Best things to do in Crystal River, Florida
By Helen Wright
Crystal River is most famously known for being the place in Florida to go swimming with manatees. Its lumpy, good-natured residents (the manatee, I mean!) may have put Crystal River on the map, but this quiet, unassuming city has a lot to offer. Just 1hr 30 mins from Orlando, Crystal River is the ideal place to take a little theme park break and enjoy Florida’s natural beauty and authentic side. From a choice of ecotourism adventures, a focus on locally-owned businesses and some excellent, quirky restaurants, take a look at our pick of the best things to do in Crystal River and discover the most charming place you never knew you needed to visit…
Cover image: Kolin Toney
The best things to do in Crystal River Florida
Getting to Crystal River from Orlando is a really easy drive, but you can also fly direct to Tampa, which is slightly closer but there isn’t much in it. Both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic fly directly to Tampa from the UK, so if you are planning to add Crystal River on to the end of a Disney trip, you’ll have the option of both airports, which could mean saving money on flights – certainly worth a look!
Crystal River, in Western Florida, gives visitors a glimpse of traditional, old school Florida. I imagine most of the sunshine state had a similar vibe before Disney set up shop. Fast forward 50 years and now over 122 million visitors make their way to Florida for fun and sun every year. Despite this, some places remain unspoilt and Crystal River is one of them. The historic downtown Crystal River has solely local business owners, shops and restaurants. You won’t find a McDonalds or Starbucks, instead you are spoilt with quality coffee shops like Cattle Dog Coffee Roasters and quaint, personality-filled local stores, perfect for souvenir shopping and striking up a conversation with locals who have likely lived here since they were kids.
Don’t be fooled into thinking a slower-paced destination is boring, far from it in fact! There are so many things to do in Crystal River and getting outside and enjoying the beautiful, natural environment that surrounds it is the number one pastime. Take your pick here from some of the best things to do in Crystal River:
10 things to do in Crystal River:
1. Swimming with manatees in Florida
Being the so-named ‘Manatee County’, Crystal River has its resident and visiting population of manatees to thank for the influx of tourism. These gentle giants are celebrated everywhere on shop signs, keyrings, mugs and street art. You have to get in the water and swim with the manatees in Florida for a true Crystal River experience. We took a morning tour with Hunter Springs Kayaks Manatee Tour and Dive and got to swim alongside a mama manatee and her calf. It was beautiful. Read our full post on swimming with manatees in Florida for a detailed look at the memorable experience. ($55 per person for a 2hr tour).
Hunter Springs Kayaks: Manatee Tour and Dive (36 NE 4th Street).
2. Kayak with manatees in Florida
Another wonderful way to experience wild manatees in Florida is to take a manatee kayak tour or rent kayaks to explore the river. As the name might suggest, Hunter Springs Kayaks also offer this option and it’s a great way to get close to the manatees without getting into the water if you don’t want to. From the kayak you get a great view into the clear water from above and will hopefully get some nice photos too! Pack your waterproof phone cover! (Kayak rentals $42 for three hours).
The company also offer a kayak tour of King’s Bay and guided manatee swim ($85 adult, $65 child, Under 6s FREE). Price includes guided paddle, in-water swim guide, wet suit, mask and snorkel and a full photo package taken with GoPro 10s.
Hunter Springs Kayaks: Manatee Tour and Dive (36 NE 4th Street).
3. Airboat tours in the Gulf of Mexico – one of the best things to do in Crystal River
Without a doubt, this airboat tour with Ozello Boats in Crystal River was one of the best things we did as a family during our two-week Florida road trip. What started out as a fun cruise around the mangrove islands in the shallow flats of the Gulf of Mexico, turned into a wild adventure, racing dolphins through Florida’s Gulf Coast and it was sublime.
We were already loving zooming across the water with a face full of sea mist, when to our complete surprise, a pod of playful dolphins started following us, diving in and out of the water just inches from where we were sat. I just couldn’t believe they were so close to us and so happy to play alongside the boat. Airboats typically have no sides, so it felt like we were flying through the air with them. Majestic.
Once we had zipped out into the open water, we slowed down a while and spotted some more fascinating wildlife, including a juvenile sea turtle, stingray, a tiger shark and the sea cucumbers that clean up the ocean. It was unreal. Our captain, Billy, was so much fun and he knew everything there was to know about the Gulf and the wildlife.
I thought the kids would be a bit nervous on the boat or not enjoy having the wind in their faces, but they both loved it and were absolutely spellbound by the experience. What had started as a fun airboat ride had become the most memorable and unexpected boat trip ever. Could not recommend this family-run company any more highly. On the way home, the kids were begging Billy to take us back out. ($55 per person for a 1.5hr tour)
Ozello Boats – River Adventure Tours (2355 South Ripple Path)
4. Crystal River Fishing Charters
With two kids under six, we don’t get a lot of peaceful time to go fishing, but if you are looking for things to do in Crystal River and love to fish (or fancy trying your hand at fishing), there is a choice of fishing charters you can join or you can book a private trip. Ozello Boats do inshore fishing year-round – with the potential to catch red fish, trout, snook, sheepshead, cobia, shark, mackerel and tarpon ($450 per person), plus special shallow water grouper adventures in June and between October 1st and December 31st (starting from $550).
Ozello Boats River Adventure Tours (2355 South Ripple Path)
5. Three Sisters Boardwalk
The Three Sisters Springs are an essential and preserved habitat for the Florida manatee, providing a safe and warm home for the gentle giants in winter (who like me, just like to be warm and cosy). The natural springs pump in around 20 million gallons of warm water per day, which is why 500+ manatees often gravitate here in the cooler months.
A tranquil boardwalk circling the one-acre springs provides a number of perfect viewing platforms for visitors to enjoy the natural beauty of the area and see the migrating manatee. The 57-acre site also features restored wetlands that attract birds and other wildlife, making it one of the most beautiful and peaceful things to do in Crystal River. Access to the Three Sisters Boardwalk is $20 in manatee season (November – March) and $12 between March and October. Parking at the refuge is limited to vehicles with a handicapped permit. However, the City of Crystal River operates trolley tours to drop guests at the boardwalk. Visitors can pay admission and hop on the trolley at the Three Sisters Springs Center (123 NW US Highway 19).
Find out more on the things to do in Crystal River, including the newly restored Three Sisters Boardwalk at discovercrystalriverfl.com
6. Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park (Meet Lu!)
Florida State Parks have a rule that all animals contained within them must be native to the area and most animals are rescued after being injured or ophaned. However, the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park in Crystal River is a rare exception. This is all down to Lu, the oldest living hippopotamus in North America. Yep, you heard correctly. Crystal River is home to a 62-year old hippo called Lu. Born at the San Diego Zoo in 1960, Lu was relocated to Homosassa Springs to join the Ivan Tors Animal Actors company. When the Florida Park Service gained control of the park, they originally planned to move all non-native species out of the state, which included Lu the Hippo! However, after nearly two decades of starring in movies and television shows, Lu was a much-loved resident of Crystal River and a petition was launched to stop him from being evicted. There was so much uproar, that Lu was made an honorary Florida citizen and allowed to stay in a Florida State Park as a non-native animal. You can see him as soon as you enter the park. The kids loved his story and getting to meet the 6,000lb hippo in person.
Lu aside, the wildlife park is devoted to Florida’s native wildlife and during an afternoon here you can see an endangered Florida panther, red wolves, manatees, black bears, bobcats and, of course, alligators. There is also an educational visitor centre, lots of walkways and trails and an underwater viewing dome to get a glimpse of manatee swimming beneath the surface. (Tickets are $13 adult, $5 children)
(9350 West Fishbowl Drive, Homassa)
7. Is there a beach at Crystal River? Fort Island Gulf Beach
This curved, shallow bay is just outside of the city itself, but a 20-minute drive through the beautiful Crystal River State Park will take you to Fort Island Gulf Beach. Just off-the-beaten track, so it’s not usually too busy (especially in the week), this little Crystal River beach area is a local secret. There is a roped-off swimming area, shaded pavilions, picnic tables and toilets, so you can plan to spend the day here if you have time. Lifeguards are on duty from June-September and parking is free.
(16000 W. Fort Island Trail)
8. Historic Downtown Crystal River
The city of Crystal River is part of a larger area with population of around 3,500, but the downtown area, close to Crystal River’s renowned nature tourism, is the most charming place to visit. Called a ‘cracker town’ by the locals, the street is straight out of an American Hallmark movie and lined with traditional ‘Cracker’ houses. These are wooden homes that were originally built by early Florida settlers, with some dating back to the 1800s. The main street is Citrus Avenue, where most of the former homes have been converted into delightful little shops, cafes and restaurants. There is a real community feel to this place, with lots of the shop owners sat outside on relaxed Adirondack chairs having a chat while patrons browse inside. Most of the shops sell locally-crafted or locally-produced items, making it the perfect street to go souvenir shopping – not a Mickey Mouse in sight!
(North Citrus Avenue)
9. Cattle Dog Coffee Roasters
This locally-owned and operated coffee shop famously roasts their own blend, producing over twenty flavoured coffee varieties, but don’t just go for the brew. Cattle Dog prides itself not only on fresh roasted coffee, but having an inspired menu of delicious sandwiches, deli creations, lobster rolls, giant chunky cookies (kids’ choice) and pastries. We took away a pumpkin cinnamon roll, which was absolutely delicious. They also do the best Chai I have tasted in the USA.
Cattle Dog (638 North Citrus Avenue)
10. Hunter Springs Park
We spotted this place during our manatee swim and couldn’t resist going back to hang out there for a few hours. Hunter Springs Park is a well-maintained recreation park that has a grassy area, a small playground, a launching area for kayaks and paddleboards and a shallow roped-off beach that is ideal for families and young children. The water is the same as shared by the manatees in winter, so you may even see one swimming by as you paddle. There are toilets, showers and changing facilities too, so it’s a good place to stop off and tire out the kids before you drive back to Orlando or Tampa (which is exactly what we did!). The park is free, but parking is $5.
(18 NE 2nd St)
Where to eat in Crystal River:
Kane’s Cattle Co.
The owners of this casual steakhouse have their own cattle ranch, so the beef is served literally farm to table and perfectly cooked. For kids, there are classics like mac & cheese and hamburgers, but ours had a mini steak dinner too – well, it would have been rude not to! Leave room for the most enormous chocolate cake we have ever been served! Finn is still talking about it.
Kane’s Cattle Co.
508 North Citrus Avenue, Crystal River, FL, US
Seafood Seller & Cafe
Cajun Jimmy’s Seafood Seller & Cafe is a local favouite and so-named ‘mom and pop’ restaurant, (which is cute nickname for businesses owned by real-life couples). The owners Jimmy, from Louisiana, and Sue, from Maryland, have blended their cooking styles into a Southern Cajun fusion and the result is delicious. They catch their own fish so it’s as fresh as it comes (try the Grouper Lagniappe), or if you are feeling peckish, Sue’s Maryland Crab Cakes should do the trick.
The outside of the restaurant looks like a Londis, but don’t be put off. Open the door and be assured a purple New Orleans party is happening inside. A totally family-friendly place, but it also feels like a bar, so parents can pretend they’re having a night out on the town. The cocktails are really good too. But wait, once again you do need to leave room for pudding, because the chocolate and jam-dipped beignets are little bites of goodness.
Seafood Seller & Cafe
(300 SE U.S Highway 19)
Our trip to Crystal River formed part of our road trip partnership with Visit Florida #LOVEFLORIDA. As always, all opinions remain our own.
Thank you to discovercrystalriverfl.com for your support.
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