Fun things to do in Crystal River FL include manatee tours, outings in Citrus County parks and natural areas, exploring quaint towns, and visiting plenty of great places to drink and eat local. Crystal River is a hidden gem on the Florida Gulf Coast where you can enjoy an old Florida vibe as you explore the unique local ecology of the region.
Crystal River Florida manatees attract tourists from around the globe. Manatees gather to rest at the natural springs here during the winter months. McCool Travel tip: attend Florida Manatee Festival in January. Water at the springs maintains a constant temperature of 72 degrees. When the air temperature along the coast drops, the manatees head to the springs to warm up and rest.
The Discover Crystal River Florida hosted our visit and the activities described here so we could share our findings with the McCool Travel audience. As always, all opinions, text, and photos are our own. Swim with manatee photos are courtesy Explorida Adventure Center, and were taken during our excursion by our fantastic guide, Ashley.
Fun Things to Do in Crystal River FL
Manatees are the stars of the area, but manatee tours are just one of many fun things to do in Crystal River FL. The springs and coastal waters of Citrus County are home to a variety of fish, birds, and animals. Visitors can get up close to diverse wildlife, go scalloping in the summer months, paddle and hike through natural areas, and more.
Here are favorite fun things to do in Crystal River and Citrus County Florida, plus tips to plan your Florida Gulf Coast visit.
1. Swim With Manatees
Swimming with manatees is a unique and special experience. It is a thrill to be next to these gentle giants as they swim in their natural habitat. Inquisitive manatees may swim right up to your mask or bump against you. Manatees are big, and close-ups can be a little startling, but they are very gentle so just relax and enjoy the magic.
Here are our top swim with manatee tips for a happy experience:
- Choose a small tour to limit congestion in the water. A maximum of 8 to 10 guests is ideal.
- Manatee swim tours provide wet suits and snorkel gear. Most offer pool noodles if you want extra support while floating.
- An expert guide swims with your group to ensure that everyone stays safe and has a chance to see the manatees.
- Take the first tour of the day for the best chance to see manatees with the fewest people around. We checked in to our tour at 6:15 AM, and enjoyed a beautiful sunrise on the water.
- The colder the air temperature, the better chance to see manatees congregating in the springs. On a warmer winter day your tour will have to look harder for manatees to swim with.
- Before you depart, you must watch a movie with the rules for interacting with manatees. Follow the rules! Do not be that person who scares or harasses these beautiful creatures.
- Swimming over the springs is fascinating even when no manatees are around. We saw lots of other fish during our trip.
We loved our manatee swimming tour with Explorida. They limit tour size to 8 people and work hard to ensure everyone has a great time. We really appreciate the beautiful photos they took during our swim. Three-hour tours are $55 per person, offered three times daily. Explorida also offers dolphin cruises, a sunset snorkel, and scalloping tours. Scalloping is a fun and easy family adventure available during the summer months.
2. Visit Three Sisters Springs Refuge
Even if you do not want to swim with manatees you can see them from above water at Three Sisters Springs Refuge. This 57-acre National Wildlife Refuge has a quarter-mile boardwalk with lovely views of the springs and there are often manatees here.
Many people visit Three Sisters Springs by water, on a snorkel or paddle tour. To visit on your own, head to the Three Sisters Springs Center at 123 NW US Highway 19. At the Center you can purchase an admission ticket and catch the trolley into the refuge (you can not drive into the refuge).
Inside Three Sisters, follow the boardwalk to multiple viewpoint of the different springs. Volunteers along the walk offer insight into the local ecology.
On a cold winter day the protected sanctuary of the springs fills with manatees. As the weather warms, the protected area shrinks and the springs are open to swimmers. During our warm winter visit there were three manatees resting in an area visible from two boardwalk platforms. Follow the trail through the meadow and wetlands for a longer hike.
The narrated trolley ride also stops at Hunter Springs Park (a park with a beach), the quaint South Citrus Avenue (museum, shops, and dining), and Heritage Village (shops and dining). Admission is $15 for adults, $7.50 for kids 6 to 16, with senior and military discounts available.
3. Take an Airboat Tour in Crystal River FL
Join Homosassa native, Captain Gary, on an airboat ride to explore the beautiful ecology of the coast. Ozello Boats offers Airboat Snorkel and Airboat Adventure Tours that take you to places unique to the Homosassa and Crystal River coast.
The tour begins as your airboat navigates through canals dug in the 1940s to support the fishing community. Children rowed to a school on an island until bridges were built in 1968.
Keep your eye out for local wildlife including alligators, dolphins, sea turtles, bald eagle, and more. Your airboat can navigate through the narrowest marsh streams and larger rivers. Seven of Florida’s outstanding waterways are located in Citrus County, earning the area its Nature Coast” nickname. The underwater landscape includes St. Martin’s Reef, a garden of sea sponges, coral, fish, and springs leading deep into the Florida aquifer.
The 90-minute Airboat Adventure Tour is $49.50 per person. The two-hour Airboat Snorkel Tour is $89.50 per person including snorkel gear. Ozello Boats also offers fishing and scalloping charters and other tours.
4. Explore Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park
The Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is a nature-filled wildlife zoo highlighting the natural denizens of Florida, along with one famous guest. The park has been a tourist attraction since the 1900s, when tourists road a train to the springs. Later, the park housed exotic animals that sometimes appeared in moves and tv shows.
Today the focus at this Crystal River wildlife refuge is on viewing native wildlife in natural exhibits. However, one famous exotic attraction remains. A hippopotamus named Lu was allowed to remain at the sanctuary after the Florida Governor made him an honorary state citizen.
A winding trail leads visitors past habitats for native Florida wolves, river otters, alligators, panthers, black bears, and more. A large section is home to native birds from storks to herons, bald eagles, and vultures.
— Charles McCool ✈️ (@CharlesMcCool) February 19, 2019
A few manatees live at the park and you can view them from above and below the water. Since the resident manatees do not have to search for food they are quite large. For example, “Betsy” weighs about 2400 pounds, double the normal weight of a wild female.
Homosassa Springs park puts on several educational feeding sessions per day, so allow extra time for your visit. Part of the fun is reaching the park. Check in and purchase tickets at the Visitor Center, then take a leisurely boat ride out to the wildlife refuge. A tram also transports visitors, but try to take the boat in at least one direction.
The wildlife park is a favorite thing to do in Homosassa for families, and the boat, tram, and park are all wheelchair accessible. Admission is $13 for 13 and older, $5 for children 5 to 12 and the park is open daily 9:00 to 5:30.
5. Take a Scenic Drive To Floral City
Floral City is another town with a sleepy Old Florida vibe, though the town was briefly bigger than Miami during a phosphate mining boom. Drive or stroll the Avenue of the Oaks, visit the General Store, pick up fresh citrus and tasty shakes at Ferris Grove, or bike a portion of the paved Withlacoochee State Trail. Nearby lakes are popular fishing destinations.
6. Where to Stay in Crystal River Florida
We stayed at the Best Western Crystal River Resort during our visit to Crystal River. This popular hotel in Crystal River has a convenient location close to the manatee tours and other attractions. Standard rooms and efficiencies are available in several buildings. A pool and deck area offer nice views of Springs Fed Bay, and the hotel is right next door to Crackers Bar and Grill. Breakfast is included with the room.
Check more Crystal River hotel rates and reviews and plan your visit.
Crystal River FL Restaurants
7. Cajun Jimmy’s Seafood Seller and Cafe
Add Louisiana flavors to your fresh Florida seafood at Cajun Jimmy’s Seafood Seller & Cafe. A hearty portion of blackened grouper with sides of grilled corn and jambalaya hit the spot for us. Trays of freshly steamed crawfish are another temptation. We were impressed to see a fellow diner work his way through two five-pound trays of the tasty critters. Cajun Jimmy’s draft beer list features a few local brews and they have a full bar if you prefer a cocktail. This is a casual place in a nondescript mall; a hidden gem on route 19.
8. Crackers Bar and Grill
Locals and visitors keep Crackers Bar and Grill hopping. The popular Crystal River restaurant boasts a large deck overlooking King’s Bay. Crackers is an excellent choice for fresh seafood and American classics with a lovely view. When it is too warm outside there is plenty of seating indoors. We enjoyed an excellent blackened grouper sandwich (notice a theme with our food choices?) and a hearty slice of key lime pie.
9. Katch Twenty-Two, Lecanto FL
If your goal is fine dining, head to Katch Twenty-Two in the small town of Lecanto. Chef Richard Wiggins, former Executive Chef at the W in Washington DC, and his wife abandoned traffic snarls and cold winters to open this little gem in Citrus County, Florida.
Locally sourced seafood, top quality meats, and fresh vegetables are combined in creative and delicious dishes. Salad and Beet Tower starters were a nice lead-in to the rich Seafood Risotto and a generous Chairman’s Reserve Ribeye. Katch Twenty-Two is a small, intimate dining room so be sure to reserve a table.
Citrus County is located on the Florida Gulf Coast, about 80 miles north of Tampa and about a two hour drive from Orlando. Tampa International Airport is the closest major airport but you could also drive from Orlando. Most of the area hotels and restaurants are along the Route 19 corridor.
Whether your goal is to swim with manatees, or you prefer to explore from above the water, you will find unique and fun things to do in Crystal River FL. The Citrus County area is a lovely slice of Old Florida where you can slow down and get close to nature.
Article by Julie McCool, whose Virginia travel site FuninFairfaxVA.com helps locals and visitors find fun places to explore, dine, drink, and play in the Virginia, Washington DC, and mid-Atlantic region. Follow Fun in Fairfax VA on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram.