The ladies of the Lioness Club sell home-made crab cakes and the Cedar Key Garden Club sells fresh-squeezed lemonade.
That’s the sort of place Cedar Key is, and the result is the Cedar Key Art Festival, April 6-7, 2024, is not your cookie-cutter commercial art fair, filled with the same old food vendors and the same old production-line art.
Officially called the Old Florida Celebration of the Arts, the Cedar Key Festival is one of the oldest art fairs in Florida, founded in 1964. It attracts more than 15,000 people each year, according to organizers.
It’s a juried fine art fair, which means it attracts 100 serious artists vying for more than $12,000 in prize money. The fair has a great reputation — ArtFairCalendar.com named it one of the top 50 juried art festivals in America and more than 200 artists applied to participate.
Like Cedar Key itself, the Cedar Key Art Festival is a slice of authentic Old Florida. This historic small town is located on an island on Florida’s Gulf coast, about 60 miles west of Ocala. It’s not near any city, and that is part of what has preserved its small-town flavor and historic buildings. It attracts artists and visitors who want to slow down and appreciate nature.
Cedar Key is worth a visit any weekend — it’s especially great for kayaking and beaches on off-short islands.
Here are six things to do when visiting Cedar Key and a look at its history.
The Cedar Key Art Festival is free.
Booths for the 100 artists line the quaint historic main street. After the 2021 pandemic show, when event planners reduced the number of artists and added more space around the booth, the event got the best ratings from visitors and artists ever, according to Bev Ringenberg, president of the Cedar Key Arts Center. So in 2023, that layout will be back, eliminating the typical art-festival “tunnel” effect and providing more space for artists and visitors.
At the beach-front city park, only local non-profit vendors are allowed to sell food. As a result, little old church ladies, high school kids and the town’s leaders are all there selling homemade foods you won’t find anywhere else.
The seafood is especially worth trying, because Cedar Key is one of the country’s largest producers of farmed clams. As a result, you’ll find fresh Cedar Key clams for sale by the clam association and oysters by the oyster association.
On D Street in the historic “downtown” — it’s really just three blocks long — you can sample the best clam chowder in the world. I do not say that lightly: For several years, the clam chowder served at Tony’s Seafood Restaurant at Second and D street has won first place in the Great Chowder Cookoff in New Port, Rhode Island — the World Cup of chowder. Tony’s offers samples to all comers at the art festival, and there is always a line.
While visiting the Cedar Key Art Festival, you also can rent kayaks. There are two main kayak outfitters in town with comparable pricing: On the town beach Cedar Key Adventures and located on the highway into town Cedar Key Paddling.
An outstanding kayak destination is Atsena Otie, a half mile away. Atsena Otie Key is an island that was home to the original town built in the Cedar Keys, a cluster of small islands. Its main business was a pencil-wood factory and, in the 1890s, it had several hundred residents. That ended when the hurricane of 1896 and a 10-foot storm surge flattened the town.
Today, the historic island of Atsena Otie Key is managed by the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge. You can see the old cemetery and the main street is now a path through the woods under a canopy of oaks.
If you paddle around the island, it’s a 1.5 mile trip. More ambitious paddlers can go on to other nearby islands. Long-time kayak outfitter Tom Leibert, now retired, says all of the other islands have nice beaches, though their interiors are off-limits as part of the Cedar Keys NWR. The birding in the Cedar Keys is exceptional; Leibert says every island has an eagle nest.
Tips for visiting the Cedar Key Art Festival
- Hotels sell out quickly, but there are always cancellations. For accommodations, call the Cedar Key Chamber of Commerce, which keeps a list of who has a room. The number is 352-543-5600.
- A good option — one popular with the visiting artists — are nearby campgrounds. Here’s a Florida Rambler story on camping near Cedar Key.
- Be patient with traffic and parking. This is a small town with a lot of visitors for art festival weekend. Visitors park along the town’s streets and if the festival is a big success, you’ll walk four or five blocks through town to reach it.
Resources when visiting Cedar Key
- A Florida Rambler guide to visiting Cedar Key
- Old Florida Celebration of the Arts: the festival website
- Florida Rambler story on RV camping in Cedar Key
- The Island Hotel
- Shell Mound area of Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge
- Manatee Springs State Park
- Camptel Cedar Key RV Resort, including “tiny homes” and yurts
- Angler’s RV Campground
- Cedar Key RV Resort
- A fascinating photo-story of how they farm clams on Cedar Key a.k.a. “Clamelot.”
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.