Fibroblast growth factor (FGF) signalling regulates essential developmental processes in vertebrates and invertebrates, but its role during early metazoan evolution remains obscure. Here, we analyse the function of FGF signalling in a non-bilaterian animal, the sea anemone Nematostella vectensis. We identified the complete set of FGF ligands and FGF receptors, of which two paralogous FGFs (NvFGFa1 and NvFGFa2) and one FGF receptor (NvFGFRa) are specifically coexpressed in the developing apical organ, a sensory structure located at the aboral pole of ciliated larvae from various phyla. Morpholino-mediated knockdown experiments reveal that NvFGFa1 and NvFGFRa are required for the formation of the apical organ, whereas NvFGFa2 counteracts NvFGFRa signalling to prevent precocious and ectopic apical organ development. Marker gene expression analysis shows that FGF signalling regulates local patterning in the aboral region. Furthermore, NvFGFa1 activates its own expression and that of the antagonistic NvFGFa2, thereby establishing positive- and negative-feedback loops. Finally, we show that loss of the apical organ upon NvFGFa1 knockdown blocks metamorphosis into polyps. We propose that the control of the development of sensory structures at the apical pole of ciliated larvae is an ancestral function of FGF signalling.