There are four cities in the Crystal River region: Crystal River, Homosassa, Inverness, and Floral City. We spent our time in Crystal River and Homosassa and found plenty to do
Imagine a stretch of Florida coast along the Gulf of Mexico filled with riverways, low-lying mangrove trees, crystal clear water, and wildlife. While it might not be as well traversed as parts of the panhandle or the white sandy shores a couple of hours south, this charming spot is filled with delightful fun and sights that are perfect for families looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of the beach cities for which the sunshine state is so well known. My kids and I had the chance to visit Crystal River, FL, and we fell in love—not just with the manatees—but with the unique culture and activities that abound in this wild area.
Our Favorite Things to Do in Crystal River, FL
Watch a Mermaid Perform
Outside the Crystal River city limits lies a magical realm where mermaids dwell. The Mertailor’s Mermaid Aquarium Encounter is a hidden gem. Located in an unassuming spot off the highway, you’ll enter the space filled with birds like Macaws and Cockatoos, a stingray touching tank (where my kids spent at least 30 minutes), a starfish and sea urchin discovery station and examples of the local spring habitats. The real star of the show is the mermaid tank, where, every hour or so, guests are treated to an underwater performance from a mermaid performer.
Swim with the Manatees
The natural springs in Citrus County (known as the Manatee Capital of the world, BTW), beckon to upwards of a thousand manatees in the winter months. In the summer, you’ll still find these gentle giants in the clear waters of Crystal River and Kings Bay, and several companies take you out to snorkel or kayak. We loved Hunter Springs Kayak. They are located in the heart of downtown and are a quick walk from the docks at Kings Bay Park. The captains are knowledgeable, and you’ll have a diving partner. They’ll show you the various springs and guide you if a manatee comes to check you out. And if you’re lucky, you might see dolphins!
You can also view the manatees from the boardwalks that line Three Sisters Springs (closed for construction until November 2023). For water access to the spring, launch your craft from any of the public docks in Kings Bay Park or Hunter Springs Park.
Hang Out in Hunter Springs Park
This lovely park is perfect for an afternoon with the kids. There’s a boardwalk for viewing manatees, a sandy beach and playground for kids, BBQ grills, a kayak launch, and plenty of grass for games and picnics.
Visit Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park
This is one of Florida’s most beloved state parks for a reason. The water is stunning, and the park meanders all along its shores. You can take a boat ride or a tram ride from one of the main entrances to get to the park, the underwater observatory in the spring itself allows visitors to see the resident manatees, a boardwalk that runs all through the park, and over Homosassa Springs which is a favorite spot for wild manatees, fresh and saltwater fish. There are plenty of animals to see, including panthers, a black bear, a bald eagle, a hippopotamus, and more. The animals can’t return to the wild, so they serve as educational ambassadors for the park. Grab an ice cream or cold drink from the snack shops or carts to beat the heat, enjoy the beauty of the wild surroundings, and remember your sunscreen!
Take an Air Boat Tour
A highlight of our trip was taking an Air Boat Tour with Irish Dave of River Safaris. Tucked away in the town of Homosassa is Two Pop’s Sandwich Shop, where you can book a tour on a pontoon or airboat. Walk through the backyard to the river’s edge and be transported down the river to the coastline through quintessential Florida waterways that seem unnavigable except for those who know the terrain.
This is where the springs meet the sea, and Florida’s natural beauty is on display. This stretch of coastline is shallow, clear, and filled with mangrove islands that are a refuge for birds, fish, sharks, and other sea life. It’s a stunning area I didn’t even know existed until this tour. Irish Dave loves this land, and his knowledge of the river is unsurpassed. This experience is a must for anyone visiting Crystal River and Homosassa.
Our Favorite Restaurants in Crystal River, FL
The Crystal River seafood is legendary for a reason. Riverside restaurants will cook your catch, you’ll discover some of the freshest grouper you’ll ever have, and shrimp is everywhere on the menus. Oh, and the local coffee shop is a must.
Pick a Spot Near Monkey Island
After your boat tour, head down to the riverfront, where you’ll have your pick of fun restaurants with lots of outdoor dining. Crump’s Landing is a popular spot with live music, kids’ activities, a boat dock, and a beachfront, but the one with the best view of the famous Monkey Island, home to four wild spider monkeys, is Florida Cracker Monkey Bar. You can watch them frisk about while enjoying your meal.
Enjoy the Incredible Pizza at The Grill at Pepper Creek
This new dining spot is in the Visitor’s Center at Homassas Springs Wildlife Park. If you aren’t won over by the views, the pizza will do the trick. We ordered more than was good for us and insisted on taking the rest home—it was that good. The service is impeccable, and it’s the perfect way to start your visit to the park.
Check Out the Sunset at Waterfront Social
Everything is made from scratch at this charming spot on Kings Bay. With stunning views of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, we loved the coconut shrimp, the grilled salmon entree, and the clam chowder starter. There isn’t a bad seat on the patio, and it was hard to focus on anything but the incredible water views. We even peeked over the edge of the lawn to look for the manatees that swim by.
Indulge at Kane’s Cattle Co.
Even if you don’t want one of the impressive steak entrees, this restaurant in downtown Crystal River will have something you’ll love. We loved the Ahi tuna appetizer, the whole fish entree, and the hand-battered coconut shrimp.
Perk Up at Cattle Dog Coffee Roasters
There are four locations in the area, and we tried the one in Crystal River (located on Main Street, which is worth exploring on its own). Besides coffee, hot chocolate, and other beverages, you’ll find housemade savory breakfast sandwiches, sweet pastries like muffins and scones, and light lunch options like the Hampton BLT, the Salt & Sea Toast, and Cali Toast.
Where to Stay in Crystal River, FL
While you can opt for a modern hotel like the Hampton Inn or the Holiday Inn Express, if you want to be close to the water and experience the vibes of Old Florida, check out King’s Bay Lodge. A place that’ll take you back to a lost era, it’s the only spot in Citrus County (and almost all of Florida) with a spring-fed swimming pool. There’s free boat docking for guests, a full kitchen setup that’ll help you save on food costs, outdoor pavilions, grills, and a lawn perfect for playing games. The Lodge is in the heart of Crystal River; you can walk to your kayak or manatee tour and various dining establishments.
If you want to splurge, consider booking a stay at Plantation Resort at Crystal River. The tempting lagoon-style pool, golf course, pickleball courts, and full adventure center will keep your crew busy. Rent a boat, go scalloping and diving, or enjoy one of the three on-site restaurants.
More Details about Crystal River
To get to this quaint vacation destination, fly into Tampa International Airport (TPA) and drive just over an hour north on FL-589.
Editor’s note: This trip was paid for by Visit Florida, but all opinions belong to the writer.