I was so terrified of touching a manatee. My dad was like “Kelly, they’re literally the most gentle animals you’ll ever see in the water” but I was SO terrified I wouldn’t even stay in the water hahaha. Maybe now’s the time to go back and redeem myself!

      Awwww! There were two little girls on our tour, too. Only one got in the water, but she freaked out when she saw them, too. I think it’s because they’re so big! But yes… gentle giants. You should definitely give it another go!

    Looks beautiful! I need to go through there on my way to TBEX in the fall.

    Wow. I have always wanted to go to FL for the beaches, maybe Key West or the night life and Disney World. I see now that there is much more that FL has to offer. I did not think there would be kayaking in crystal clear water, and alligators. I think that’s a whole different view of the state than what I pictured. Now I want to go.

      Yes, Florida is MUCH more than just Disney and Miami! The area up north (in what’s called the Panhandle) on the Gulf Coast is full of neat little fishing towns and great beaches!

    I don’t know much about Florida other than the Everglades, Miami and the Keys but I would LOVE to swim with manatees! I saw my first one in the wild when I was swimming at a South Australia recently and it was amazing to see one close up (they are called dugongs here)

      Swimming with them was SO cool. They’re rather curious and friendly (especially the younger ones), and it was amazing to see an animal not at all afraid of humans!

      A Dugong is not the same as a Manatee. Tails, nails, nostrils etc. are totally different.

    Great post! I’ve wanted to visit Crystal River for a while now to swim with the manatees, but I was wondering if there is anything else to do there! Thanks for the suggestions! 🙂

      You can easily spend two or three days there and not get bored! The little “downtown” area is really cute, too, with some nice shops and a couple of restaurants.

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