14 Best Things to Do in Crystal River, FL (And Yes, That Includes Seeing Manatees)

manatee in Crystal River, FL

Whether it’s your first or 100th time in Florida, I highly recommend a trip to Crystal River. Hailed as the Manatee Capital of the World, this not-so-sleepy small town of roughly 3,000 residents attracts thousands of visitors from all over the world to see and swim with the resident gentle giants.

Crystal River is not too hard to get to either; it’s about an hour north of Tampa and an hour west of Orlando. This guide will show you the best things to do in Crystal River (and the best places to eat and drink!).

Cecilio and I recently went to Crystal River to swim with the manatees, since we both love them. We first saw manatees in person in Xcaret during our honeymoon in Mexico, but they were enclosed in their little lagoon. When I found out about Crystal River and how it was the only place in the world where you could legally swim with the manatees, I knew we needed to go there someday.

Well, Crystal River exceeded our expectations and more! This cute town is all about manatees. If you’re not swimming or kayaking with them, you’ll walk by shops, murals, and art galleries dedicated to these sea cows. I even ordered a “manatee mojito” from St. John’s Tavern, one of the popular pubs in the area!

I will also share where to stay, how to get to Crystal River from Tampa or Orlando, and what to pack.

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Things to Do in Crystal River

1. Swim with manatees on Kings Bay and Hunter Springs

Did you even go to Crystal River if you didn’t swim (or kayak) with manatees? This is what most visitors flock to the town for!

Swimming with the manatees is a magical, surreal experience that it’s hard to describe unless you’ve done it. And once you do, you’re gonna find yourself back wanting to do it again. Over and over. At least that’s what our guide told us. Swimming with these creatures is therapeutic, especially because they are so innocent, friendly, and affectionate, like puppies.

All tour operators will take you to Kings Bay and Hunter Springs to swim with the manatees. Both springs are a part of Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.

We booked our manatee snorkel tour with River Ventures, and we are so happy with their hospitality, kindness, professionalism, and care for the manatees. Our small group rode on a heated pontoon boat, put on some snorkel gear, and swam in the springs alongside the sea cows.

belly up manatee in Crystal River, FL
woman snorkeler cuddling with manatees belly in Crystal River, FL

When swimming with the manatees, you need to practice passive observation. That means you can’t swim after them or chase them. Absolutely no hitting, kicking, and pushing. The only way you can touch them is if they come to you first, and they will likely do since they are super affectionate. They will want to lick and kiss you and roll over for belly rubs. In these scenarios, you can touch gently with one hand.

I can’t recommend the semi-private tour we took with River Ventures enough. The tour holds up to 6 people, making for a more intimate experience with the manatees and the guides. It also makes it more comfortable to walk around the boat freely!

Exclusive Small Group VIP Heated Manatee Snorkel Tour


  • Snorkel equipment (mask, wetsuit, pool noodle)
  • Snacks and beverages (water, coffee, tea, hot cocoa)
  • Narrated guide
  • Heated pontoon boat
  • Full refund if you don’t see manatees

2. Kayak on a glass bottom boat

Getting wet isn’t your thing? You can still get a clear (no pun intended) view of the manatees by going on a kayaking tour alongside them! Well, you’ll still get a little wet from splashing the paddles. But there’s no dunking required 😉

But not just any kayaking tour. You’re going to want to book a glass-bottom boat tour, so you can see the manatees under you! You’ll also see other critters, like fish, dolphins, and turtles.

While there are kayak rentals near Kings Bay and Hunter Springs, I do recommend going on this guided tour, especially if you’ve never been to Crystal River before. A guide will show you different hidden gems around the springs that you probably wouldn’t have thought of going to. Also, it’s easy to get lost if you’re not familiar with the area.

kayakers swimming with manatees in Crystal River, FL
Photo credit: Viator

Go mural-hunting (specifically for the manatee murals)

For a small town, I was impressed with Crystal River’s robust art scene. Crystal River has shops and art galleries showcasing and selling coastal-themed pieces. All the manatee tour companies have gift shops selling photos, art prints, and greeting cards curated by local artists.

Some of the buildings in and around Downtown Crystal River are painted with beautiful murals painted by talented local artists. While there are a handful of themed murals, I want to specifically highlight the manatee-themed ones. A lot of manatee tour companies have manatee-themed murals painted on one side of their buildings, capturing the essence of the city! Also, they make for cool Insta-worthy spots on your feed!

woman in front of the manatee mural in Crystal River, FL

“The Adventure Starts Here”
Explorida Store & Manatee Tours
545 N Citrus Ave
Crystal River, FL 34428

mural of manatee and snorkeler in Crystal River, FL

“Fun Galore”
Hunter Springs Kayaks
36 Northeast 4th Street
Crystal River, FL 34429

Man in front of the manatee mural in Crystal River, FL

“Florida is a Wildlife Wonderland”
35 NE 5th St.
Crystal River, FL 34429

3. Visit the manatees at Three Sisters Springs

Three Sisters Springs is a 52-acre inlet and one of the main refuges for manatees during the winter, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Located right across Kings Bay, it is also a unit for Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. The preserve got its name from the three springs that make up the area: Magnolia Springs, Lake Crystal, and the Wetland.

There are no parking spots other than a few handicapped spots, so you will need to walk or take a shuttle to get access to the springs.

Admission is $20 for adults in the winter and $12.50 in the summer. You can click here for the rest of the ticket information for seniors, children, and the military. Cecilio and I went to Crystal River the weekend it happened to be the Manatee Festival, which meant that we got free admission.

After you purchase tickets, you can walk around the observatory boardwalk to see the manatees and other animals. It’s a nice, peaceful stroll, being one with nature (unless you get in for free thanks to the Manatee Festival, it’s not so peaceful with crowds).

You cannot access the springs by land. It’s roped off from the boardwalk, and there are posts in the water to prevent motorized boats from entering. The only way to get inside the springs is by kayaking, paddleboarding, or swimming. You can only paddle or kayak to Three Sisters Springs in the summer.

It is a little complicated to enter Three Sisters Springs, and not all manatee tour companies take you there. They will lead you to wherever has the perfect tide, temperature, and amount of manatees! Regardless, I can’t highly recommend visiting Three Sisters Springs enough, even for a nice little stroll on the boardwalk. The bright blue waters and lush, hanging greenery transports you to another world, almost like the Garden of Eden.

manatees in Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River, FL

4. Shop for Souvenirs at Land & Sea Decor

Land & Sea Decor is a cute and quirky gift shop filled with manatee and beach-themed merchandise. It’s quite a maze with different rooms and selling knickknacks like home decor and art. They have one room with a cashier when you’re ready to purchase, which also sells your typical souvenirs such as magnets, shot glasses, shirts, and stuffed animals. I bought 2 manatee squeaky dog toys for my little ones!

Manatee plush dog toys at Land & Sea Decor at Crystal River, FL
souvenirs at Land & Sea Decor in Crystal River, FL
Sign of Land & Sea Decor in Crystal River, FL

Coastal Art Gallery is located right next to Land & Sea Decor. They sell and showcase pottery, paintings, photography, sculptures, windchimers, and stained glass from local Crystal River artists. If you are an artist or a creative like I am, take as many photos as you can for inspiration; the artists are insanely talented! And you can guess the overarching themes for most of the artwork are beaches, Floridian wildlife, and manatees.

Like Land & Sea Decor, Coastal Art Gallery sells the artists’ prints and pieces. They even have magnets featuring work from some of the artists! The only difference is that Coastal Art Gallery doesn’t sell mass-produced souvenirs like Land & Sea Decor and other gift shops do. Everything is local and handcrafted.

stained glass wind chimers shaped as fish in the Coastal Art Gallery in Crystal River, FL
manatee ceramic sculptures at Coastal Art Gallery in Crystal River
ceramic manatee pottery at Coastal Art Gallery in Crystal River

6. Go scalloping in the summer

While you can see manatees all year, there’s a lot less of them in the summer. But there’s another popular summer activity in Crystal River, and that’s scalloping (a lot of manatee tour companies offer scalloping tours too!).

Scalloping is basically an underwater treasure hunt, where you snorkel in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico, 2-3 miles from the shore. You’re given a bag to collect scallops as you swim underwater. Once your bag is full, you can go to any seafood restaurant in the area where the chefs can cook your fresh catch. It’s actually a Floridian tradition for local restaurants to cook your catch of scallops or fish! I call it sea-to-table 🙂 or sea-to-saucer?

a bag of scallops

7. Marvel over mounds at Crystal River Archaeological State Park

While it is a bit out of the way, the Crystal River Archaeological State Park is still worth visiting! It’s actually only a 10-minute drive, which isn’t far in the grand scheme of things (especially if you’re renting a car). It’s rooted in history from as early as 800 BC-1500.

The park is said to be one of the longest-occupied sites in Florida. There are 6 mounds in this 61-acre site, with the biggest and most famous one being the Temple Mound (which reminds me of Chichen Itza).

Temple Mound has a staircase with 55 steps that you can climb up. The top has gorgeous views of the river on one side and the park trails and burial mounds on the other.

The receptionist said that you might be able to see manatees on the river, but we were looking for them with no luck 🙁 Well, it’s not like we haven’t seen them 3 days in a row, haha!

You will see a variety of birds, especially because the park is a part of the Great Florida Birding Trail. The trails in the park are gorgeous with all the greenery, and it’s just utterly peaceful. You can even have a picnic while birdwatching or watching people boating on the river! Just make sure you wear pants or have some bug spray on hand because you will get bitten by bugs.

Trees in the trails at the River Archaeological State Park

Don’t forget to scope out the museum in the visitor’s center when you enter. There are displays of so many cool artifacts like pottery, tools, and hunting spears. There is even a section of dead animal bones and turtle shells, which gives you a glimpse of what other critters lived around the area.

animal bones at the museum in the River Archaeological State Park

The Crystal River Archaeological State Park is open from 8 am to sundown all year. The museum, however, is open from 9 am to 5 pm, Monday-Thursday. Upon entrance, there is a parking fee of $3 per vehicle.

8. Fort Island Gulf Beach

This small beach is a hidden gem of Crystal River. It is even more out of the way, but it makes for a nice stop from Crystal River Archaeological State Park. The beach is pretty small but well-equipped with restrooms, showers, picnic tables, and a boat dock and pier. Since the waters are calm, Fort Island Gulf Beach is pretty swimmable. It’s also a popular area for fishing.

the pier at Fort Island Gulf Beach in Crystal River, FL

9. Take a day trip to Homosassa Springs

While Homosassa Springs is only 20 minutes away from Crystal River, the vibes couldn’t be any more different. The town is covered in trees and has a more rustic and rural experience. Homosassa Springs has no central area with shops and restaurants the way Downtown Crystal River does, so it’s better to get around with a car.

As far as accommodation, there are no hotels in Homosassa Springs (all of them are in Crystal River). So if you wanted to stay in Homosassa, you would need to book a vacation rental home or stay in a campground.

You can still swim with manatees in Homosassa River, although they don’t hang around there as much as they do in Kings Bay, Hunter Springs, and Three Sisters Springs. River Ventures also offers manatee swim tours in Homosassa.

If you had one day in Homosassa Springs, I would highly recommend doing two things:

Go on a river cruise down Homosassa River

Cecilio and I went on a river cruise with River Safaris, a sister company of River Ventures that offers river tours and boat rentals down Homosassa River. Since it was a Tuesday morning and it looked like it was going to be a rainy day, the tour ended up being just the two of us with our captain, Irish Dave. He was so funny and informative, telling us about the history of the river and the wildlife. Irish Dave pointed to different houses on the river and their history, with some of them being destroyed by hurricanes.

We saw different birds and fish native to Florida along with manatees! In addition, we saw some people kayaking and snorkeling on the river near Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, which I HIGHLY recommend.

Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

No trip to Homosassa Springs is complete without this state park. At first glance, you might think you’re in a zoo, but the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park (I’m just gonna call it Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park for short here) is so much better than that. The animals have larger enclosed spaces than they would have in a typical zoo.

The State of Florida purchased the state park in 1989 to shift from showcasing the animals for entertainment purposes to preserving and protecting endangered native species. Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is home to different Floridian species such as turtles, eagles, alligators, Key deer, flamingos, bobcats, bears, and of course manatees.

The most famous animal in the park is Lu the hippo, but he did not come from Florida. He was born in the San Diego Zoo and moved to Homosassa Springs shortly after. He is also a retired movie star who has been featured in films like “Cowboy in Africa” and “Daktari”.

Lu the hippo at Homosassa State Park
Lu was a bit camera-shy when I was trying to take his photos!

The park overlooks Homosassa River, and you can see manatees swimming by as you’re strolling!

manatees swimming on Homosassa River  near the Homosassa State Park

Perhaps the highlight of the park is the Underwater Observatory. Its structure is shaped like a fish bowl, but there’s an entrance that leads downstairs to a dark room with large windows that allow you to see manatees and fish swimming underwater in Homosassa River. The cutest thing you’ll ever see are the manatees rolling around without a care in the world!

Manatee swimming under the Homosassa River seen from the underwater observatory

10. BONUS: Attend the Manatee Festival (January only)

Since manatee season is during the winter, it makes sense for Crystal River to host their annual Florida Manatee Festival. Luckily, Cecilio and I arrived on the same weekend as the Florida Manatee Festival happened.

The Florida Manatee Festival is a 2-day affair hosted by the Citrus County Chamber of Commerce. Artists and small business owners line up around Downtown Crystal River, selling their handcrafted works. I saw vendors selling manatee paintings, sculptures, dish towels, and crochet pieces. There are also a ton of food stalls selling hot dogs, tacos, gator bites, coffee, and ice cream.

During the festival, there are $10 boat tours on Kings Bay and $15 kayak tours on Hunter Springs where you can see the manatees. Admission to Three Sisters Springs is free too!

It was so much fun attending the Manatee Festival, and a great way for the community to come together and celebrate their mascot. I felt like I was a part of that community despite being from out of state. I would love to be a vendor selling artwork one of these years!

Art by Samm Wehman Art at the Manatee Festival in Crystal River, FL
Booth from Samm Wehman Art. Love her work, she is such an inspiration!
Acrylic painting of a manatee as Little Mermaid in the Manatee Festival in Crystal River, Florida. Art by Gnarly Carly
Raffle for a painting from Gnarly Carly

Where to Eat and Drink in Crystal River

11. Cattle Dog Coffee Roasters

If you love locally crafted coffee and gooey pastries, you have to go to Cattle Dog Coffee Roasters. It’s a small Citrus County chain coffee shop located in the heart of Downtown Crystal River. There’s a large front porch for people-watching (can it get any more Southern than that?) and a small sectioned-off corner inside with couches for lounging.

Cattle Dog Coffee Roasters has a wide variety of coffee drinks and lattes; I recommend getting the Emerald Isle latte, made with Irish creme and green mint!

12. St John’s Tavern

This popular dimly-lit pub is also nestled in Downtown Crystal River. St. John’s Tavern serves the typical bar food, like cheese sticks, fried okra, jalapeno poppers, burgers, and sandwiches. All the seating is on a high stool, making it easier to watch the Bucs game on TV.

Since you are in the Manatee Capital of the World, I suggest you order the Manatee Mojito, which has rum, Curacao, mint, and lime!

Manatee Mojito in St. John's Tavern in Crystal River, FL

13. Dan’s Clam Stand

Dan’s Clam Stand is a hole-in-the-wall seafood restaurant that is a hit with residents and visitors! It’s more New England-inspired since there are a lot of lobsters and clams (duh). But they do have gator bites (they call it the Al E. Gator), which is a Florida staple. I recommend you get it at least once during your time in Florida. If it weirds you out, let me remind you that it tastes like popcorn chicken.

Get the steamed clams. These babies are doused in butter and garlic, fresh from the water. We got a bowl of 20 clams, but with how fast we went through them, I wish we had gotten 50!

14. Cracker’s Bar & Grill

For a fun restaurant with live music by Kings Bay, I recommend checking out Cracker’s Bar & Grill. There’s a tiki bar outside the restaurant building, making for an exciting ambiance.

They have delicious food to boot; like their wings (which they’ve been serving since 1986)! You can choose or combine flavors such as mild, hot, BBQ, or garlic parmesan.

wings at Cracker's Bar & Grill in Crystal River, FL

Cracker’s Bar & Grill mostly serves seafood, from Southern classics like po boy sandwiches to fusion fare like haddock tacos.

Cecilio and I went here the first night because it was within walking distance from our hotel. I wanted to try the gator bites or grouper here, but those were at marketplace prices, so I decided to get the fried oysters (which were thick and crispy on the outside, and creamy on the inside!)

How to Get to Crystal River

The biggest cities that Crystal River is closest to are Tampa and Orlando. There are no bus routes to get there, so you will absolutely need to rent a car. I recommend looking for a car at Discover Cars for the best deals because renting a car through the airport will be much more expensive.

From Tampa

Tampa’s airport is Tampa International Airport (TPA).

  • Exit and merge onto FL-589N
  • FL-589 will turn into FL-44W, so continue there until you see the sign for Crystal River

From Orlando

Tampa’s airport is Orlando International Airport (MCO).

  • Merge onto FL-408W
  • Exit and merge onto Florida’s Turnpike
  • Exit on 307 toward Inverness
  • Continue on FL-44W until you see the sign for Crystal River

Where to Stay in Crystal River

Cecilio and I stayed at PaddleTail Lodge, which is right on King’s Bay and a 5-minute walk from Downtown Crystal River. The hotel actually used to be an old Best Western hotel, so parts of it are still under construction. The pool was under renovation during our stay, so we couldn’t use it 🙁

We had pretty good service, and our rooms were clean with bouncy beds. The lobby had a gift shop and a coffee bar, Grassroots Coffee.

Since I have plans to go back to Crystal River, I would love to stay in PaddleTail Lodge again, especially once they are done with the renovation and the hotel building is fully “theirs!”

The best part about staying in PaddleTail Lodge was how close it was to everything!

Other hotels and vacation rentals in Crystal River

What to Pack (Aside from your usuals)

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Crystal River worth visiting?

Crystal River is absolutely worth visiting and should be on every marine lover’s bucket list! Whether you’re looking to swim or kayak with manatees in the winter or hunt for scallops in the summer to eat, you’ll never have a shortage of things to do in this charming Florida town.

What is Crystal River known for?

Crystal River is known as the Manatee Capital of the World. It is the only place in the world where you can legally swim with these gentle giants. When winter comes around and the manatees are there, visitors come from all over the world to see and swim with these sea cows!

What is the best time to see manatees at Crystal River?

While you can see manatees all year round, the best time to see swells of manatees is between November to March. Every winter, the manatees swim up to the springs of Crystal River to escape the cold oceans, which can cause health problems for them.

Does Crystal River have a campground?

Crystal River does have a few RV and tent campgrounds! Encore Crystal Isles is a simple but chic one by Fort Island Trail. For a new, luxury, adult-oriented campground, you have to check out Sweet Citrus Acres!

Wrapping it Up

Cecilio and I are not small-town people. I sure as hell don’t see myself living in one, but I make an exception for Crystal River. And I’m already making plans to go back next winter to swim with the manatees for a longer period and get better photos with them. I would also like to get involved with the Manatee Festival.

For those who love marine wildlife, I can’t recommend Crystal River enough. It’s a magical experience seeing the manatees and swimming with them, and one you’ll want to do over and over again. Even when you’re on land, you’ll see manatee motifs all over this town in the shops, cafes, restaurants, and the streets.

There’s also something about the city that makes the people so friendly; maybe it’s the manatees bringing the community together, knowing how sweet and gentle they are! The residents, visitors, and tour operators care so much for the manatees and do their best to keep them safe and healthy.

And if you don’t get to see swells of them during the summer (you’ll still see a few here or there), Crystal River is still worth visiting for those mouth-watering scallops you pluck from the sea 🙂

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Hannah is a travel writer, graphic designer, and the founder/editor of Hannah on Horizon. She is based in Sacramento, California, living with her husband and two adorable dogs. She shares tips on how to experience luxury travel on any budget, and how to maximize time at each trip or destination, no matter what your budget or amount of vacation time at work. She enjoys making you feel like you have visited each destination with her through her storytelling and informative writing style.

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