You may be surprised to learn Cedar Key is not located near Key West. Hidden on the Northwest coast of Florida, Ceder Key is a close-knit community famous for miles of clam farms and fresh seafood. Although it is tucked away, it is accessible by all modes of travel; land, water, and air. I first visited Cedar Key by air during my flight training. Cedar Key Airport is on most pilots’ bucket lists because of its difficulty to access. Home to Florida’s shortest paved runway, the crosswinds can make it difficult for some pilots to land. Inevitably, at least one airplane a year will unintentionally become a seaplane floating in the water at the end of the runway after a failed landing attempt.
Most people arriving in Cedar Key will come by land by driving down an endless one-way road with tall pine trees on either side. The closest red light is four miles in your rearview as you cross the city limits. No matter how you arrive, you will undoubtedly feel you have entered a special part of Florida that has remained untouched by modern tourist attractions.
Where to Stay
Cedar Key is a very compact space, which makes getting to the shops and restaurants accessible from almost anywhere you choose to stay. I chose an Airbnb perfectly located in the center of Dock Street. Outside my front door was access to the pier, kayaking, shopping, and the best restaurants on the Key. The only negative to this popular location was the street parking. I did have to wait out a group of golf carts until the evening to park close by, but because of the walkability of Cedar Key, I didn’t need constant access to my car to get to places.
Another location I considered was the Pirates Cove Coastal Cottages on Airbnb. Located a half mile from Dock Street, golf carts and bicycle rentals are available to make exploring Cedar Key a breeze. This pet-friendly tiny cottage is also on the water and allows fishing or enjoying your morning coffee from the dock as the sun rises over the mangroves. If I find myself in Cedar Key again, I will book one of the cottages at Pirates Cove.
It is important to note there aren’t any hotels in Cedar Key. The community takes pride in keeping chain restaurants and hotels off the island. Everything is owned and operated by locals. Your money spent in Cedar Key directly supports local small businesses.
Cedar Key To Dos – On the Water
It is impossible to spend the weekend in Cedar Key and not go on the water. The best way to venture around the barrier islands and to get a complete history lesson of how Cedar Key came to be; you must book a Sunset cruise with Tidewater Tours. I’ve taken many boat tours around Florida (see Caladesi Island State Park, Tarpon Springs & Egmont Key post for my experience with those boat tours). My afternoon with Tidewater Tours was not only the top experience while in Cedar Key but the best boat tour I’ve experienced. We pulled away from the dock an hour before the sun began to touch the water’s edge over the horizon. Storms were predicted for the following day leaving the water calm and unwavering. The only disruption to the surface was our boat slicing over top like an ice skate over a frozen lake.
Often these boat tours can become temporary prisons for the passengers while the Captin tries their hand at stand-up comedy. Thankfully this was not the case during my time with Tidewater Tours. Captain Phil focused on educating us about the ecology of the water and the animals that inhabit the barrier islands surrounding Cedar Key. Many of these areas are leased by the University of Florida for research or designated for clam farming. The brackish water surrounding Cedar Key creates the perfect breeding ground for clams to grow. Leased in two-acre plots, much of the town industry is harvesting and exporting these resources.
Along the tour route are two notable barrier islands. The first is Atsena Otie Key, the original Cedar Key. In 1842 more than 200 people lived on this Key, producing cedar wood for pencils. After a devastating hurricane in 1896, the remaining residents moved to modern-day Cedar Key to be closer to the mainland. With flexible pick-up and drop-off times, Tidewater tours also has an island taxi service for those wanting to spend the day exploring Atsena Otie Key.
The last stop before turning back to the harbor was Seahorse Key. Primarily used as a research facility for the University of Florida, Seahorse Key is also home to the Cedar Key Lighthouse. In partnership with the University, the chamber of commerce hosts an open house four times a year to allow the public to see the research on Seahorse Key and visit the lighthouse.
Exploring the surrounding keys can also be done by renting a kayak to allow for a more leisurely day on the water. There are several rental facilities around Cedar Key. The closest departure point to get to Atsena Otie Key is to rent from Kayak Cedar Key in the Marina. Stacks of colorful Kayaks can be found along the beach area in front of the Lil Shark Park Playground, that are available for rent.
On the Northern side of Cedar Key, Cedar Key Paddling is a one-stop shop for all outdoor activities. Kayaks and canoes are available for rent at $40-$65 daily. Fishing canoes are also available for those who wish to cast a line as they paddle through the mangroves in the Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge.
Leave the paddles behind and book a fishing charter with one of the fishing guides. These local guides can expertly take you around the winding paths of clam farms and guide you to the best spots for fishing. There’s no need to lug around your fishing gear; all bait, tackle, and licenses are included in the charter fee. After your return from a day on the water, a golf cart rental from Cedar Key Paddling can be arranged for a quick drive into town. Cedar Key is a golf cart-friendly town where they almost outnumber the vehicles. Parking is easy and plentiful in the marina, making the transition from boat to the bar under 5 minutes.
Cedar Key To Dos – On the Land
Cedar Key is magical because you can catch the sunrise on one side and watch it set on the other. Fill your day with sunshine by hiking and exploring amongst the pines and the ruins left from the days of the booming cedar industry.
Cedar Key Museum State Park – Opened Friday-Sunday, this 18-acre park invites visitors to follow the rise and fall of the lumbering industry in the 1860s when a thriving pencil mill was producing cedar wood for pencils, and the railroad made exporting these goods profitable for the town. A combination of a powerful hurricane and the opening of a new railroad to Tampa cut this tiny village off from the rest of the state.
Visitors can also enjoy the collection of shells and Native American artifacts donated by Clair Whitman, a local man who grew up on Cedar Key at the turn of the century. After his death in 1959, his artifacts and home were donated to the University of Florida in what is now the Cedar Key Museum State Park. Visitors can see his collections and walk through the fully restored home.
Cedar Key Railroad Trestle Nature Trail – A short ½ mile trail is like a ghost trail following the train path that once represented a prosperous time in Cedar Key. A straight out-and-back trail leads you to the water, where remnants of the sun-bleached pylons once supported heavy iron trains. Nature is slowly reclaiming this wooden structure into the water; just a dozen supports stick out from the water like the jagged teeth of the garfish that swim below.
Cemetery Point Boardwalk – I typically wouldn’t recommend walking around a cemetery as an activity to do during a vacation. The Cemetery Point Boardwalk entrance is more co-located with the cemetery than a walk through the burial grounds. The trail borders the perimeter of the cemetery and the water. Trees provide shade along the path, and there are lookout points to rest and enjoy the view. Informational signs help identify local wildlife you may see along the way. The boardwalk ends in a peninsula-shaped park, perfect for an afternoon picnic or a short round of frisbee golf.
Cedar Key To Dos – Around Town
The majority of Cedar Key’s shops and restaurants are condensed on Dock Street or 2nd Street. These are easily walkable areas where you can see it all in an afternoon. However, most shops and art studios do not open until late morning or evening. This town caters to a weekend crowd; if you visit on a Monday or Tuesday, you will avoid the crowds but run the risk of visiting many of the available shops and restaurants. All that is to say, double-check the hours of your must-see stops before booking your vacation plans.
Cedar Key Arts Center – There are several art galleries throughout Cedar Key that display and support local artists. The Cedar Key Art Center goes beyond selling art. Their mission is to support local artists and promote educational programs in the arts. A wide variety of workshops are hosted at the center every month, including quilting, basket weaving, Ukulele lessons, pottery, and painting, just to name a few. Upcoming events can be found on the Cedar Key Arts Center Events Page.
The annual Cedar Key art festival is called Old Florida Celebrations of the Arts. This two-day weekend event welcomes 100 artists to the festival to showcase their talents and raise money for the Cedar Key Arts Center. Dates, times, and artist information for this year’s event can be found on their website.
Cedar Key Historical Society – See the history of Cedar Key comes to life at the Cedar Key Historical Society. The museum is small, but its dedication to preserving this communities history is vast. Photos and artifacts from the turn of the century are on display, allowing visitors to glimpse into local life during the town’s industrial boom.
Cedar Key Fishing Pier – The perfect ending to the day is spent sitting at the pier with an ice cream watching the sun slide below the water’s edge. Live music from the restaurants on Dock street floats over the pier as locals and tourists cast their fishing lines into the water. The offshore breeze wards off mosquitoes, leaving you to take the last moments of the day entirely in peace.
Where to Eat
I ate as many places as possible during my visit, partly because it was raining and partly because everything looked delicious. This warrants a dedicated blog post, but I will list my top three stops for now.
The Prickly Palm – The cuteness of this coffee shop is unmatched. It was impossible to miss the bubble gum pink building with teal picnic benches and tropical umbrellas. I instantly felt happy as I walked through the door and hadn’t yet ordered my coffee. Inside, the stripped-down wooden walls and plentiful seating felt cozy, inviting guests to stay awhile like it was your home. I sipped my cold brew and browsed through the tiny library of books while I waited for the caffeine to kick in. I started the day on the right foot, not just because I had my coffee but because the staff and atmosphere were everything I love in a coffee shop.
29 North at 83 West – This restaurant is a two-in-one. 83 West is on the first floor and is casual dining with indoor and outdoor seating and is pet friendly. 29 North at 83 West is on the second floor and is boasted as a full-service elevated dining experience. This was the first restaurant I visited and the best meal during my stay. The restaurant overlooks the water through large floor-to-ceiling windows. After my sunset cruise, I was hungry for clam chowder. Unlike the typical white chowder, 29 North serves a red chowder, which is not overly spicy but just what I needed after being out on the water.
Liam & Madi’s – Recommending this bar is going to be controversial. The yelp reviews are mostly negative (⅖ stars). Unlisted on google maps, Liam & Madi’s is located below the Tipsy Cow. I would have missed this place entirely if it weren’t for the small chalkboard pointing to a dimly lit red door. Most of the yelp reviews were unhappy with the staff’s hospitality, which is confusing because Liam & Madi’s is a dive bar.
The aesthetic is an old lived-in hole in the wall where people go to have a drink and be left alone, which is precisely what I got, except for the two cats sitting just out of reach judging me from afar. I later learned the bar was named after these cats. If you’re looking for a friendly, upbeat place to have a drink, this isn’t it. If you want to drink a beer on the deck and be left alone, this is paradise.
The information in this article was accurate when published but can change without notice. Please confirm rates and details when planning your trip by following the links in this article. If you find out-of-date or inaccurate information, I’d love to hear about it to update the article. Use the comments section below. Thanks!