One of the nicest things to do in London and one of the most popular activities in the capital is to take part in the ritual of afternoon tea. Once only taken by Royalty and the wealthy, this quintessentially British pastime is now available to anyone and everyone.
I have personally enjoyed numerous afternoon tea experiences in London and therefore feel confident to advise on this subject.
But for those unacquainted with this English tradition, you may wonder what all the fuss is about; surely drinking tea and eating cake are the same anywhere in the world. Well, it is safe to say that it is in a complete league of its own, and I would like to explain it in more detail.
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The Origins of Afternoon Tea
Afternoon tea was introduced in England by Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, in the year 1840. The Duchess would become hungry around four o’clock in the afternoon.
Her evening meal would not be served until eight o’clock, leaving a long period between lunch and dinner. Anna decided she should have something small to eat at this time, and the phrase “Afternoon Tea” was invented.
What to expect at Afternoon Tea
Setting the theme for your afternoon tea will rely on aesthetics, how the china and edibles look, and taste. Crockery will comprise teapots, cups and saucers, side plates, and usually, a 3 -tier cake stand to display the food.
A menu will list tea options in addition to the selection of sandwiches and cakes you will enjoy. You will make your choice of tea ranging from black, white, and fruit varieties from around the world.
If you have opted for a champagne afternoon tea, you will be asked when you would like your bubbles to arrive. My personal preference is at the start of the sitting (the name given to your time slot allocation), with my sandwiches. Of course, if you don’t like tea, then coffee or even hot chocolate can be served, but it is not the norm.
Sandwiches created from artisan bread with delicious fillings, traditional scones with jam and cream, and a selection of mouthwatering pastries will have you salivating before you have taken your first bite.
Your server will talk you through all your afternoon tea components and ask if you have any questions. The top question asked is how to correctly serve the jam and cream on a scone, the round, baked bread item which is always served at the best afternoon teas in London.
Cornish or Devonshire Afternoon Tea
This is a long-standing debate for the British and one that has never really been answered. In the South of England, there are two coastal areas, Cornwall and Devon. Each area has a different way of spreading the strawberry jam and clotted cream. Cornwall first spreads the jam on the scones and then heaps a dollop of cream on top. Devon does it in reverse, cream first, then a dollop of jam on top.
To this day, no one can agree, which is the correct way to serve scones. Ridiculous, yes! British tradition, yes! Just for the record, I prefer the Cornish way, jam first with a blob of cream on top as I find it too messy to get the jam to sit on top of the cream if I try to do it the Devonshire way. I wonder how you will serve yours?
Your server will return several times to re-fill teapots and re-stock sandwiches and cakes. At the end of your experience, you may be allowed to take home any food you haven’t consumed. This varies in each establishment, so don’t be disappointed if they say no. You will have to try and indulge in everything while you are there. Be warned, though, that this challenge is a hard one as everything, although petite in size, is very rich in flavour, and you may end up with a massive sugar rush. On that, I am speaking from experience!
Afternoon Tea Options
Themed afternoon teas have become very popular and often coincide with exhibitions or theatre shows in London. Dietary requirements allow coeliacs to enjoy gluten-free options and vegans and vegetarians to feast on plant-based delights. There are even boozy afternoon teas where alcohol has replaced the loose-leaf Darjeeling.
Afternoon tea in London can be a luxurious affair with the clinking of champagne glasses in illustrious hotel settings. Grande dames of the afternoon tea scene such as the Ritz, the Dorchester and Claridges is no-longer the immediate choice of the afternoon tea connoisseur. Establishments such as Sketch, Corinthia, and Kensington House are competing and often outdoing their traditional counterparts.
A dress code is often required for high-end luxury hotels, so it is worth checking before you arrive. Pricing varies between establishments, but you are paying for an experience rather than just tea and cakes. Sittings are usually for 2 hours, although some establishments I have visited have let us stay as long as we have wanted. Reservations are essential. Afternoon tea is suitable for all ages and is a great way to celebrate with friends, families or on your own to enjoy a centuries-old tradition.
My Top 10 Favourite Afternoon Tea Spots in London
This is my favourite!
Theme: London Landmarks Afternoon Tea
Pricing: £45 per person or £75.00 with a glass of Champagne (2022 pricing)
Address: 109-113 Queen’s Gate, London SW7 5LP
Theme: Claridges British Classic Afternoon Tea
Pricing: £75 per person or from £85 with a glass of Champagne (2022 pricing)
Address: Brook Street, Mayfair, London, W1K 4HR
Theme: A Quintessentially English Afternoon Tea. A favourite of Queen Victoria.
Pricing: £65 per person or £75 with a glass of Champagne (2021 pricing)
Address: Albemarle Street, London, W1S 4BP
Theme: Over Styled and Fun. Great for a non-traditional afternoon tea.
Pricing: £69 per person or £88 with a glass of Champagne (2022 pricing)
Address: 9 Conduit Street, London, W1S 2XG
Theme: Fusion of Flavours Afternoon Tea
Pricing: £70 per person or from £80 with a glass of Champagne (2022 pricing)
Address: Carlos Place, Mayfair, London, W1K 2AL
Theme: Decadent Afternoon Tea taken beneath a chandelier of 1001 baccarat crystals.
Pricing: £65 per person or £75 with a glass of Champagne (2022 pricing)
Address: Whitehall Place, London SW1A 2BD, United Kingdom
Theme: Alice in Wonderland Afternoon Tea. Complete Vegan menu available.
Pricing: £48 per person or from £58 with a glass of Champagne (2022 pricing)
Address: 50 Berners St, Fitzrovia, London W1T 3NG
Theme: Traditional Afternoon Tea
Pricing: £75 per person or £85 with a glass of Champagne (2022 pricing)
Address: 53 Park Lane, Mayfair, London W1K 1QA
Theme: Pret-a-Porter Afternoon Tea
Pricing: £64 per person or £74 with a glass of Champagne (2022 pricing)
Address: Wilton Place, Knightsbridge, London SW1X 7RL
Theme: The most iconic hotel to enjoy one of London’s best Afternoon Teas
Pricing: £67 per person or £890 with a glass of Champagne (2022 pricing)
Address: 150 Piccadilly, St. James’s, London W1J 9BR
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