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. I’m trying to convince my wife to go kayaking with me at Crystal River but she is afraid of alligators. I know gators are in Florida but do they have many in the rivers at Crystal River?

      I won’t lie: there are sometimes gators! I didn’t personally see any (even though my kayaking guide tried to find one), but they can definitely be around. But there were also people jumping into the river and stuff, so they must not be too big of an issue. As long as you stay in your kayak, you should be fine!

        There are a few small alligators in the river and canals but they are more afraid of you than you are of them.

          You haven’t met my wife! ?

            Hi Dennis. I know this is an old post but I wanted to clarify for readers: unlike crocadiles, alligators are typically passive creatures and will avoid humans unless people are feeding them (which is very dangerous and completely illegal). They can be more aggressive during summer mating, but as a native Floridian I’ve never had a problem encountering one in the wild. I just recommend you keep pets and small children away from dark water, and please never ever EVER feed them.

    My extended family are visiting Sugarmill Woods from the UK in late July for, a fortnight (staying at a friends villa), so not quite Crystal River but close enough. Having been to Orlando for the last two years running we’re looking to see a bit more of the ‘real’ Florida and have much more of a relaxing time. I’ve been trawling the internet for articles on things to do other than the well advertised swimming with manatees. etc. My familly are my wife and I, our two boys, 8 &13 and my daughter 16, plus my in-laws.
    I wanted to think you for your articles which have openeed up a whole new realm to look at, I especially like the sound of the Ozello trail. Any other idea’s as to what’s worth doing & seeing would be appreciated from the Tampa Aquarium to the shopping malls, to best beaches. Also recommended places to eat ! Thanks in advance.

      In this part of Florida, you’ll definitely experience the “real” Florida beyond Disney! These are all of my best tips for this regions, I’m afraid, but I’m glad the post at least gave you some ideas.

    My husband and I are going to the plantation at crystal river for our anniversary in April. We wanted to go someplace different and your information gave us lots of great ideas. I think it’s going to be a great vacation. Thank you!

      That’s great to hear, Kathie! I think you’ll have a great vacation, too!

    Um, YES PLEASE. I’ve always wanted to do this, and despite going to Florida 1-4 times a year my entire life, I still have yet to do it!

      You definitely need to get yourself to Crystal River!! It’s such a cool little corner of Florida.

    I work at the Winn-Dixie across the street from The Plantation..Lots of Europeans visit here..Really nice people!..☺

      I’ll bet you meet lots of interesting travelers!

    And LOL, forgot to say, we will be visiting Crystal River the week after Christmas. Thank you so much for your post!

      I hope you have a great time! It’s such a cool little place.

    I am a 7th generation Floridian, my descendants came to Key West via the Bahamas. I have visited and loved many parts of many states in the beautiful U.S. and have also traveled extensively in Florida. I am still shocked after 56 years that I find so many totally cool new places to go. I did my certification dive in Crystal River 35 years ago and have been dying to go back since. So many places to see in Florida, so little time. I so love it here, couldn’t live anywhere else. I was born in Panama City, and really need to get back to the Panhandle, but also love Brevard County, where I’ve spent the last 55 years. We have recently gotten into bicycling and kayaking and are discovering an entirely new world, and millions of new places to go. Yes, it’s hot in the summer; we are acclimated but still have to go inside sometimes. But it’s 2 days before Thanksgiving; we just got our first “cold snap” – it was 49 degrees Monday morning, but we will hit 80 degrees on Turkey Day; 60s at night. Wow, am I the most blessed person on Earth or what? Love my state and can’t wait to explore the rest that I haven’t seen yet.

    Amanda, what a lovely blog post about Crystal River! My wife and I own two vacation rental homes there and I am going to send a link to your post to everyone who books our homes in the future. If you would like to stay in one of our homes on your next trip to Crystal River, let me know and we will give you a substantial discount on the rental rate.

      Aww thanks so much for the offer, Chuck! I definitely hope to make a return visit!

    Crystal River is undergoing somewhat of a Renaissance. The city commision is spending a great deal of money to bring in tourists. The staple of the small city’s economy used to be the Florida Power (now Duke Energy) Nuclear Plant (which can be seen from Fort Island Beach). But since the reactor sustained damage from a refit, it has been shut down, and Duke moved all of our Nuke workers elsewhere. The city is smartly renovating the area to be much more tourist friendly. Other VERY eco friendly attractions in our area is the Rainbow River just a few minutes away in Dunnellon and Historic Inverness (30 minutes down Highway 44). I am very glad you enjoyed your stay!

      Very smart of them to shift over to tourism – you have so many unique natural attractions in Crystal River that it makes sense to start promoting them more to visitors!

    I am a decedent of one of the original Citrus County families (The county in which Crystal River is located). It is so nice to see so many people enjoying Crystal River. Crystal River has also just joined the Main Street program to even further restore and beautify the downtown area and perhaps it will be different when you return. However, I also want to add that Floral City and Inverness are great towns to visit while here as well. Both cities have great historic charm. Floral City has a beautiful Avenue of Oaks that is a must see and was the original county seat…it was also a more popular destination at one time than Miami because of their rich phosphate mines and steamboat landing. In fact, the very 1st telegraph in the state was installed in Floral City and the 2nd oldest standing home in the state is located there beside the heritage museum and is open for tours. Inverness is the county seat and has a beautiful, lakeside downtown square which has a fully restored 1800s courthouse that has been converted to a museum right in the middle as well as the Valerie Theatre which is an old theatre that was recently restored. The old courthouse can be seen in Elvis Presley ‘ s movie, Follow that Dream …as this is where he filmed the movie. We are an area of rich heritage and beautiful waterways and I’m so lucky to call it home.

      Thanks so much for those great tips, Susan! I hope to go back to Crystal River again next year – I’ll keep some of these in mind!

    I loved going to Crystal River. Wished I had known about all the neat things to do. Some we did do but my best was camping at Rock Crusher Canyon. Was the greatest campground my husband and I had been to. Just thought I would leave this if other campers read your article.

    Loved your blog post, I even shared it on Facebook! We live about 5 minutes from CR and my kids go to school there. I thought your description was spot on and awesome pics as well. I’m a Florida native but lived in Connecticut for 24 years. We are so glad to be back in Florida!

      Aww thanks so much, Kelly! I’m glad you feel like I captured CR well!

    I just wanted to add that a sister town to Crystal River is Dunnellon, not much to do there but it’s worth the short drive if anyone wants to spend a day tubing, rafting, kayaking, canoeing etc in crystal clear water. Rainbow Springs is beautiful and peaceful and won’t disappoint! (:

      Yes! I went and had lunch in Dunnellon one afternoon – next time I’ll have to make time to check out Rainbow Springs!

    Good post, I live in Crystal River area, did you mention there are 7 rivers that flow thru county plenty of good fishing/boaring. You’re part on the Chaz was good, but it’s 25-30 min drive south of crystal river. The crystal clear water makes it worth the drive.

      I didn’t do any fishing (not really my thing), but yes, plenty of good fishing to be had, I’m told!

    Monkey Island on the Homosassa River is always amusing. The ride down Ozello Trail is beautiful, too.

      I heard about Monkey Island but didn’t get to go there (can you go there?) – maybe next time!

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