Crystal River, Florida, may be the world’s only manatee town.
While the world has plenty of college towns and ski towns and government towns, this town of just over 3,100 has a booming economy based on… sea cows. That’s because the consistently warm waters in Kings Bay — which runs through Crystal River — make it a hotspot for manatees in the winter. And it is the only place in the world where you can get right in and swim alongside them.
From about November to March, the city teems with tourists from all over the world, and street signs throughout the city’s downtown direct visitors to dozens of outfitters who’ll happily take you out swimming with the sea cows.
Of course, getting here isn’t exactly easy, as once you’ve flown to America’s most southeastern state, you’ve still got a two-hour drive from Tampa or Orlando — or five from Miami — to get there. And since you’ve invested that much time, you might want to hang around for a few days.
The good news is that Crystal River has a lot to offer beyond just swimming with the manatees, as this lush region on Florida’s Gulf Coast is full of outdoor adventures, history, and some surprisingly good food. So once you’ve done the manatee thing, here’s what else to do in Crystal River, Florida.
Get back out on the water
While swimming with manatees, you may have noticed kayaks, paddleboards, and fishing boats sharing the crystal-clear waters with you. That’s because all these activities offer even more ways to see manatees, or at the very least check out some of the wilderness that surrounds Crystal River.
One of the best things about this town is that it’s completely walkable, and only a few blocks from downtown you’ll find Hunter Springs Kayaks, where you can rent any number of watercraft to get back out into the Bay. The coolest thing to rent is the clear plastic kayak, which allows you to look down into the water in case a manatee decides to swim under you.
You can take the kayaks or paddleboards over to Three Sister Springs, about a 30-40 minute paddle. Dock up there and swim into the springs where manatees often congregate on cold days, and you can snorkel with far fewer people than you would in the bay. Three Sisters usually charges a $20 entrance fee if you arrive by land but is free to swim through if you kayak there.
If the padding is more work than you’d planned to put in, Hunter Springs Park is a pleasant waterfront green space with a small beach and roped-off swimming area. Manatees also hang out in here from time to time, but even if they don’t, it’s a calming place to unwind during your vacation.
The rivers leading into town are also fantastic spots for shallow flats fishing, as they all lead out to the Gulf of Mexico and are filled with redfish, sea trout, snook, and tarpon. Deep sea fishing isn’t as big here as in other Gulf Coast destinations, but Florida Fishing Adventures can still show you a pretty fantastic day on the water. And might even help you catch your dinner.
Bike through Old Florida
Though Florida gets plenty of acclaim for its white sandy beaches, few people outside the state are aware of the magical wilderness that lies just a little bit inland. North Central Florida is full of trials with rolling hills that move through oaks, magnolias, and palmettos, where herons glide across mirror-still lakes and Spanish moss drips to the ground.
The Crystal River Preserve has an easy, seven-mile loop taking you through all of that, and the Nature Coast State Trail and Florida Greenway are both accessible not far from downtown.
If you’re looking for a bit of a longer ride, drive about 20 minutes to Inverness, where David’s World Cycle sits right on the edge of the Withlacoochee Trail. Rent a bike here, then explore the 46-mile Rails-to-Trails trail, biking under miles of tree canopy, through charming little towns, and past pristine lakes. To get the full Florida experience, make a quick stop at Ferris Groves in Floral City, an orange juice outpost that makes for perfect in-ride refreshment.
If you do opt to bike the Withlacoochee Trail, make a day of it and spend some time in the Citrus County seat of Inverness. Its most prominent feature is the Old Courthouse, the centerpiece of downtown that was also the filming locale of Elvis Presley’s Follow that Dream.
Surrounding the courthouse you’ll find one of the more under-appreciated historic downtowns in the state, with a number of buildings preserved from the early 20th century. Along Courthouse Square, you’ll find the Valerie Theatre, an old Art Deco movie house that now showcases everything from dance companies to local bands. You’ll also find the best pizza in Citrus County at Motor City Pasta Company, along with an impressive collection of wine. Or reward yourself with a post-bike-ride beer at Nine State Brewery, where Massachusetts transplants offer a dozen different beers on tap. You probably only need an afternoon to explore Inverness, but it’s a nice change of pace if you want to see more of the area.
Where to eat in Crystal River
Perhaps swimming with manatees has inspired you to become your best sea cow self. Though nobody’s confusing Crystal River with a dining destination, it does have enough good restaurants to fill a few days and won’t leave you with nothing to eat but drive-thru.
The most-renowned restaurant in town is Vintage on 5th, which like nearly all of the best restaurants here is in wonderfully walkable downtown. It sits in an old church just off N. Citrus Ave. where you can eat either in the pine-wood dining room, airy courtyard, or wraparound porch. The menu is finely prepared Southern comfort food — think bourbon-glazed pork chops and fresh-caught grouper. Plus, there’s a wine bar inside if you just want to sip and take in the ambience.
For something a little less formal, head a couple of blocks north to BubbaQues BBQ, also set in an old house on N. Citrus Ave. and home of cheap beer and perfectly smoked brisket. You’ll be surprised to learn it’s a multi-location restaurant because the meats and sides here are as good as any hole-in-the-wall spot you’ll find in the deep South. And the staff is excessively friendly.
For fresh seafood, you’ll want to head about a half mile from downtown to the strip mall around Big Lots on US-19 and Cajun Jimmy’s Seafood Seller. This is THE place to get fresh Crystal River seafood as nearly every local you’ll ask for a dinner recommendation will direct you here. It’s stripped-down and no frills inside, but the fish is as good as anywhere in Florida.
Breakfast and lunch are best enjoyed at Amy’s on the Avenue, another great spot along Crystal River’s main drag where you’ll enjoy fresh-baked pastries and sandwiches on a big, sunny patio. If you want something a little quicker, head about a block north on N. Citrus Ave. to Cattle Dog Coffee Roasters, a local coffee chain with hearty breakfast sandwiches and inventive flavored teas. If it’s sunny, enjoy your coffee on the porch and watch people stroll through downtown
Going out at night in Crystal River
Crystal River has a beautifully preserved downtown along N. Citrus Ave., with the Shoppes of Heritage Village occupying old cracker cottages and bars and restaurants in buildings still standing from the city’s founding. It’s also home to the bulk of Crystal River’s nightlife, such as it is, best experienced at St. Johns Tavern. This pitched-ceiling tavern is where you’ll find most discerning locals after dinner, the only spot in town with a bit of an upscale vibe and a full cocktail menu. The brick walls and wood fixtures fit in perfectly with the historic downtown feel, and the full menu makes it a pretty solid option for dinner too.
If you find St. Johns too crowded, right next door is Crew The Bar, with a spacious outdoor area that is just as lively at night as it is for day drinking. Walking outside, you might hear live music coming from across the street. Likely it’s coming from Norton’s Riverside Sports Bar, which in addition having dozens of TVs and a wraparound porch also has live music some nights. It’s where you’re likely to find the younger crowd that goes out here, but don’t expect much past cold beer and good bar food.
Crystal River might not exactly be South Beach when it comes to nightlife, but that’s probably not why you came here anyway. Though marine mammals might be the main draw, this gem along Florida’s nature coast can be a legitimate outdoor getaway for more than just a manatee-filled morning. If nothing else, it’ll give you an appreciation for the natural side of the Sunshine State and show you the small-town charms hidden along the Gulf Coast.