The Sunshine State isn’t all beaches and theme parks – it’s also rich in natural wonders. There are dozens of bird species that call this area home, as well as other wildlife like otters, alligators, and, of course, the manatee. These are just some of the creatures you might encounter in Crystal River, also known as the gem of Florida’s nature coast.
In this travel guide to Crystal River, we explore Crystal River: what to do there and where to go. An hour and a half from Tampa, it’s charming, quiet, and full of outdoor activities for the naturalist in you.
A Brief Background Of Crystal River
Crystal River is a coastal city sitting on the Western Gulf side of Florida. It’s a haven for wildlife, boasting several nature preserves and state parks nearby.
With a population of just over 3000, Crystal River is not a bustling metropolis. That said, it is called the Manatee Haven – if you’re interested in seeing these gentle giants in their natural habitat, Crystal River is the perfect vacation spot for you.
Where To Stay
Looking to visit Crystal River? You’ll need a place to stay – here are a few options for every budget.
9301 W Fort Island Trail
The Plantation is a historic mansion with a gorgeous pool where you can relax after a long day of sightseeing and outdoor activities.
The resort boasts spacious grounds and is situated right on the bay. In-house activities include a full-service spa, golf, and much more! There’s even an excellent restaurant on-site, so you don’t have to venture far for delicious meals.
King’s Bay Lodge
506 NW 1st Ave
Looking for an adventure? Then stay at the King’s Bay Lodge, which offers exciting kayaking and manatee encounters. If you get lucky while fishing, the King’s Bay Lodge has a fish cleaning station where you can prepare your catch.
You can go swimming or snorkeling with manatees in the bay. Or, if you just want to sit back and relax, take a dip in the spring-fed pool at the lodge. It’s also only a few minutes’ walk from bars and restaurants, so it’s easy to spend a night out on the town.
The Retreat At The Crystal Manatee
310 N Citrus Ave
On a budget? The Retreat At The Crystal Manatee boasts a lot of local charm at a more affordable price tag. Near Crystal River’s cute downtown area, the Retreat is a family-owned resort with modern rooms and clean showers.
It’s the little touches that make the Retreat At The Crystal Manatee stand out – staff even leave pastries in your room in the afternoons. The breakfast room also remains open throughout the day for snacks.
Where/What To Eat
While you are traveling, you should sample the local cuisine and delicacies. Here are some options for you to try in Crystal River:
Seafood Seller & Cafe
300 SE US Hwy 19
Seafood Seller & Cafe is a family-run business that sells and serves fresh seafood. It’s situated in an unassuming strip mall, often being described as a hidden gem.
The Cajun food is excellent and the place is always packed – that’s how you know it’s good! This is a great place to bring the whole family, and, if you’re lucky, you might even get a mini-magic show from the owner.
Be advised that it doesn’t take reservations, so you could be in for a wait.
Must-try dish: Get the grouper – it’s fresh from the owner’s boats. You can have it prepared any way you want, and it comes with sides.
Seafood Seller & Cafe is open 11 AM – 9 PM from Tuesday to Thursday, 11 AM – 10 PM on Fridays and Saturdays, and 11 AM – 8 PM on Sundays.
Vintage On 5th
114 NE 5th St
Treat yourself! Vintage On 5th is just the place to indulge. It has an old Florida elegance combined with a creative menu and an eager-to-please staff. This spot is a destination restaurant for a reason – people from all over flock to Vintage on 5th for upscale dining.
Everything from the bread you start with (i.e., fresh ciabatta) to the desserts is delicious. Don’t underestimate the specials, either – the chef is always looking for creative new ways to surprise diners.
Must-try dish: Start with the perfectly seasoned she-crab soup, then get the pork belly which has a layered taste with just a hint of spice. Any of its platters are amazing, and you can pair them with wines from Vintage’s curated selection.
Vintage on 5th is open 5 PM – 9 PM from Tuesday to Thursday and 5 PM – 10 PM on Fridays and Saturdays.
Peck’s Old Port Cove
139 N Ozello Trail
You are sure to feel at home in this low-key restaurant! Peck’s is right on the water, so the ambiance is hard to beat. Try to get a seat outside and enjoy the fresh air while eating delicious food. The service is top-notch, full of small touches like complimentary onion straws.
The place can be a little hard to get to, with long windy roads that often flood during wet seasons. That said, it’s all part of the charm of a coastal restaurant, and the food is well worth the trip!
Must-try dish: Get the blue claw crabs in the garlicky sauce or the almond-crusted grouper.
Peck’s Old Port Cove is open 11 AM – 9 PM daily.
1712 SE US Hwy 19
Grannie’s is a favorite of locals and visitors alike. With its big portions and friendly atmosphere, this place is a great economical choice. It has strong coffee, excellent diner food, and home-style favorites, like chicken fried chicken and omelets.
Be warned, this is not a fancy spot. But it is a great inexpensive breakfast place where you can load up on energy for a big day of adventures.
Must-try dish: Get the country breakfast with biscuits and gravy! Grannie’s has generous portions so you will really get your money’s worth.
Grannie’s is open 5 AM – 3 PM every day.
What To Do
Crystal River is on Florida’s Nature Coast, so much of what it has to offer are outdoor activities. Expect an abundance of wildlife, excellent birding opportunities, and plenty of protected refuge sites.
Between the months of July and September, book a scalloping adventure in Crystal River. There are several charter companies that offer scalloping. So pack a cooler, sunscreen, and snorkel gear then get ready for underwater fun.
Swim With Manatees
Crystal River is the manatee capital of the world, so it makes sense that there are a ton of places that offer swimming with these gentle giants. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and one you shouldn’t miss if you are anywhere near the Crystal River area.
There are many ways to encounter the manatees – you can kayak or snorkel with them, but most people prefer to get up close and personal with a swimming session.
Kayak On The Chazz
Manatees aren’t the only draw of Crystal River – there is also the Chassahowitzka River, a body of water that snakes through state-protected land. Airboats are prohibited in these waters, allowing for a peaceful experience with a lot of wildlife and birding. You might even spot an otter or a bald eagle on your tour!
Take a crystal kayak and paddle around. Keep your eyes open – you don’t know what you might see in the clear water.
Three Sisters Springs Kayak and Eco Tours
If you don’t feel like swimming with manatees, you can still watch them from a safe distance! Many of these creatures converge in the Three Sisters Springs, seeking warm water refuge in the wintertime. During peak manatee season, there could even be hundreds of them!
If you are taken with the gorgeous scenery or interested in the hundreds of bird species that also call this refuge home, check out the many available biking and hiking trails nearby.
Fort Island Gulf Beach
It wouldn’t be a Florida vacation without at least one beach trip! Gulf Beach is a fifteen-minute drive from Crystal River, so it’s not exactly in the city, but it’s not far. Expect a laid-back vibe and rustic accommodations. It’s an especially great place to catch the sunset.
Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park
This park used to be a zoo and still hosts protected species today, including black bears, alligators, and the endangered Florida panther. You might even encounter a hippo named Lu, one of the oldest in captivity in the US.
When visiting Florida, Crystal River might not be top of mind, but it has a ton of charm and natural beauty. If you are tired of the nightlife or want something a little more peaceful than a theme park vacation, then Crystal River might be the ideal place for you to stay! It’s an especially fun destination for those who love nature, have an adventurous spirit, and want to enjoy everything the great outdoors has to offer.
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Also, while we do our best to highlight LGBTQ-friendly destinations and businesses, info provided is based solely on personal experience and recommendations by community partners. We hope that nobody experiences discrimination or homophobia while visiting Florida, but we make no guarantees. Please inform us if you experience discrimination or homophobia while visiting any destination so we can make updates to our recommendations.