A family snorkeling at Crystal River at Three Sisters Springs and King Bays swimming with manatees.

Ultimate Guide to Crystal River, Florida: An Adventurous Family Trip

Table of Contents

Want to visit the Manatee Capital of the World? Crystal River is the best place in Florida to go swimming with manatees and go scalloping at. This beautiful Florida destination is the perfect family getaway. Find delicious seafood, view gorgeous sunsets, and get an underwater view of the springs with this detailed Crystal River, Florida travel guide and three day itinerary. 

About the Historic Town of Crystal River, Florida

The beautiful coastal city of Crystal River is located in western Florida. It is known as the manatee capital of the world. Home to Kings Bay, which is fed by the natural Florida springs in the area, is where the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge shelters these native manatees year-round. Crystal River is a perfect destination for fishing and has bountiful lakes and springs providing plenty of fish for fishermen. This charming town also has hiking trails, opportunity to go scalloping, perfect for kayaking or paddle boarding, and so much more. Through the untouched forests or clear springs, this Florida destination is perfect for anyone wanting to explore the great outdoors and a mix of southern charm. 

Thank you to Discover Crystal River for sponsoring this trip and thank you to the Plantation on Crystal River for hosting us. This trip was amazing and one our family will remember for years to come. We are truly grateful for this experience. 

Photo with overlay of Crystal River, Florida trip.

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How to Get to Crystal River

There’s several ways of getting to Crystal River but in the end, you will arriving by car or another form of ground transportation. If you are flying to make your trip shorter, I advise you to fly to Tampa International Airport and then renting a car to drive up to Crystal River. You can also do a road trip if it’s easier or more budget friendly for you. 

Airport Information

Tampa International Airport (TPA)

4100 George J Bean Pkwy, Tampa, FL 33607

Where is Crystal River Located

 Crystal River is located on the west central coast of Florida about an hour between Gainesville and Tampa. It is about an hour and eight minute drive from Tampa International Airport to Crystal River, Florida. 

Fort Island Beach fishing pier at Crystal River, Florida.

When to Go to Crystal River – Best Times of Year to Visit

When planning your trip to Crystal River there are a few things to keep in mind. Crystal River has two main activity seasons. One is the scalloping season where you can go scalloping. While you can do this year-round, the best time to go scalloping is between July 1st-September 24th. This timeframe can differ year to year but it’ll still be around this same July-September timeframe. 

The other season to keep in mind is the manatee season. You can still view manatees all year around but they are most active in the springs during the winter months. Beginning in mid-November to late March, manatee sanctuaries go into effect. This is when the manatees come to the springs of Crystal River NWR to conserve the energy necessary to survive the cold waters of the Gulf. This is the best time to encounter manatees. 

Crystal River’s Annual Festivals and Events

  • January: Florida Manatee Festival – Featuring manatee tours, food vendors, music, local fine arts and crafts, and a beer and wine garden. 
  • February: Ozello Craft Show and Chili Cookoff – A family-friendly event that features lots of delicious chili options to try as well as a local craft show. 
  • March: This month is loads of fun. Some of the events held during the month of March include – Shrimp-a-Palooza, Clean Air Ride (bike ride), Floral City Strawberry Festival, and St. Patrick’s Day on Citrus Avenue. 
  • April: Fort Cooper Bluegrass Festival – Head to Fort Cooper State Park with your lawn chair to enjoy live bluegrass, drinks, food, and local craft vendors. 
  • June: Homosassa River Fireworks Fest and Poker Run
  • July: 4th of July Celebration – Crystal River’s annual celebration held at Kings Bay Park features a parade, fireworks, entertainment, food, wine, and beer. 
  • August: Pine Street Jam & Parrothead Party – a parrot-themed downtown street party held in Inverness, Florida showcasing live music, delicious food vendors, and beer. 
  • October: Haunted Tram Ride – A Halloween-themed fundraising event sponsored by the Friends of Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park. You can enjoy a haunted house, costume contest, and a spooky tram ride. 
  • November: Stone Crab Jam – This even is sponsored by The Kings Bay Rotary and features fresh stone crabs, beer, wine, and live music on three different stages. 
  • December: Crystal River Christmas Tree Lighting Festival – Presented by The City of Crystal River featuring a tree lighting to help kick off the Christmas holiday season. The downtown area of Crystal River is transformed into a magical winter wonderland, food and drinks, fake falling snow, and even a visit from Santa. 

Crystal River, Florida Map

Below is a Google map of Crystal River, Florida where I pinned all of the locations mentioned in this article. Feel free to save the map to your Google maps to refer back to during your trip or to save for later planning.

Where to Stay in Crystal River

Crystal River has several options on where to stay. However, the most popular accommodation is Plantation on Crystal River. We were lucky to get a stay here during our trip and completely enjoyed it. Regardless of where you stay, you can still make the most of your visit to Crystal River. Most hotels and resorts are fairly close to the top things to do and best restaurants. You can also stay in nearby towns such as Homosassa, Inverness, and Dunnellon. 

Best Places to Stay in Crystal River, Florida

There are plenty of places to stay at Crystal River but I’m going to link the best places to stay at. Whether you are traveling with just your family or in a group setting, the list below has something for everyone. 

Best Hotels and Resorts in Crystal River

Best Vacation Rentals in Crystal River

These vacation rentals are perfect for group travel. These are all homes that have all of the amenities you need like a full kitchen, laundry, bedding, and more 

  • Crystal River 3bd/2ba vacation home – This spacious home sleeps 10 people comfortably and is located at a close distance from the springs and local parks. 
  • Crystal River 2bd/2ba vacation home – This cozy home is located about 5 minutes from Three Sisters Springs and is centrally located to all of the top places to visit during your trip at Crystal Springs. 
  • Luxurious 4 Suite Boutique Hotel-like Home with Indoor Pools and Waterfalls in Homosassa Springs – This stunning and luxurious home is a perfect getaway from families or large groups. It is a 4 bedroom, 4 bathroom home with all of the amenities you need and much more. The pool itself is absolutely stunning and has plenty of space to just spend a day here relaxing during your vacation. It is located 3 minutes away from the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. 
The front of Plantation on Crystal River. A fountain surrounded with beautiful flowers and greenery at the entrance of Plantation on Crystal River.

Plantation on Crystal River – Everything You Need to Know

We stayed at the Plantation on Crystal River and absolutely loved our stay. The rooms were very spacious and clean and came with a mini fridge which is perfect for our family. You can also request a microwave at the front desk and they will bring it to your room. You can request it ahead of time as well. There rooms are either garden view or waterfront view rooms. The rooms on the first floor all have their own sliding door option so you can exit the resort through there instead of through the inside of the resort. 

Something that we really like about Plantation on Crystal River is that they had a Tiki Bar outside by the pool as well as a restaurant called West 82 Bar and Grill. Their restaurant serves a breakfast buffet and for lunch and dinner they serve delicious dining options for everyone. 

The resort also has a full spa and a golf course which is perfect for those who enjoy to these options. They also have an Adventure Center where you can book one of their numerous tours. We did the Manatee Tour where we went out on a boat with a licensed and insured water divemaster/videographer and got to learn about the manatees and even swim with them. You can also do a scenic cruise, fishing carter, sunset cruise, or a scallop charter. They also offer rentals for boats, paddle boards, kayaks, and more. 

A family snorkeling at Crystal River at Three Sisters Springs and King Bays swimming with manatees.

Best Things To Do in Crystal River, FL

Crystal River has such a wide variety of things to do that fits every type of travel style. The top things to do in Crystal River are swimming with manatees, scalloping in the springs, kayaking, and fishing. There are several tours that you can book or you can also rent your own gear such as snorkels or even kayaks to explore the area on your own. 

How to Swim with Manatees

We went swimming with manatees as a family and it was such a memorable experience. The girls absolutely enjoyed snorkeling in the springs and watching the manatees swim around us. We even saw a calf nursing while the mama manatee was eating.

Best time to take a swim with manatee tour is from November to March but manatees are visible all year around. We did our “Swim with Manatee” tour with Adventure Center located on the premises of Plantation on Crystal River. The staff was super friendly and accommodating with our youngest son who didn’t care to see the “water puppies.” Our captain Christian and tour guide Shellie were amazing. They were knowledgeable on the springs, eco-system, and everything about manatees. They really helped my girls feel comfortable during the tour and the captain even chilled with our son Robby on the boat while we swam together. 

Manatee in Crystal River, Florida springs.

Manatee Viewing Guidelines and Prohibitions

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has put these guidelines in place to help protect the manatees and encourage passive observation. 

The following guidelines will help protect the manatees and practice safe activities in the waters of Kings Bay and Three Sisters Springs area:

  • Do NOT initiate contact with manatees. 
  • Calmly observe manatees from a distance and at the surface. 

The following activities are PROHIBITED within all waters of King Bay and Three Sisters Springs area: 

  • Chasing or pursuing a manatee. 
  • Disturbing or touching a resting* or feeding manatee. 
  • Cornering or surrounding a manatee. 
  • Riding, holding, grabbing, pinching, poking, prodding, or stabbing a manatee with anything, including your hands and feet. 
  • Standing on a manatee. 
  • Separating a mother and calf or separating a group of manatees. 
  • Giving manatee(s) anything to eat or drink. 
  • Actively initiating contact with belted/tagged manatee(s). 
  • Interfering with rescue and research activities. 
Photo of the beach at Fort Island Gulf Beach in Crystal River, Florida.

Beach Day at Fort Island Gulf Beach

Our first stop of our trip was visiting Fort Island Gulf Beach. Here you can find a small beach area and a fishing pier with beautiful views. The beaches are shallow and perfect for kids that are just learning to swim. There are showers and restrooms available as well and picnic tables for lunch. 

Swimming at Hunter Springs Park 

Want to swim in the springs without having to go on a tour? You can swim at Hunter Springs Park which is also known as “The Jewel of Crystal River.” This spring is open year-round for swimming and if you’re lucky you can even see manatees swimming in the area. It is a free park to visit. You can launch your paddleboard, kayak, and canoes from here as well. 

Visit Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

Located about 10-15 minutes south of Crystal River you can find Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. This state park is one of our favorites to visit in Florida. They are a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center. This means that the animals you see in the enclosures are either injured and won’t survive in the wild or are currently being rehabilitated and treated. 

Exploring Three Sisters Springs 

Three Sisters Springs is a beautiful place to go to to visit. It provides nature trails to walk through where you can view the manatees and the springs. It is one of the most popular places to go to to see manatees in Crystal River. 

**NOTE: As of May 2023 this park is temporarily closed for Three Sisters Springs Canal Stabilization Project. It is expected to open again to the public in November 2023. According to their website, “This project will restore habitat, including critical manatee habitat, and prevent erosion of sediment into the spring.” For more updates please view their website here

Kayaks and Paddleboards at Kings Bay Park in Crystal River Florida.

Visit Kings Bay Park

Kings Bay Park is located fairly close to Hunters Springs and the downtown area of Crystal River. It is a lovely park to visit with beautiful views of the springs. You can also find a playground for the kids to run around in. There is also a launch dock where you can bring your kayaks too. Make sure to check out their website for updated information on parking and launch fees though. 

Go on a Scalloping Tour 

Another popular thing to do in Crystal River is scalloping. There are several tours available throughout Crystal River. The Adventure Center in Plantation on Crystal River offers a scalloping tour as well. The best time to go on a scalloping tour is July to September timeframe when the season begins. 

Visit the Mertailor’s Mermaid Aquarium Encounter

Located about 15 minutes away in Lecanto, Florida is the Mertailor’s Mermaid Aquarium Encounter. This is a great place to take the kids to look at marine life. You can find all sorts of tropical fishes and even have the opportunity to touch sea-stars and manta rays. At the end of our walk around the aquarium we watched the mermaid show. My son was blown away. He absolutely loved it and kept blowing kisses to the mermaid. It was so cute. 

Other Fun and Popular Things To Do in Crystal River

  • Kayaking, canoeing, or paddleboarding in the springs. 
  • Fishing or taking a charter fishing tour. 
  • Taking a sunset cruise. 
  • Visiting the shops downtown. 
  • Checking out the murals downtown. 
  • Explore Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge
  • Enjoy a spa day at The Spa Bleu an Aveda Spa at the Plantation on Crystal River. 

ALWAYS FOLLOW LEAVE NO TRACE PRINCIPLES WHEN EXPLORING OUTDOORS

  • Always plan ahead and be prepared.
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces.
  • Dispose of waste properly.
  • Leave what you find.
  • Minimize campfire impacts.
  • Respect wildlife.
  • Be considerate of other visitors.

Where to Eat in Crystal River

Crystal River is known for their delicious seafood and country styled dishes. During our visit we had our variety of seafood and delicious options to choose from. Many of the restaurants we went too were also very nice when it came to my sons food intolerances and adjusted his meals to help fit his diet. 

All of these restaurants can be found in the map at the beginning of this post. Feel free to save it to your own Google Map for future use.

A mahi mahi fish and hush puppies for dinner from Cajun Jimmy's Seafood Seller and Cafe in Crystal River.

Cajun Jimmy’s Seafood Seller & Café 

With live music and magic tricks, the overall vibe of Cajun Jimmy’s Seafood Seller & Café was amazing. The staff was very friendly and the food was delicious. The owner was very interactive with his customers and went table to table showing magic tricks and his crayfish pet. 

Breakfast and coffee at West 82 Bar and Grill at the Plantation on Crystal River.

West 82 Bar & Grill at Plantation on Crystal River

The West 82 Bar & Grill is located inside the Plantation on Crystal River and they serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily. They offer a breakfast buffet that includes delicious pastries, eggs, waffles, and more. For lunch and dinner, entrees are prepared using the finest natural ingredients. Some of their specialties include crab soup, slow cooked baby back ribs, shrimp and grits, and pan seared grouper. 

Delicious Fish Tacos from The Grill at Pepper Creek found inside the main entrance of Homosassa Springs State Park in Homosassa Springs, Florida.

The Grill at Pepper Creek

If you are visiting Homosassa Springs make sure to grab lunch or dinner at The Grill at Pepper Creek. They serve a good variety of food from pizza to delicious fish tacos. It’s a budget friendly option and perfect spot to go to after a long day at the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. 

Crackers Bar & Grill

This seafood restaurant has some very delicious seafood. We went here a few years back. Absolutely loved the environment and the food. The staff was also very friendly during our visit. You have the option of indoor or outdoor seating  as well. Grab a drink at the bar and enjoy some seafood by the water. 

Shrimp from Shrimp Landing in Crystal River, Florida. Perfect place to go for lunch.

Shrimp’s Landing Seafood

We absolutely loved coming to Shrimp’s Landing for lunch. They serve a delicious array of seafood to choose from and are also allergy friendly. My husband and I enjoyed fish tacos while our daughters enjoyed some shrimp. So good. The overall environment here was good too with outdoor seating and even a little fish market. This is a perfect place to go to after a beach day at Fort Island Gulf Beach. 

Tea House 650

I went to Tea House 650 a few years ago and absolutely loved the environment and the food. I had the Broccoli Cashew Butter Quinoa Burrito and it was exquisite. So full of flavor. This is found on their vegan menu. They also have other delicious options to choose from as well. 

Cattle Dog Coffee Roasters

Looking for a cute coffee shop? The Cattle Dog Coffee Roasters is the place to go. Their coffee shop is so cute with indoor and outdoor seating available. Located in downtown Crystal River, this coffee shop offers delicious coffee for everyone. They even have dairy free options which was perfect for me. I ordered the Vanilla Latte with Oatmilk and my husband got a black coffee. They also have pastries available for purchase along with bags of coffee and other goodies.

Guyer’s Ice Cream and Doughnuts 

Probably my favorite ice cream shop I’ve visited so far. Their ice cream was so good and they have dairy free options as well. Their beverages are also classic looking glass bottles which we thought was so cool. You can also buy doughnuts here and even create your own with different toppings. The doughnuts are not gluten or dairy free but my daughters and husband said that they were amazing. They got a smores combo, glazed, and glazed with fruity pebbles but the combination options are endless. 

Other Places To Eat in Crystal River

  • Amy’s on the Avenue 
  • The Crab Plant 
  • KC Wine Bar and Koffee Bar 
  • Dockside Ice Cream Shoppe
  • The Boil Yard
  • Vintage on 5th Wine & Dine 
  • Tropical Tarpon Food Truck 
  • Bubba’sQue BBQ
  • The Biscuit Barn 

Three Day Itinerary to Crystal River, Florida

Day 1

Arrival Day

  • Arrive at Crystal River, Florida. 
  • Spend the morning at Fort Island Gulf Beach. 
  • Have lunch at Shrimps Landing. 
  • Check in at Plantation on Crystal River. 
  • Enjoy the pool at the Plantation on Crystal River. 
  • Have dinner at Cajun Jimmy’s Seafood Seller & Café. 
  • Enjoy the sunset by the canal at the Plantation in Crystal River with a drink from the Tiki Bar. 

Day 2

Full Day

  • Have breakfast at West 82 Bar & Grill
  • Go on a “Swim with Manatees” tour with Adventure Center at Plantation on Crystal River.
  • Have lunch at The Grill at Pepper Creek at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. 
  • Explore Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. 
  • Have dinner at Crackers Bar & Grill. 
  • Enjoy some ice cream from Guyer’s Ice Cream and Doughnut.
  • Enjoy the sunset from Kings Bay Park (they close at sunset).
  • Head back to Plantation on Crystal River to unwind. 

Day 3

Last Day or Full Day if you plan to stay longer

  • Check out of Plantation on Crystal River (optional if you are staying for more days).
  • Have breakfast at Amy’s on the Avenue. 
  • Go swimming at Hunter Springs Park. They have showers and restrooms to change clothes afterwards. 
  • Alternate activity: Instead of going swimming at Hunter Springs Park you can go kayaking instead. 
  • Have lunch at Tea House 650. 
  • Grab coffee at Cattle Dog Coffee Roasters. 
  • Visit the Mertailor’s Mermaid Aquarium Encounter and enjoy the mermaid show. 
  • Have dinner and a drink at Crackers Bar & Grill.
  • Head home or to your next destination (optional if you are staying for more than three days). 
A girl snorkeling in the springs at Crystal River on a swim with manatees tour.
Bella swimming with manatees during our tour with Adventure Center.

Five Day Itinerary to Crystal River, Florida

If you want to have a longer stay I would recommend adding these two days to your itinerary. 

Day 4

Full day

  • Have breakfast at West 82 Bar and Grill at the Plantation on Crystal River. 
  • Have a spa day at The Spa Bleu an Aveda Spa at the Plantation on Crystal River. 
  • Alternate activity: Take a fishing tour or scalloping tour with Adventure Center at the Plantation on Crystal River. 
  • Have lunch at Tropical Tarpon Food Truck. 
  • Visit Three Sisters Springs and walk the boardwalks and nature trails. 
  • Check out the shops and downtown area on North Citrus Avenue. 
  • Have dinner at West 82 Bar and Grill. at the Plantation on Crystal River. 
  • Take a sunset cruise with Adventure Center at the Plantation on Crystal River. 
  • Head back to Plantation on Crystal River for the night. 

Day 5

Last Day

  • Check out of Plantation on Crystal River.
  • Have breakfast at The Biscuit Barn. 
  • Take a fishing tour or scalloping tour with Adventure Center at the Plantation on Crystal River. 
  • Alternate activity: Do another tour or activity of your choice. 
  • Have lunch at Bubba’sQue BBQ. 
  • Explore Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.
  • Have dinner and head home or to your next destination. 

Must Haves for a Trip to Crystal River, Florida

To make the most of your trip I would recommend using this packing guide. Of course, adjust this packing guide accordingly. 

  • Outfits for each day plus 2 extra outfits. Bring at least 1 or 2 cute outfits for a dinner or a nice event. 
  • Swimsuit and/or swimsuit cover
  • Underwear, bras, socks
  • Shoes and flip flops
  • Toiletries
  • Sunscreen 
  • Mosquito repellent
  • Snorkels and/or fins and water shoes 
  • Hat
  • Sunglasses
  • Camera
  • Phone
  • Chargers
  • ID
  • Cash for gratuity
  • GoPro 
  • Snacks or other food items you may want or need
  • Water and drinks
  • Tylenol 
  • Lotion 
  • Any other items that you may need 

Pro-Travel Tip: If you are staying at Plantation on Crystal River, there is a Winn-Dixie located right down the street where you can purchase items at such as sunscreen, medicine, drinks, snacks, food, etc. This will help you save room in your luggage on your way there, especially if your are flying. 

A mural showcasing the best things to do in Crystal River found in the downtown area close to the water tower.
Lovely mural found in downtown Crystal River.

Travel Guide to Crystal River, Florida Summary

Crystal River is such a beautiful place to visit. It was definitely a memorable trip for our family. Our favorite thing to do was swimming with the manatees and eating all the delicious food. We also really enjoyed visiting Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park and learning more about the wildlife in Florida. In this travel guide I hope to have covered all the details needed to help you plan your next Florida getaway. Feel free to use the pocket guide to help you plan and find more things to do during your trip. 

Have you ever been to Crystal River or anywhere in central Florida? What area do you like to vacation to the most in Florida? Let me know in the comments below. 

A girl petting a manta ray at the Mertailors Mermaid Aquarium Encounters
Photo taken at Mertailor’s Mermaid Aquarium Encounters.

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Hi, I'm Jessica!

I am a wife and mother to three amazing kids. A coffee addict and wine lover. I also have a huge love for the mountains and the the ocean. Through my blog I hope to inspire families to spend more time outdoors. 

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