Many people are drawn to Crystal River and Florida’s Citrus County for the experience of a lifetime: meeting a manatee face to face. And while these gentle giants are undoubtedly the center of attention, they certainly aren’t the only amazing things you’ll see here. Just 70 miles north of Tampa and 80 miles west of Orlando, Crystal River and its neighboring cities are rich in history, wildlife and culture, with plenty of hidden gems just waiting to be explored. This Gulf Coast destination gives you a look at the real Florida, where crystal clear springs meet expansive state parks, and downtown streets are lined with quaint shops and cafes.
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Full of old Florida charm and vast stretches of wilderness, it’s easy to see why Citrus County is the heart of Florida’s Nature Coast. One of the best ways you can see this destination is on the Withlacoochee State Trail, a 46-mile paved pathway where wildlife meets historic old Florida towns. The trail is perfect if you like cycling, hiking and horseback riding, and its natural surroundings offer plenty of opportunities for you to enjoy birdwatching and wildlife viewing as you pass by forests and lakes. Don’t forget to stop and take a selfie at sunrise or sunset with the panoramic views of Tsala Apopka Lake in the background.
As the trail winds under an oak canopy, it passes through Inverness and Floral City — two towns teeming with authentic small-town charm. In Inverness, history buffs can step back in time at The Old Courthouse Heritage Museum that features local history and hosts several traveling exhibits. It was even featured in the 1962 film with Elvis Presley called “Follow That Dream.” The courthouse towers over the enchanting downtown district where you can walk to nearby restaurants and pubs. Meanwhile, Floral City exudes quintessential Southern charm as The Avenue of the Oaks welcomes you with a dramatic moss-draped tree canopy — another extraordinary selfie spot — and period-houses that line East Orange Avenue. But what really harkens back to old Florida memories are the fresh fruit stands you’ll find here.
Ferris Groves in Floral City is one of the oldest seasonal fruit stands in Citrus County and you’ll definitely want to make a detour for this retro roadside produce stand from October through the end of March. It’s cheerful orange and white-striped canopy hasn’t changed much since it opened more than 75 years ago. The family owned and operated fruit stand offers Florida grown oranges, tangerines, tangelos, and grapefruit, as well as juicy strawberries — make sure you try one of their delicious old-fashioned strawberry milkshakes because calories don’t count when you’re on vacation. Over the years, the fruit stand has expanded its offerings to include jelly, jam, salsa, butter, sauces and candies. A visit to Ferris Groves is sure to evoke feelings of nostalgia to a time when citrus truly defined Florida.
While citrus fruit may be this county’s namesake, blueberry farms also are scattered throughout Citrus County and many offer pick your own blueberries. Bette’s Blues Blueberry Farm in Citrus Springs is a pick your own produce farm with a variety of blueberries, as well as blackberries and peaches. You’ll want to plan a u-pick adventure around April for blueberry season, and peach and blackberry season follows soon after that. It’s not only a great way to support local farms, but also an enjoyable outing with friends and family — plus think of all the yummy things you can make at home with all those blueberries.
And while there’s plenty more fun to be had on land, head west to enjoy some family fun on the water. This area is known for its rivers and springs, and the Chassahowitzka River near Homosassa, is a local favorite. Known as “The Chaz,” this river is perfect for renting kayaks and paddling through this scenic waterway that has so many springs and creeks for you to explore. You’ll want to take a detour to find one of the most popular springs called The Crack. It’s hidden deep in Baird Creek, but once you find it, you’ll enjoy splashing in the beautiful blue water — it even has a rope swing for the kids and kids at heart.
After a day on the river, you’re sure to work up an appetite, so head to one of the most beloved restaurants in Homosassa — The Freezer Tiki Bar. Located in an old seafood freezer on the water, this local hideaway is known for its plates of tantalizing shrimp and stone crab, and was voted one of Florida’s top 10 hole-in-the-wall seafood joints.
Before leaving this authentic Florida destination, you’ll want to check out the Crystal River Archaeological State Park. This 61-acre historical park features Native American burial and ceremonial mounds that were used before Europeans arrived in the Americas. The highest point in the town is one of the temple mounds. Climb to the top for one of the best views in Crystal River. If you visit at sunset, it’s definitely an Instagram-worthy shot.
Continue your historic journey with a visit to Crystal River’s historic downtown on North Citrus Avenue. You won’t want to miss the charming shops and restaurants in the Heritage Village district where popular shops like All About Nature and The Cotton Club are housed in restored cracker-style cottages teeming with that old Florida feel. If hunger strikes, stop by The Crab Plant for a taste of fresh seafood or Norton’s Riverside Grill for a cold drink.
Swimming with manatees may be a main attraction in Crystal River and Citrus County, but it’s not the only reason this area is known as the gem of Florida’s Nature Coast. Beautiful blue springs, charming small towns, historic sites and outdoor adventures can all be found in one amazing destination that showcases the real old Florida visitors come to love. Visit DiscoverCrystalRiver.com to plan your trip!