This Magical Florida Town Is the Only Place in the U.S. Where You Can Swim with Manatees

Around 800 manatees seek refuge in the warm springs of Crystal River, Florida every winter. 

Florida is known for making dreams come true. And while many associate Orlando with vacation magic (Hello, Disney!), a lesser-known destination about an hour and a half northwest brings the same levels of memorable awe—with much less planning and hassle.

Crystal River, Florida, is home to just over 3,000 residents, but it's the town's aquatic population—manatees in particular—that make the tiny town truly special. Every winter, around 800 manatees seek refuge in the warm waters of Crystal River's Kings Bay and its 70 natural springs. From November through March, visitors and wildlife enthusiasts from all over the world flock to the quiet Old Florida town to snag face time with the gentle giants. Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, located in Kings Bay, is one of the few places in the world, and the only place in the country, where you can legally swim with the spud-shaped mammals.

Split image of baby Florida Manatee (West Indian Manatee) at Three Sisters Springs, Crystal River.
Ai Angel Gentel/Getty Images

While manatees are the main attraction in Crystal River, they're far from the only reason to visit. In summer months, locals and visitors love scalloping, the underwater equivalent of a giant Easter egg hunt. The city's charming downtown shops, Buffet-esque Tiki bars, and excellent seafood restaurants are a draw year-round.

How to See the Manatees

There are several ways to see the majestic sea cows in the Manatee Capital of the World. The National Wildlife Refuge hosts dozens of licensed operators who will take you out on their boat and provide everything you need for an optimal encounter, from wetsuits and snorkels to expert navigation through all the manatees' favorite springs and hideouts. Outfitters like River Ventures and Crystal River Watersports offer 3-hour swim with manatee tours starting at just $65. Pro tip: Book your tour for early morning for the best chance of spotting them. Manatees are most active searching for food in the morning hours.

Plantation at Crystal River Florida
Plantation on Crystal River

If you'd rather stay dry, a clear-bottom kayak tour of Three Sisters Springs and the surrounding area gets you as close to the action as possible with no towel required. Get Up and Go Kayaking can help you embark on an epic paddling adventure in winding turquoise canals shaded by a dense canopy of palms, ferns, and Spanish moss-covered live oaks. Don't be surprised if you see other wildlife like dragonflies, turtles, fish, and ospreys while you keep an eye out for clusters of manatees munching on sea grass.

West Indian Manatee, Trichechus manatus latirostris, USA, Florida, FL, Crystal River

Other Things to Do

Though winter is peak manatee-viewing season in Crystal River, summer brings the opportunity for another magical activity: scalloping. July through September is scalloping season in Crystal River. During those months, locals and visitors take to the seas to catch their own dinner—with no rod or reel required. Instead, individuals grab a snorkel mask and dive three to six feet to the shallow eelgrass flats in search of tiny fan-shaped shells. Inside are super succulent bay scallops. Once you've filled your bag, take your bounty to a local restaurant where you can enjoy the fruits of your labor through popular "cook your catch" programs.

For more wildlife encounters, check out Hunters Springs Park, a public park complete with a small beach, swimming area, canoe and kayak launch, and a boardwalk along the waterway that's ideal for bird spotting. At Three Sisters Springs Wildlife Refuge, you can't get in the water, but you can get an overhead view of manatees from a boardwalk system overlooking the gorgeous natural springs.

Crystal River Florida

When it's time to clean up, head to Crystal River's historic downtown. Walk along the newly opened Kings Bay Riverwalk that connects King's Bay to downtown's many shops and restaurants. There, along North Citrus Avenue, you'll find tons to explore, from the locally owned Coastal Art Gallery to Tea House 650, an artisan loose-leaf tea shop and café. The Shoppes of Heritage Village encompass several boutiques, shops, and restaurants housed in renovated Cracker cottages.

Where to Eat

Crystal River may be small but that doesn't mean the town is short on great places to eat. Start your morning at Cattle Dog Coffee Roasters with a cup of hot joe and a breakfast sandwich, toast, or housemade pastry. Grab lunch or dinner with a view at Crackers Bar and Grill, a laidback waterfront eatery where you can watch for manatees and dolphins as you dine on fresh seafood and another local specialty—deep-fried alligator bites. Weekends bring live music and plenty of drink specials. For an upscale dining experience, head to Vintage on 5th. The restaurant is housed in a cozy 1940s church that oozes old-world charm. Menu items range from fresh Gulf grouper and Cioppino to veal chops and roasted duckling. The restaurant earned the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for having an outstanding wine collection for six consecutive years.

Where to Stay

After long days on the water, you'll need a comfortable place to rest your head at night. The Plantation on Crystal River delivers in that department and several more. Just a 15-minute walk from the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, the 232-acre resort offers well-appointed rooms and private one-bedroom villas with kitchenettes and living rooms. The resort also features an outdoor lagoon pool, 27-hole golf course, two restaurants, a poolside Tiki bar, and a spa. But this isn't a resort that encourages you to never leave the property. Nearly every water excursion imaginable (snorkeling, boating, fishing, scalloping, kayaking, and swimming with manatees) is available for embarkation directly from the resort.

The swimming pool area at Plantation on Crystal River Resort.

Want to feel like a local? Book one of three rooms at the Retreat at Crystal Manatee, a small family-owned hotel located in the heart of Crystal River. The cottage-style hotel's surrounding tropical gardens elicit the coveted "ahhh" response you only get on vacation.

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