Day Trip: Fishing for Fun in Cedar Key

Cedar Key is, first and foremost, a small fishing village on Florida’s gulf coast. On a good day, the population hovers around 600-800 people. Rising sea levels, salt water intrusion, and the beginning of fishing season are front page news here. Why am I writing about some Podunk, middle-of-nowhere, fishing village on Florida’s gulf coast? For three reasons: (1) it is famous for great seafood, (2) it is situated on Florida’s Nature Coast, one of the most beautiful parts of the state, and (3) it exemplifies Old Florida, small-town living. All of these things combine to make Cedar Key a media darling, covered by the likes of Coastal Living, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Travel & Leisure, and most recently, Southern Living magazine. I traveled to Cedar Key on the heels of J.I. Baker’s “Wild Islands,” published in the May 2016 issue of Southern Living magazine. I couldn’t have asked for a better list of recommendations to arrive in the mail a week before my planned vacation to Cedar Key.

(1) Great Seafood

For great seafood, Baker recommended having dinner at one of Cedar Key’s fine dining establishments: the Island Room or the Island Hotel’s seafood restaurant, and trying the award-winning clam chowder at Tony’s Seafood Restaurant.

The Seafood Trio Pasta special at the Island Hotel’s seafood restaurant, with clams, shrimp, scallops, kale, sundried tomatoes, artichokes, and angel hair pasta.


Tony's chowder, clam strips, and crab cakes

Clam chowder, clam strips, and crab cakes at Tony’s Seafood Restaurant.

While all the seafood is good here, Cedar Key is especially well-known for their clams, oysters, and smoked mullet dip. Clams and oysters can be found on practically every menu in town, and smoked mullet dip can be found at small markets, roadside stands, and gas stations across Cedar Key. October is the best time of year to enjoy seafood in Cedar Key, as this is when their annual seafood festival (now in its 47th year) is held; in July 2016, Cedar Key will be hosting a new festival devoted strictly to clams, called the Cedar Key Old Florida Clamfest.

(2) Natural Beauty

Where there is great seafood, there is beautiful coastline, and Cedar Key is an excellent example of this. Situated at the northern end of Florida’s Nature Coast, Cedar Key’s rural attributes allowed for the establishment of an 891-acre national wildlife refuge, famous for its large population of nesting birds, in 1929. The Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge refers to a cluster of barrier islands, in the neighborhood of Cedar Key, reserved for nesting birds. One of these islands, Atsena Otie, was home to the original Cedar Key settlement before it moved to its current location, in 1897, after the hurricane and tidal wave of 1896 destroyed most homes on the island.

The ruins of the old Faber-Castell pencil factory still remain on the coast of Atsena Otie Key.


Tidewater Tours, at the Cedar Key Marina, runs two island tours a day, at high tide. The tour includes a visit to Atsena Otie Key, Seahorse Key, and Snake Key, all of which are only accessible by boat.


Visiting the islands by boat is a favorite pastime of visitors and locals alike. Atsena Otie is the only island in the bunch where you are permitted to explore the interior.


Atsena Otie Key a web

visiting the islands

The abandoned Atsena Otie pier hosts a large number of seabirds throughout the year, like these Royal Terns.

Tens of thousands of birds usually flock to Seahorse Key each year for nesting season, from March 1st through June 30th. As a result, no one is allowed to land on the island during this time. In April 2015, most of the birds migrated to neighboring islands, Snake Key and North Key.

There is one time of the year that you can visit Seahorse Key. The Seahorse Key Marine Laboratory periodically hosts open houses outside of the bird nesting period, during which you can tour the lighthouse on the island. The next one is scheduled to take place in early July, 2016.

Brown pelicans nesting on Snake Key.

Brown pelicans nesting on Snake Key.

Roseate Spoonbills and Cormorants on Snake Key.

(3) Old Florida Style

Beyond Cedar Key’s natural beauty, there is a certain beauty to Cedar Key’s Old Florida, small-town traits, most of which all congregate on Dock Street, Cedar Key’s cultural center. Staying at the Island Place Condominiums on 1st Street put us within a block of Dock Street, home to Cedar Key’s marina, fishing pier, souvenir shops, and nightlife.

Dock Street, Cedar Key’s cultural center.


fishing pier

The city’s fishing pier at the West end of Dock Street provides plenty of space for recreational dock fishing. It’s also not a bad place to watch the sunset.


golf cart and bicycle rentals

Golf carts and bicycles are two of the most popular modes of transportation on the island. Both can be rented at Cedar Key Adventures on Dock Street.


As the sun goes down, the acoustic music starts up. This is T.J. Brown playing at Carlin’s Waterfront Bar & Grill on a Friday night.


Houston Keen playing at Big Deck Bar & Grill, home of the best late night cheese fries in town. Note: Things start to wind down here around 10 pm.

Between eating clams, touring the islands by boat, and hanging out on Dock Street, one can get a good taste of Cedar Key in a day.

If you are interested in visiting Cedar Key, keep the following dates in mind:

  • Bird nesting season: March 1–June 30
  • Seahorse Key marine laboratory open house: early July
  • Cedar Key annual seafood festival: mid-October
  • Cedar Key Old Florida Clamfest: early July
  • Cedar Key Art Festival: mid-April
Categories: Florida Road Trips, Florida's Nature Coast, Outdoors & NatureTags:

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