For as long as I remember I have dreamed about swimming with Manatees. The coastal town of Crystal River in Florida is home to over 400 manatees that migrate to Kings Bay every winter. Crystal River is the only place in the US where you are legally permitted to swim with manatees.
Crystal River is easily accessible from Tampa, Gainesville and Orlando. Crystal River is the perfect destination for a day trip or for a week of adventures swimming with manatees, enjoying the beautiful springs and beaches nearby. We recommend renting a car and drive down to Crystal River and use it as a based to discover the region.
When is the best time to visit Crystal River?
The best time to visit Crystal River is during the winter, between November and March, as the temperature is cooler, and you have a better chance of seeing manatees. If you want to swim with manatees make sure to travel between December to February, as it is when manatees are most likely to be seeking out the warmth of the springs.
Breakfast at West 82 Bar and Grill
Breakfast is at the West 82 Bar and Grill, in the lobby of Plantation on Crystal River, daily from 6AM to 11AM. We loved the variety of options we had each morning for breakfast.
Our favorite dishes are the Hickory Smoked Salmon with Capers, Ripe Tomato, Red Onion, Bagel and Cream Cheese, the Manatee Pancakes with fresh fruit and whipped cream and maple syrup, and the Buttermilk Pancakes: Chocolate Chip, Blueberry or Plain with Maple Syrup.
Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park
Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park was one of our favorite stops in our itinerary. It is located only 15 minutes from Crystal River. It used to be a zoo but today the park is run by the state of Florida. In this park you will find manatees, Florida panther, alligators, bald eagles and even a hippo. The state ended up granting Lu, the oldest hippo in North America, honorary Florida citizenship so he could continue living at Homosassa Springs.
The best attraction at the state park is the Fish Bowl, an underwater observatory that presents an incredible underwater spectacle of manatees and swirling schools of fish.
Rainbow Springs State Park is located 30 minutes away from Crystal River. The entrance fee is $2 per person. Make sure to rent a clear bottom kayak for the ultimate experience to explore the beautiful waterways of Rainbow Springs. You can also relax and swim or snorkel in the clear blue freshwater to enjoy the underwater world.
Dinner at Vintage on 5th
Vintage on 5th is the best way to finish your first day exploring Crystal River! It is in the heart of the historic downtown area of Crystal River. The building used to be a church built in 1940 and the decoration takes you to France making the atmosphere unique and enjoyable. It is a beautiful restaurant with delicious food.
Make sure to come hungry, as there are so many delicious plates to try. We started off with the Truffle Fries and Escargot Served in Garlic Herb Butter. For the main course we enjoyed the heartwarming 5th Street Mac & Cheese made with goat cheese and the “Maple Leaf Farms” Roasted Half Duckling. Of course we ended the meal with a creamy Creme Brulee.
Swim with manatees in Crystal River
We recommend starting your day swimming with manatees as they are more active in the morning. The best time of year to swim with Manatees is during the Summer as they are more active but you are more likely to actually see manatees during the Winter, since they seek the warmer spring water of Kings Bay. The water is 72 degrees year round so it is perfect to jump on in.
We had a blast swimming with manatees, incredible and sweet creatures, we took our tour with Plantation Adventure Center and Manatee Tours and it was nothing but amazing. Without a doubt, it was a highlight of our trip! Manatees are friendly animals that will make this experience unique.
Please regarding if you take a tour or run into a manatee remember they are wild animals and deserve to be respected. Keep your distance unless THEY approach you and follow the Manatees regulation to have a great encounter together.
Go Paddle Boarding to Three Sisters Spring
Our favorite spring in Crystal River is Three Sisters Spring hands down. It is also one of the most popular place for manatees to gather in Crystal River. The interesting thing about this spring is that you can either access it by water or land, but you cannot touch the water if you go by land. You can choose to go by land and walk the boardwalk above the springs or Paddle into the springs with a Kayak or paddleboard. There is no water access to the spring from the refuge.
We choose to do both ways and they are both extraordinary experiences. It depends on your physical condition and time and interests. We rented our kayak and paddle board from Manatee Paddle. You can visit the park by land all year round, unlike by water which is not allowed during manatee season, November 15th to March 31.
Walk down historic Crystal River Downtown
The historic downtown of Crystal River maintains its fisherman village atmosphere with some cottages dating back to the early 1800s. Enjoy strolling down the streets and head into a few boutique stores to shop for some souvenirs.
Dinner at Seafood Seller & Café
The Seafood Seller & Cafe is a colorful restaurant close to the Three Sisters Spring in Crystal River. It is a New Orleans–themed Cajun-style seafood restaurant. The food is fresh and super delicious. We recommend trying the Mushroom Swiss burger, Louisiana crawfish, Sue’s famous crab cakes, shrimp cocktail, and lobster bites.
Devil’s Den Prehistoric Spring
Devil’s Den is one of the most beautiful and Instagram famous springs in Central Florida. It is a prehistoric underground spring located inside of a cave. It is a popular destination among snorkelers and scuba divers throughout the year. To go inside the spring, you must rent or bring your own equipment. Even if you just want to swim you still need to wear a snorkel mask and fins.
You descend a flight of metal stairs into the warm water, which maintains a consistent temperature of 72 degrees year-round. One of the coolest features of the cave is that it lets in a natural beam of light that brightens the cave making it look even more magical.
Tip: Arrive super early, maybe even 20 minutes before it opens, so you can be the first in line and not have a crowded photo. Try to avoid the weekends.
To visit Devil’s Den you must make a reservation in advance. It used to be first come, first serve but it is no longer the case. Devil’s Den reaches capacity quickly, especially in the summertime, so you are only allowed to stay in the cave for 1 hour.
Devil’s Den is open Monday to Thrusday from 9AM to 5PM and Friday to Sunday from 8AM to 5PM, with the last water entry at 4PM. Admission is $15/person Monday-Friday and $22 on weekends and holidays for snorkelers. Admission is $38/person for scuba divers. Rental snorkeling gear is an additional $12 for Mask, Snorkel, Fins, and scuba gear rental is an additional $45.
Ginnie Springs is another iconic and picture perfect spots in central Florida. It is a year-round destination with a variety of activities for every type of traveler, as the water temperature here remains 72 degrees as well. Some of the activities you can enjoy in Ginnie Springs are swimming and snorkeling, tubing in the Santa Fe River starting from Devil’s Spring and exiting at Twin Spring, Kayaking, Paddleboarding, and canoeing, as well as scuba diving.
Ginnie Spring has 7 different springs you can explore. I recommend renting or bring your own mask so you can enjoy the wildlife teaming underneath the water. In the summer and early fall, you can navigate your way through the Santa Fe River with snorkeling gear! With goggles and fins, you may be able to spot large gar, mullet, catfish, turtles, bass and more.
Ginnie Springs are referred as one of the best places in the worth for freshwater diving, due to the abundance of underwater life and crystal clear waters. The best places to dive are the ballroom at Ginnie Spring, Devil’s Eye and Devil’s Ear at Devil’s Spring, and the Santa Fe River.
The Spring is open from Sunday to Thursday from 8AM to 6PM and Friday and Saturday from 8AM to 8PM. The daily admission is $14 per person (Sunday to Wednesday) and $19 per person (Thursday to Saturday) during the summer. If you want to dive it will cost anywhere from $22 to $30 per diver.
Gilchrist Blue Spring is a sizable second-magnitude spring with a flow of 44 million gallons per day, creating a shallow spring run. The state park has a total of five springs and a small boardwalk that allows you to see the Santa Fe River.
The best things to do in Gilchrist Blue Spring is swimming, paddleboarding, kayaking and walking the small one mile hike around the park to see a handful of springs and a sinkhole.
Dinner: Katch Mobile
Katch Mobile is the perfect place to grab some dinner after a full day exploring the springs. A food truck with fresh offerings is a great way to end the day in a relaxing atmosphere. We recommend trying the Philly Cheesesteak, Fish sandwich, mac and cheese, and Blackened Mahi Mahi Basket.
Seasonal dive for scallops in Crystal River
Scallop season in Crystal River lasts from mid-July to mid-September. Simply snorkel along the shallow waters and hunt for scallops in the grass flats, and simply dive down and pick them up.
If you are a first timer The Plantation on Crystal River offers convenient scalloping package, which includes a two-night stay, a guided scalloping tour with all the required gear, and breakfast at the hotel. The best part is a chef will cook your catch for you!
Where to stay in Crystal River?
We stayed at the charming and lovely historic hotel, The Plantation on Crystal River. The hotel has beautiful grounds, and the rooms are large and comfortable. It includes a beautiful spa pool, jacuzzi, different sport courts, on site restaurant and an amazing tour operator that offer manatee tours.
In fact, you can take advantage of a special offer that includes accommodations and a manatee encounter experience. It is the ideal accommodations for any visit to Crystal River.