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 now after visiting the coastal town of Crystal River, Florida.
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, but here are five reasons why you shouldn't skip Crystal River and the surrounding area.
5 unique things to do in Crystal River, Florida
1. Swim with manatees
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.
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:
- Crystal River Manatee Swim in Kings Bay National Wildlife Refuge
- Swim with the Manatees Includes In-Water Guide/Photographer
- Clear Kayak Tour of Crystal River (no swimming)
- Kings Bay Scenic Cruise from Crystal River (no swimming)
(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 the Three Sisters Springs Boardwalk
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:
- Walk the board walk above the springs
- Paddle into the springs with a kayak or paddleboard
- Swim into the springs
You can visit the boardwalk and swim in the springs year-round, which are located within the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.
Visiting the Three Sisters boardwalk is a must-do – but you can't just drive you car here since it's within a 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.)
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!)
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”
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!).
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.
I got lucky with a brilliant pink sunset when I visited.
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 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.
One odd 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.
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 resembles (you guessed it) an old antebellum 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.
Some other hotels worth checking out in Crystal River include:
- King's Bay Lodge – The top-rated hotel in Crystal River on TripAdvisor
- Hampton Inn Crystal River – Also highly rated
- Best Western Crystal River Resort – Overlooks the Crystal River
If vacation rentals are more your speed, there are some great (and affordable) rentals available in Crystal River. Some to check out include:
- A waterfront home with heated saltwater pool and bikes, kayaks, and paddle boards for guests to use
- This 3-bedroom home on a quiet canal with a dock and kayaks
When to go to Crystal River
When is the best time to visit Crystal River? I personally think it's 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.
More essential info
- Looking for packing suggestions for Crystal River? Head over to my Amazon shop to see all my favorite travel gear!
- Pick up a Florida travel guide before you go.
- Don't leave home without a good travel insurance plan – because you never know what might happen! World Nomads offers affordable basic travel insurance.
READ NEXT: What it’s Like to Swim with Manatees
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.