If you think Florida is all mouse ears and Miami Beach, there’s a whole new side of the Sunshine State you’ve got to see. We lived our best mermaid lives during our recent weekend in Crystal River, Florida – and now we can’t stop talking about it. It’s a tiny town where you can swim with manatees, paddle through Three Sisters Springs’ gorgeous lagoons, learn to scuba dive, enjoy killer seafood and catch a sunset over brilliantly clear water surrounded by wildlife.
Anchored by the massive Kings Bay, the area’s epic waterways are fed by some of the purest and most prolific natural springs in Florida. (Seriously, a massive underground sea pumps 225 million gallons of fresh, 72-degree water to the surface every day.) It’s about 90 minutes from the Orlando and Tampa airports or, for the more adventurous, an easy road trip from New Orleans, Birmingham, Atlanta and other southern cities. Are you packing your bags yet? Good! Here’s how you should spend a long weekend in Crystal River, Florida.
When to visit Crystal River, FL:
Winter: It’s the best time to swim with the manatees in Florida. Surprisingly, the giant manatees have very little body fat. So, when the water is cold, they cozy up in the warmer waters of Kings Bay and Three Sisters Springs.
Summer: One of the most unique things to do in Florida is hunting for scallops. (Yes! They swim through the water.) Florida’s scallop season is mid June to late September. Locals call it an adult Easter egg hunt.
Where To Stay in Crystal River, FL:
The Crystal Blue Lagoon Bed & Breakfast is our top recommendation. Located right on King’s Bay, you can search for manatees in the clear water from the property any time of the day or night. The four-room family run house has plenty of shared space, a fully stocked kitchen and all the mermaid memorabilia you could ask for.
Kayak in Hunter Springs Cove and Kings Bay
Crystal Blue Lagoon Bed & Breakfast has complimentary kayaks or rent some at Crystal River Kayak Company. In most places you can see clear to the bottom. Expect to find manatees (during the winter), turtles, fish and many species of seabirds birds. Or stop along one of the small swimming beaches for a quick dip.
Dinner at Katch Twenty-Two
(2924 W Gulf to Lake Hwy, Lecanto, FL)
Technically not in Crystal River, but the short drive to Lecanto is more than worth it for the seafood-centric fine dining from Chef Richard Wiggins. It’s a good idea to make a reservation; you don’t want to miss this place.
Scuba Dive with Crystal River Watersports
(2380 N Suncoast Blvd, Crystal River, FL)
Learn scuba basics in a classroom setting, then try it out during guided dives of prehistoric caves, the wildlife-rich Rainbow River or – in summer months – the beautiful Three Sisters Springs, a favorite haunt of the manatees. Crystal River Watersports also offers full dive certification courses and bespoke dive trips for more advanced divers.
Lunch at Hardwood Smokehouse
(508 N Citrus Ave, Crystal River, FL)
BBQ and all the sides located right downtown. Be warned, you’ll need friends to finish the pulled pork-topped nachos. Don’t sleep on the mac and cheese.
Nature Walk at Three Sisters Springs
(601 Three Sisters Springs Trail, Crystal River, FL )
Boardwalks line the springs for great views of nature and, hopefully, manatees. (Much more likely in winter.) Snorkeling, swimming and kayaking are allowed inside the park, but only when you enter from the bay.
Dinner at Vintage on 5th
(114 NE 5th St, Crystal River, FL)
Classic meals with a large wine selection served in a renovated church downtown.
Swim with the Manatees Tour at Crystal River Watersports
(2380 N Suncoast Blvd, Crystal River, FL)
If you haven’t seen local celebs yet, you’re about to! Crystal River Watersports takes small groups out to find manatees. Along the way, you’ll learn all about these fascinating creatures from on-board naturalists, who let you know how to safely behave around them. (Super important! Manatees are a protected species. This tour company is eco-certified.) Snorkeling side by side with manatees was the highlight of our trip.
Lunch at Cajun Jimmy’s Seafood Seller & Cafe
(300 se, US-19, Crystal River, FL)
You can take it from a couple of New Orleanians, this is the best Louisiana food outside of the state we’ve ever had. If you’re lucky, Jimmy will even stop by your table to introduce his pet crawfish or do some magic tricks.
Airboat cruise at River Safaris
(10823 W Yulee Dr, Homosassa, FL)
See a different side of Citrus County just to the south in Homosassa. Cruise the network of channels weaving their way to the Gulf of Mexico on a high-speed airboat ride looking for dolphins and seabirds. Don’t miss the best view of Monkey Island, a man-made home for five (non-native) spider monkeys.
Dinner and Sunset at Crump’s Landing
(17E19S31 11325, Homosassa, FL)
Live music, fun cocktails and a full menu – but the sunset is the real start of the show.
If we’d had more time, we’d have wrapped up the trip with a leisurely float down the Rainbow River and some sunbathing *cough* beer drinking *cough cough* on Fort Island Gulf Beach. Good thing we’re already planning our return trip!
Have you spent a weekend in Crystal River, Florida? What did you like the most? Let us know in the comments, and don’t forget to pin this for later!