Last updated on October 21st, 2019 at 01:20 pm

Cedar Key 2019 Seafood Festival

Cedar Key Seafood Festival booth
Seafood festival booths are staffed by members of the Cedar Keys community.

Seafood festivals are common in Florida, but I think the Cedar Key Seafood Festival is uncommonly appealing.

The Cedar Key Seafood Festival comes just in time for cooler weather and the start of stone crab season.

What makes the Cedar Key Seafood Festival special?

First, and quite obviously, it takes place in Cedar Key, one of America’s coolest small towns, according to Budget Travel.

Cedar Key is a charming little town with fewer than 1,000 permanent residents and a fascinating history. (It’s Florida’s second oldest town!) Cedar Key is about 60 miles west of Gainesville, so its out-of-the-way location has helped keep it authentic.

See our Florida Rambler guide to Cedar Key

Second, you may think of New England when you think of clams, but Cedar Key is actually one of  the nation’s top source of farm-raised clams.

Third, the Cedar Key Seafood Festival is one of the only times you can tour historic Seahorse Key, three miles from Cedar Key. A shuttle boat from downtown takes visitors to tour the island and its lighthouse, which was built before the Civil War. Seahorse Key is now part of Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge.

Chefs at Cedar Key Seafood Festival
Chefs at Cedar Key Seafood Festival compare clam chowder recipes

The Cedar Key Seafood Festival is 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and features more than 100 arts and crafts exhibits, live music at several locations, a parade Saturday morning and, of course, lots of great local seafood. Tasting opportunities are abundant.

Past festival-goers recommend various locally made clam chowders, raw or fried oysters, smoked mullet dip and corn on the cob. Crafts include some items with local flavor, too: boxes made from local cedar trees, preserved and mounted crabs and lobsters, egret lawn ornaments and other Floridiana.  Cedar Key attracts many artists, so the booths include impressive fine artists, too.

Music includes bluegrass and banjos. (Here’s a YouTube video of dueling banjos and dueling clam chefs from 2010.)

Seahorse Key: Historic island off Cedar Key

Aerial view of Seahorse Key
Aerial view of Seahorse Key (Photo courtesy Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge)

The shuttle boat and tours of Seahorse Key on Saturday make the Cedar Key Seafood Festival a rare opportunity. The fourth-order fresnel lens in the lighthouse was first lit Aug. 1, 1854, when Cedar Key was Florida’s major Gulf Coast city. For decades, the lighthouse was critical to navigation.


Eventually, though, the railroad went through, Cedar Key used up its once-bountiful supply of cedar trees and a hurricane wiped out the city in its original location, Atsena Otie Key. The city moved to another island, but it became a little-visited backwater, a sleepy fishing village.

The last lighthouse keeper extinguished the light for the final time in 1915 and in 1929, President Herbert Hoover created the Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge, preserving three of the keys as a bird sanctuary.

Kayaking along the shore on Cedar Key
Kayaking behind Dock Street on Cedar Key. Photo by Kellie Parkin.

Today the lighthouse is rarely open to the public. It has been leased to the University of Florida for its Seahorse Key Marine Laboratory. The lighthouse itself serves as a dormitory with six bedrooms and 26 bunk beds. A laboratory is located near the boat dock.

The lighthouse will be open on Saturday. The boat trip is $20 and involves a half-hour ride to and from the island.  Tours leave every hour on the half hour from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and reservations are not required. But arrive early, as everyone must be off the island by 3 p.m.

Call Captain Doug’s Tidewater Tours, 352-543-9523 for details. (To find Tidewater Tours, look for the boats with the green bimini tops at the docks.)

Clam farming in Cedar Key

Cedar Key welcome signClam farming is a relatively new business in Cedar Key, born out of necessity.

In 1995, Florida banned large-scale net fishing, shutting down operations of many Cedar Key fishermen. Instead, many local fishermen participated in  federally-funded job retraining programs in  shellfish aquaculture. Many began farming clams and today Cedar Key’s clam-based aquaculture is a multi-million dollar industry. Clams, live and in the shell, are shipped all over the country. Cedar Key clams are harvested in the morning and served in a Las Vegas restaurant the next day.

More things to do on Cedar Key

While visiting the Cedar Key Seafood Festival, you can rent a kayak from Kayak Cedar Keys outfitter Tom “Tomyakker” Leibert right from the beach.

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. Kayak outfitter Tom Leibert says all of the other islands have nice beaches, though their interiors are off-limits as part of the Cedar Keys NWR. He provides a detailed map and recommendations on kayak outings, including to Seahorse Key. The birding in the Cedar Keys is exceptional; Leibert says every island has an eagle nest.

Tips for visiting the Cedar Key Seafood Festival

Cedar Key Island Hotel on Florida's Gulf coast
The Cedar Key Island Hotel
  • For accommodations, call the Cedar Key Chamber of Commerce, which keeps a list of who has a room. The number is 352-543-5600.
  • Gainesville and the I-75 corridor have many accommodations. This gets you within an hour of Cedar Key, which would enable you to make Cedar Key Seafood Festival a day trip.
  • A good option — one popular with the visiting artists — are two camping and RV parks about six miles outside of town. At Rainbow Country RV Campground, reservation are recommended. The new Cedar Key RV Resort includes resort amenities such as a swimming pool.
  • Be patient with traffic and parking. This is a small town with a lot of visitors for 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 for your Cedar Key visit:

Cedar Key sand spit by Kellie Parkin
Cedar Key sand spit by Kellie Parkin

More things to do in Cedar Key:

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10 Comments

  1. Avatar

    I was always working! Count on us to come Sunday!! We get to see the water, eat seafood, look at the wonderful art. I so happy I finally get to go!

  2. Avatar

    Wonderful article. Thank you for all of your kind words about Cedar Key. We just love living here !

  3. Avatar

    Despite the recent hurricane, thanks to help from volunteers near and far, Cedar Key is cleaned up and ready to present the 47th annual Cedar Key Seafood Festival Oct 15 and 16, 2016.
    Daily 9-5 on 2nd street and City Park and beach.. The popular Seafood Festival Parade takes place on Saturday the 15th at 11 am. Family friendly, free admission, great food and arts and crafts. Organized by the Cedar Key Lions Club and the Cedar Key lioness.

  4. Avatar
    Joyce Carlisle

    Good morning! Live in Brandon, FL. Checking out the info on the Seafood Festival in October. Would like to know if the Cedar Key Island Hotel is also available to book for this time? Any other hotels in the area?
    Thanks so much!
    Joyce Carlisle

    • Bonnie Gross

      We’re not associated with the hotel, so we can’t help you there. For accommodations, call the Cedar Key Chamber of Commerce, which keeps a list of who has a room. The number is 352-543-5600.

  5. Avatar
    jim bailey

    do you have dates for 2017 yet?

    • Bob Rountree

      Probably the third weekend in October, but the exact dates won’t be announced until after the 2016 events. We will update as soon as the 2017 dates are announced.

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