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Looking for the best things to do in Crystal River, Florida? This fun, family friendly destination has exciting activities for the whole family, from swimming with manatees to picking blueberries! Find out more about why you should plan your next Florida getaway to Crystal River.
Thanks so much to Discover Crystal River for hosting this trip. All opinions are 100% my own.
If you’re looking for a terrific family vacation destination, look no further than Crystal River, Florida. This Central Florida town, built around the Kings Bay waterway, has a well-earned reputation as a paradise for nature and animal lovers.
Known as the ‘Home of the Manatee,’ the town houses the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, the only such refuge created specifically for the protection of the threatened Florida manatee. While you’re there, you can take the opportunity to swim with manatees in crystal-clear waters, visit a natural spring, pick fresh blueberries, or even try scalloping.
Other highlights of the Crystal River area include outdoor activities like kayaking, hiking one of the area’s many nature trails, cycling, horseback riding, bird watching, and more.
To help you plan your next family adventure in Crystal River, we’ve rounded up a list the best things to do in this exciting place.
Where is Crystal River, Florida?
Crystal River is located in Citrus County on Florida’s west central coast, along the Gulf of Mexico. Part of the area that’s known as the Florida’s ‘Nature Coast,’ Crystal River is about an hour’s drive north of Tampa, and an hour and a half west of Orlando.
Things to Do In Crystal River
Swimming with Manatees
Crystal River is one of the best places in the world to swim with manatees, so it’s no surprise that this activity tops our list of best things to do. We couldn’t wait to swim and snorkel with these majestic gentle giants in their natural habitat.
We woke up bright and early for our manatee tour experience with Captain Mike’s Tours. After being fitted with wetsuits, we were shown a quick instructional video and were good to go.
The crew was fun, friendly and knowledgeable, and we enjoyed learning more about the manatees along the way. Because these gigantic creatures are so docile and gentle, it’s a completely safe experience for the swimmers. However, every precaution is taken to make this experience safe for the manatees as well.
After about ten minutes, the captain spotted a large group of manatees and dropped anchor. My girls were ready!
Within minutes, they were all around us (and it wasn’t even manatee season). I guess there’s a reason why Crystal River is known as the Manatee Capital Of The World. I can’t even being to describe how awe-inspiring it was so see these creatures from just feet, sometimes inches, away.
While you’re not allowed to reach out and touch the manatees, there are no rules against the manatees touching you. At one point we were watching a group of manatees lunch on kelp when another one swam right up under us.
My girls and I agreed that this was one of the coolest adventures we’ve had and it was by far our favorite part of the trip. If you’re visiting Crystal River, you definitely won’t want to miss this unique experience.
Homosassa Wildlife Refuge
If you want to experience the best of Florida nature and wildlife, Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is the perfect destination. One of the most beautiful spots in Florida, the park’s river and natural springs are home to an amazing variety of fish and more. Look closely and you may even spot the resident hippo!
The surrounding area is home to a large variety of animal species, including red wolves, black bears, flamingos, whooping cranes, alligators and more.
The park also features a reptile house and an underwater observatory.
It’s also a fantastic spot for birdwatching and we saw everything from bald eagles to flamingos!
Hiking and geo-seeking are just a few more of the experiences you can enjoy as you learn about Florida wildlife at this beautiful, fun, and educational place.
Yulee Sugar Mill Ruins
Just up the street from the Homosassa Wildlife Refuge, you’ll find the Yulee Sugar Mill Ruins. I wouldn’t recommend a special trip to see them but if you’re already in the area, they’re worth checking out.
This park contains the remnants of a 5,100 acre sugar plantation. There’s not much left but you can still see the old chimney, cane press and iron gears. It’s visible from the road so you don’t even have to get out of the car if you don’t want to.
Three Sisters Springs
Three Sisters Springs, a natural inlet on Kings Bay, is the perfect place to experience some of the best views and water recreation in the area. The pristine waters and gorgeous scenery make this a popular tourist area.
The springs are a favorite place for swimming, snorkeling and kayaking.
If you visit during the winter months, there are no shortage of manatees. The surrounding area is a designated manatee sanctuary, and visitors can watch them from the observation boardwalk overlooking the springs.
If you are a hiker, you’ll like the nature trails, which start with a boardwalk and eventually turns into more traditional trails. Keep going to enjoy views of Magnolia Springs, Lake Crystal, and the wetlands.
If you look closely, you’ll come across mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians that are commonly found in the Florida spring ecosystem. You may want to have your camera ready.
NOTE: To visit, you’ll need to go to the Three Sisters Springs Center and take the trolley bus the rest of the way in. Handicapped parking is the only available parking at the springs.
Kayaking is one of the best ways to experience the beauty of Crystal River up close and personal. There are a variety of tour companies and options to choose from but we couldn’t resist the clear kayaks from Get up and Go Kayaking.
This is a great way to get a birds-eye view of Crystal River’s aquatic life without getting wet! With the unobstructed views from the clear kayaks, you’ll have a better chance at spotting manatees, fish, turtles and other native animals.
The guided tour begins at King’s Bay, where you’ll board a kayak and make your way towards Three Sisters Springs. My daughters were in heaven…they could kayak all day!
We kayaked across the bay and through canals, spotting quite a few manatees along the way.
When we reached the entrance of the springs, we were given the choice of staying in the kayak or swimming. The crystal clear waters were so gorgeous that we couldn’t resist hopping in for a swim!
The guided tour lasted about two and a half hours and wrapped up back where we started at Kings Bay. Though we’ve only kayaked a few times, we had no problems keeping up, so everyone from beginners to experienced kayakers can take part in this fun adventure.
If you’re visiting during the spring, you’re in luck…it’s blueberry season in Crystal River. This is the time to visit one of the many local farms where you can pick your own fresh blueberries.
There’s nothing like the taste of sweet, juicy berries straight from the bush, and blueberry picking at Cavallo Farm and Market is an activity that the whole family can enjoy together.
My girls had the best time competing to see who could pick the most and probably would’ve stayed all day if we could have. Plus, not only is it fun to pick the berries but you can bring them home to make a delicious blueberry pie or homemade blueberry syrup!
NOTE: In order to keep the birds away, air cannons go off every minute or two. While it’s completely safe, you may want to keep this in mind if you have a child who is sensitive to loud noises.
In addition to blueberry picking, there’s a cute gift shop that carries eco-friendly and organic items from from home decor, homemade soaps, fun clothing, unique gifts and even baked goods.
Stop by their winery to pick up a bottle or two of their blueberry wine, which is fermented in-house.
If blueberry picking made you hungry, you’ll definitely want to make time for lunch! We had a delicious meal overlooking the blueberry fields and I’d highly recommend it! (More about that below).
Crystal River is also home to some of the best hiking in North America. You’ll want to bring your hiking shoes and make time to get out and explore some of the best parks and nature trails that the area has to offer.
With thousands of acres of scenic trails and caves, you’ll find everything from easy trails consisting of wooden sidewalks to more intense trails for serious hikers.
The Withlacoochee State Forest is one of Florida’s largest state forests and the World Wildlife Fund even named it “one of the 10 coolest places you’ve never been in North America”. It’s ponds, trail loops and caves are at the center of a thousand-mile long Florida Trail.
Another notable hiking area is the Crystal River Preserve State Park which covers over 20 miles of Gulf coastland. Trails include the 7-mile loop along with the Eco-Walk. No matter what you choose, the hiking enthusiasts in your family will be in heaven in Crystal River.
Scalloping season in Crystal River takes place during the summer months, starting July 1st and running until around September 24th. There are a variety of tour companies that will provide snorkel gear so that you can get in on the fun of diving for your own scallops.
When you book a scalloping excursion on Crystal River, not only will you enjoy great views of area wildlife but you’ll have a snorkeling adventure that doubles as an exciting treasure hunt.
Some local restaurants will even prepare your scallops for you. What’s more fun than eating your own catch for dinner!
Fort Island Beach
If you want a great place to chill and wind down after your Crystal River area adventures, then you’ll be happy to know that Crystal River has some great beaches too. One of the best options is Fort Island Gulf Beach, a small beach that’s a little off the beaten path, making it a perfect spot for a relaxing day.
With its calm, shallow waters, roped off swimming area, and picnic tables, Fort Island Beach is a great spot to relax and enjoy some fun in the sun. If you feel like taking a break from the water, you can explore the nearby trails.
Keep going and you’ll likely end up at the pier. If you’ve brought along your fishing gear, this makes a great fishing spot.
While we had dinner reservations and couldn’t stay for sunset, rumor has it that Fort Island Beach boasts some of the best sunsets in Crystal River. That’s reason enough for us to go back for another visit!
Crystal River Village/Downtown
Although Crystal River is known for its natural scenery, you won’t want to miss the opportunity to visit the historic downtown area too.
Downtown Crystal River boasts seasonal activities in the town square along with a variety of great restaurants and charming shops.
Be sure to set aside at least an hour or two to explore the town, discover some great local cuisine, and pick up a few souvenirs at the Shoppes of Heritage Village.
If you have a some extra time, you can also wander through the Coastal Heritage Museum, where they feature exhibits, artifacts and photos showcasing the history of Citrus County. Admission is free and it’s open Wednesday through Saturday.
Where to Eat in Crystal River
If you like waterfront dining, you’ll want to plan a visit to Waterfront Social. The vibe here is casual and fun and I was excited to see that they had live music as well.
With indoor/outdoor dining, you can enjoy a delicious dinner while overlooking King’s Bay.
This popular restaurant specializes in southern coastal dishes. We started with our go-to appetizer, calamari. For our entrees, we went with shrimp tacos, blackened grouper and gator bites.
Everything was absolutely delicious and I’d especially recommend the grouper and shrimp tacos. If you’re thinking about dessert, you can’t go wrong with the Salted Caramel Cheesecake…so delish!!!
Seafood Seller and Cafe
For the best Cajun food in town, you won’t want to miss Seafood Seller and Cafe. Offering a taste of the Bayou with some of the best Gumbo and Po’ Boys in the area, you can also enjoy a variety of fresh seafood straight off the boat.
Judging from the number of people waiting outside, we had a feeling it was going to be good.
We started with the ahi tuna appetizer and it didn’t disappoint. Though it came with two sauces, the tuna was so fresh and full of flavor that we didn’t need them.
For dinner, I went with the stuffed shrimp entree. Stuffed with blue cheese, wrapped in bacon, then breaded and fried, it may not have been the healthiest thing on the menu but it sure was tasty (as were the hush puppies that came with it)!
My girls went for shrimp tacos (again) and a chicken sandwich. They were equally as happy with their choices and we give this delicious seafood restaurant three thumbs up!
Cavallo Farm and Market
Cavallo Farm and Market is known for their fresh, local ‘farm to fork’ cuisine. Even if you’re not up for blueberry picking, it’s definitely worth popping in here for lunch.
Their signature breakfast and lunch menus offer a variety of creative gourmet sandwiches, freshly baked pastries, cakes, and pies.
I went with the Cavallo’s Signature BLT while my girls ordered a Chicken Ranch Sandwich and Chicken Caesar Salad.
All were delicious but if you have to choose just one, I highly recommend the Signature BLT. With a fried green tomato, applewood smoked bacon, spring mix, lemon aioli and tomato jam on a ciabatta bun, it was the best sandwich I’ve had in ages!
With delicious food and a pretty view overlooking the blueberry fields, it was a nice way to spend an afternoon and we’d definitely go back!
Where to Stay
Best Western Crystal River Resort
If you’re looking for a place to stay that’s centrally located and will provide easy access to all of the most popular Crystal River tourist activities, the Best Western Crystal River Resort is a good option.
This hotel was clean and budget-friendly, providing all of the essential amenities, including a free hot breakfast each morning. It’s not the fanciest hotel but since we were barely in our room anyway, it totally worked for what we needed.
Our adventures in Crystal River were so much fun and it was perfect for a quick weekend getaway. If you’re looking to unplug and spend some time enjoying nature, your family will love all the adventure this Florida destination has to offer!