Florida has long been a destination for us for many reasons. For one, it’s within a days drive! It also has beautiful beaches, tons of outdoor recreation opportunities, great places for a bite and a beer, and, maybe most importantly, it’s sunny and warm there year-round! We recently had the opportunity to visit Crystal River, Inverness, and Floral City, all of which are located on the western side of Florida and easily accessed from Tampa. From Asheville, it’s just under 9 hours to get there. Keep reading to see our favorite things to do in both: 72 hours in Crystal River, Inverness, and Floral City.
Best Things to Do In Crystal River
Our trip started in Crystal River, which is as beautiful as the name suggests. The waters in Crystal River are the most beautiful shades of blue and green. They’re clear and are warm year-round. Though we love the mountains in Asheville, anytime we get the chance to go for a swim, we do it!
One of the absolute best things to do in Crystal River is to swim with manatees. This unique activity had been on our bucket list for a long time. And it did not disappoint! It was amazing. Mike at Crystal River Watersports was our guide. He was patient, knowledgeable, and fun. He and the boat captain, Cody, really elevated the experience and made it not just good but great. If you’ve ever been on a guided trip before you know how a guide can really make or break a trip and these guys were pros.
I had my own wetsuit, fins, snorkel, and mask but if you don’t have any of that, no worries, Crystal River Watersports will provide it for you.
The tour starts out with a scenic nature tour along the river. Mike pointed out several birds including a bald eagle, an orange tree, where our lodge was, and before you know it we were at the first snorkel site. There were already a few boats there when we arrived but Cody anchored in a spot that only required a short swim. And then before you know it, we saw our first manatee! It was an amazing experience. Passive observation is the name of the game, so you shouldn’t touch them, reach out, or follow them. That being said, some of the manatees are curious and will swim right up to you. If they do that just be still. The entire time I was with them, I had goosebumps from being so close to such a gentle, big, creature. If you ever get the chance to do this, don’t hesitate. Crystal River is the only place in the United States where you are legally allowed to swim with manatees.
After spending about 20 minutes at the first snorkel site, we then motored down the river to Three Sisters Springs. There was a light current going into the snorkel site but it wasn’t too tough. We got to see a school of fish and one of the main spring vents.
After we dried off, we grabbed some breakfast at Amy’s Avenue (below) and then hopped on a cute little trolley that’ll take you to Three Sisters Springs. Handicapped vehicles are the only private vehicles allowed to drive into the park. All others must purchase a ticket and catch a ride on one of the shuttles (there’s a trolley and a van). We had a pretty good idea of what we’d see there given that we’d just snorkeled there, but seeing it from the land was a completely different perspective.
There are trails at this park, a mixture of boardwalks, sandy hard-packed paths, and observation areas where you can look for manatees! And we saw numerous! We saw them between birdhouses 8 and 10 on the trail. We also saw manatees at the observation deck closest to where the trolley let us off.
Not sure where the manatees are when you arrive at Three Sisters Springs? Ask one of the volunteers? They should be able to point you in the right direction. Oh, and if you want to know more about Three Sisters Springs and the community involvement that went into preserving this incredible spot, check out this YouTube video.
Interested in visiting additional Florida springs? Click here for more info.
The last thing on our best things to do list for Crystal River, of course, involved manatees. We only had 48 hours in town (honestly we could have spent a whole week here) so we wanted to see the manatees as much as possible. At this point, we’d been in the water with manatees, seen them from land, and so the only thing left was to see them from on top of the water from within kayaks.
We watched a quick safety video on kayaking with manatees (watch your paddles so you don’t hurt them!) and then were given a map to help us navigate King’s Bay. The kayaks were a couple of blocks away from where we checked-in and signed our waivers but it only took a few minutes to get there. A Hunter Springs Kayaks staff member helped us launch our kayaks and then we were off!
We re-traced part of our earlier boat ride with Crystal River Watersports and found a couple of manatees at the first spot we stopped at with them. One of them even swam under my kayak! It was a little scary because I was worried it was going to tip me over and it was huge but it didn’t. And it was one of the coolest experiences of the entire trip. And probably one of the top ten best outdoor experiences I’ve ever had. Don’t sleep on this adventure. Go in the late afternoon, before sunset. I promise you won’t regret it.
Best Places to Eat in Crystal River
All of the activities we’ve mentioned above require lots of energy which means you’re going to have to have enough fuel in your tank to get ’em done. You know we love to eat and so without further ado, here are our top picks for the best places to eat in Crystal River!
Amy’s On The Avenue | 539 North Citrus Avenue
We’d planned on going to Amy’s on the Avenue for breakfast but ended up arriving around lunchtime. So instead of the breakfast burrito and jumbo muffin I’d had my heart set on, I got the smoked turkey sandwich. It came with a dill pickle spear and chips and it hit the spot. Caroline ordered an egg salad sandwich on a croissant and also really enjoyed it. She loved that they added green olives to it!
The service at Amy’s on the Avenue is great and the setting is perfect for lunch with a friend or brunch with your family.
Outdoor seating? Yes. There’s a cute little patio in the back.
Waterfront Social | 1610 SE Paradise Circle
Like the name suggests, Waterfront Social is located on the water. The parking is free and easy. You can grab a drink and watch the sun set from the boardwalk and/or the back deck that overlooks Kings Bay. We recommend dining here for at least one of the evenings you’re in Crystal River because not only is the location great, but the food is, too! I had a craving for steak the night we were there so I ordered the 16 ounce ribeye with horseradish cream and WOW. It was cooked perfectly and I even had enough for a snack the next day. Caroline ordered the shrimp poke bowl and as you can see from the photo it was loaded with shrimp, perfect avocado, pickled onions, scallions, and cucumber. Everything we had was fresh and super tasty.
Outdoor seating? Yes. Numerous tables and chairs, some with umbrellas and some under a roof. All of the seats have great views of the water.
Vintage on 5th | 114 NE 5th Street
Another one of the best places to eat in Crystal River is Vintage on 5th. We ate here on our last night in Crystal River. We’d heard a ton of good things about it and it more than lived up to our expectations. They’ve got a great selection of wines and we each started with a glass as well as a cup of the she crab soup. It was rich in flavor and full of crab meat. Our entrees were fantastic. Caroline ordered one of their signature dishes, the V.O. 5 Shrimp and Grits. Smoked gouda grits were the base of the dish and poured on top of that was a decadent shallot and portobello mushroom cream sauce. I ordered the Fresh Cut Gulf Grouper and it was super tasty. It was a tender, thick filet that flaked off the fork perfectly and had me wishing I lived in Crystal River so I could eat on the regular.
Outdoor seating? Yes, and it’s romantic!
Best Place to Stay in Crystal River
There are numerous options when it comes to lodging in Crystal River, Florida. However, if you want a place that’s clean, affordable, has an outdoor pool, and offers boat docking for guests, check out Kings Bay Lodge.
King’s Bay Lodge | 506 NW 1st Avenue
As we mentioned above, King’s Bay Lodge has some great amenities for the traveler visiting Crystal River. Each of the efficiency suites is unique and the entire lodge is non-smoking. We stayed in Room #3 and loved its cleanliness as well as its cute manatee theme. The wi-fi was free and worked great, the shower was nice and hot, and the bed was extremely comfortable. There was a full kitchen and refrigerator in our room and though we never cooked a meal in it because of all the great dining options in town, it was nice to have the option.
One of our favorite things about King’s Bay Lodge, however, was its location. It’s literally in the heart of the historic district and is super convenient to restaurants, shops, and of course, the water. Parking was free and easy and because almost all of our activities were nearby, we were able to leave the van parked for most of our trip.
Another cool thing about King’s Bay Lodge is that it has a spring-fed pool. It’s one of the last natural spring-fed swimming pools left in Florida. Thousands of gallons of pure spring water flow through the pool on a daily basis. As a result, the pool doesn’t use chemicals. You’ll notice that the level in the pool will change based on the tides.
If you want a unique place to stay in an outstanding location with affordable rates, check out Kings Bay Lodge. Ready to book? Click here.
Best Things to Do in Inverness and Floral City
It’s going to be hard to leave Crystal River. Trust us on this one. We didn’t want to go. We could have stayed at least a week and not run out of things to do. But, Inverness and Floral City, (a ten-minute drive south of Inverness) beckoned!
Visit the Depot District
Part two of our adventure starts in Inverness at the Depot District. Inverness’ Depot District got its start back in 1892. These days, the depot still has a historic vibe and look to it, but it no longer acts as a place to hop onto a train. Instead, it’s a meeting place for people to gather, see live shows on the stage, picnic, and link up with the Withlacoochee State Trail. The bathrooms are clean and airy and the parking is easy and free. We used this as a jumping off point for our first activity in Inverness: Biking on the Withlacoochee State Trail.
Bike the Withlacoochee State Trail | 3100 S. Old Floral City Road
One of the best things to do in Inverness is to ride bikes. There are numerous options but one of the most popular options is the Withlacoochee State Trail (WST). The trail is 46 miles long and almost all of it is flat. It’s also free. You’ll find people walking, running, biking, and even rollerblading on this multi-use, paved trail. Dogs are welcome on the WST but they need to be on a leash. If you want to go further than 46 miles, you can also link up with the Dunnellon Trail and Brooksville’s Good Neighbor Trail. The Dunnellon Trail will get you an additional 2.5 miles and Brooksville’s an additional 10.3 miles.
If you’ve got your own bike, head on over to the Depot District for free parking and an easy jumping-on point for the Withlacoochee State Trail. If you need to rent bikes, check out David’s World Cycle. They’ve got all kinds of bikes for rent including kids bikes, tandem bikes, e-bikes, recumbent bikes, as well as the more traditional road and hybrid bikes.
Fort Cooper State Park | 3100 S. Old Floral City Road
If you are looking for a destination to ride your bike to while on the Withlacoochee Trail, we recommend heading towards Fort Cooper State Park. It’s south of the Depot District and is roughly 3.3 miles away. Fort Cooper has over 700 acres of natural wilderness to explore including a network of trails, some of which have interpretive signs that share about the Seminole Indians who used to live on the land. Birders will appreciate the opportunity to explore the 5 miles of birding trails in the park that are part of the larger Great Florida Birding Trail.
Three group campsites are available at the park but they are primitive and do not have showers or electricity.
There is a small entrance fee to the park. As of 2022, vehicles are $3, and pedestrians and cyclists are $2.
Pick Up Local Citrus at Ferris Groves | 7607 South Florida Avenue
Ferris Groves dates back to the 1930s and if its vintage look and feel don’t draw you in, the free, fresh-squeezed juice samples hopefully will. You’ll find nothing but the finest oranges, tangerines, Ruby Red grapefruits, honeybells, tangelos, jams, honey, berries, cheese, soaps, and even salsas. (The fruit-based salsas are made in small batches).
The best part is, if you find that you cannot live without the products you picked up on your travels, you can order them from home. Ferris Groves will deliver to anywhere in the US and most parts of Canada.
Visit the Avenue of the Oaks | East Orange Avenue
We took a quick drive down East Orange Avenue aka the Avenue of the Oaks in Floral City before heading back to Asheville. We’d heard about this famous and beautiful street and were glad we made the quick detour before heading home. If you’ve never had the opportunity to see old live oaks reach across the street towards one another, don’t miss out on this!
Best Places to Eat in Inverness and Floral City
Between Inverness and Floral City there are a bunch of great choices when it comes to dining but we narrowed down our options pretty quickly. Keep reading to see what we picked and why.
Cattle Dog Coffee Roasters | 210B Tompkins Street
Y’all know how much we love dogs and coffee so it should come as no surprise that when we heard there was a place called Cattle Dog Coffee Roasters in Inverness, we had to go there. We each opted for a bacon breakfast sandwich (bacon, egg, and cheese) and a cup of coffee, both of which were delicious. They had a spacious indoor seating area but we chose to sit outside in the sun.
If you’re the kind of coffee lover who enjoys trying new roasts and beans, this is your place. They have a huge selection of single-origin coffee beans and blends, more than we’ve seen in most shops. Starbucks, proudly, this is not!
Bonus: there’s a Cattle Dog Coffee Roasters in Crystal River, too! In fact, they’ve got four locations in Citrus County, Florida.
Pudgee’s | 8435 Roscoe Court
Burgers. We’re always on the lookout for great burgers. And with a name like Pudgee’s, we had a feeling this was going to be a good one. Turns out, this greasy smashburger located in Floral City was everything we’d hoped for. It was filling, hung out over the bun, was made with lots of cheese, and left us feeling happy and full. The fries were hot and salty and we were sad when they were gone.
And though we’re burger people, Pudgee’s has built a solid reputation on their chili dogs as well. Pudgee’s Original Coney Sauce has been handed down for over 500 years! We considered getting one just so we could try the sauce but we were too stuffed after burgers. There are tons of options, including vegetarian, so be sure to come hungry.
Outdoor seating? Yes. Picnic tables with umbrellas.
Oscar Penn’s Restaurant | 207 North Apopka
The next time you’re in Inverness or Floral City or anywhere close, you must stop in for dinner at Oscar Penn’s. Reservations aren’t required but they are recommended so snag one and then thank us later. Why? Because the food was phenomenal. We started off with a California Roll filled with fresh stone crab (yep, they have a sushi menu!) and a glass of wine, each. Both were delicious. I ordered the twin lobster tails and they were cooked to perfection. They may be some of the best I’ve ever had. Caroline ordered the Wild Caught Fresh Fish which, on the night we visited happened to be sea bass, and also gave it high remarks. It was lightly seasoned which meant the natural flavors of the fish shone through. The sauce was rich without being too rich and paired nicely with a glass of wine.
Service was exceptional and the wine list was solid, too. And though we were completely full by the time our server came around asking about dessert, we caved and tried the carrot cake which was perfect. We have to admit that we were blown away and would easily go out of our way again to dine here.
Outdoor seating? Yes.
Robin’s Country Kitchen | 6689 South Florida Avenue
If you want to eat with and like the locals, head on down to Robin’s Country Kitchen. She’s got pancakes, bacon, eggs, sausage, and hot coffee waiting for you. But it’s a popular spot so either get there early or be prepared to wait. This is homestyle cooking at its best. And while we ate there for breakfast, keep in mind that she’s open for lunch and dinner, too. Be sure to check the ‘specials’ board to see what’s on tap the day you’re there and consider getting a slice of pie to go if you’re too full to enjoy it while you’re there.
Oh, and if you’re staying at Sunshine Lodge like we were, Robin’s is just a short bike ride away.
Outdoor seating? Yes.
Best Place to Stay in Inverness and Floral City
Though we only had one night to explore Inverness and Floral City, we’re already eager to come back and we know exactly where we’re going to stay: Sunshine Lodge.
Sunshine Lodge | 9160 E Devilsneck Road
Don’t let the ‘Devilsneck’ in the address fool ya. Sunshine Lodge is nothing short of heaven. In fact, many consider it Floral City’s best kept secret. To reach Sunshine Lodge, you’ll leave downtown Floral City headed north, and drive along a beautiful country road (Devilsneck) with hanging moss until you get to the property which sits right on the Lake Tsala Apopka. There are several different units, each with lake views. It’s a very private, quiet, and beautiful place.
Our home for the night felt just like that – home. It was decorated for the Christmas holiday, was super clean, felt like it was well-loved and cared for, and had all kinds of small touches that made it feel welcoming. The owner met us upon arrival and checked in with us the next day to make sure we’d had a good stay. There was a screened-in porch where we could hang-out bug-free, a couple of beach cruiser bikes and kayaks available in case we didn’t have our own, and best of all, easy access to the water. We were literally ten steps, if that, from Lake Tsala Apopka.
The lodge is surrounded by water on three sides so there aren’t any bad views. And if you like to fish, you’re in luck because there are four docks to choose from. Not into fishing, no worries. There are plenty of spots to lay out and just enjoy the sunset. Sunshine Lodge gets a 10/10 from us.
LGBTQ Resources for Citrus County
Crystal River’s gay bar, Crew, unfortunately, closed during the pandemic.
Citrus County Gay-Straight Alliance has a facebook page but it has been inactive since the summer of 2016.
Citrus Pride is a website that has the most comprehensive information for the LGBTQ community in the area.
72 Hours in Crystal River, Inverness, and Floral City Recap
There is so much to love about Florida and while it can be hard to hone in on one specific area when making travel plans, you cannot go wrong with these three places. Though we visited Crystal River first, we think the trip would work equally as well doing it in the reverse order. The only thing we’d change is adding on a few more days. 72 hours was just not enough!
Like this? Check out some of our other pieces on Florida: