When you think of something quintessentially British, then afternoon tea is probably right at the top of the list (along with fish and chips and the Sunday roast). The tradition dates back to the beginning of the 19th century, when the 7th Duchess of Bedford (Anna, a close friend of Queen Victoria), began to enjoy sandwiches or a small cake, along with cups of tea, with her ladies of the house in the afternoon.
Of course, once heard about, others followed suit, and eventually the tradition of taking afternoon tea became ingrained into British high society. It remains so to this day – although nowadays is considered very much a luxury.
A visit to London is not complete without partaking in this very British tradition, and with so many places offering this service, you need to be sure to pick the right venue. So with that in mind, here’s our list of 9 of the best places to have tea in London, whether you’re with family and friends, as a couple or dining alone.
1. The Traditional One: The Ritz Hotel
If you’re looking for old-fashioned tradition, then it has to be the Ritz Hotel. Located in the heart of London, in Piccadilly, the hotel offers afternoon tea in the spectacular Palm Court in the centre of the hotel. There’s a dress code, and gentlemen are required to wear a jacket and tie for the event. Trainers and sportswear are not permitted.
Tea is served between 11:30hrs and 21:00hrs and you can expect to be entertained by a pianist, string quintet or a harpist. Expect delicate finger cut sandwiches, a choice of 16 different loose teas and warm scones with jam and clotted cream, all served on bone china with glittering silver tea services. This is an event you definitely need to make a reservation for, and prices start from £50 per person.
2. The Scenic One: River Thames Afternoon Tea Cruise
If your trip to London is a short one, combining a trip on the River Thames with afternoon tea is a great way to maximise your time. With prices starting from around £30 per person, you can choose from cruises that include sandwiches, cakes, scones and a variety of teas, to a cruise that also supplies you with a glass or two of luxurious champagne. There are a few companies that offer this service, including Bateaux London and City Cruises. This option is a fabulous way to enjoy some sightseeing along the way, seeing such delights as the Tower of London and Houses of Parliament as you enjoy your sumptuous tea.
3. The Quirky One: Afternoon Tea Bus Tour
Another thing as English as afternoon tea is the red double decker bus. So what better way to enjoy your ‘cuppa’ than on a sightseeing bus tour. These tours leave twice daily (12:30hrs and 15:00hrs) from Northumberland Avenue just off Trafalgar Square. Enjoy high tea along with a commentary from an experienced London bus driver, taking in such sights as St James’s Park, Buckingham Palace and the Royal Albert Hall. Prices start from £45 per person.
4. The Sophisticated One: Tea at the Royal Opera House
This world famous venue in Covent Garden provides a sumptuous surrounding for afternoon tea in the Paul Hamlyn Hall. You’ll feast on such delicacies as smoked salmon blinis, organic bread, homemade seasonal fruit jams and the finest of teas from around the world. Prices start from £37.50 person, and booking in advance is highly recommended.
5. The High Society One: Lanes of London
You can’t find a smarter location than Mayfair. So where better to take what is essentially a high society tradition than one of the most upmarket areas of London? Lanes of London overlooks Hyde Park and Marble Arch and is now a luxury five star hotel. Afternoon tea can be taken with or without champagne, and is accompanied by finger sandwiches, scones and pastries. An excellent selection of teas will certainly not disappoint even the most experienced of tea aficionados. Prices start from £39 per person.
6. The One for the Guys: Sanctum’s Gentleman’s Afternoon Tea
Okay guys, we know that finger sandwiches and scones probably don’t hit the spot for you. That’s why rock hotel, Sanctum Soho have bucked the trend with such delicacies as poached oyster, seared steak, burgers and lamb hotpot, finished off with a shot of Jack Daniels and a cigar. Not quite traditional, but great fun all the same. Prices start from £50 per person.
7. The Tea Enthusiast’s One: Orange Pekoe
If there’s one thing the guys at Orange Pekoe know about, it’s tea, and this is a wonderful informal location to enjoy the traditional British tradition. There’s no dress code, no fuss, no minimum spend… It’s the perfect place if you’re looking for an unpretentious occasion. But that doesn’t mean that the food and tea is of a sub standard – nothing could be further from the truth. Located in Barnes, South West London, afternoon tea is served daily from 14:00hrs to 17:00hrs and costs £19.95 per person.
8. The Royal One: Kensington Palace Orangery
Tea in the palace – how frightfully civilised! This is certainly one of the most upmarket locations in which to dine like royalty for an exceptional price (from £26 per person). Tea at the Kensington Palace Orangery is a splendid affair in a delightful location. Surrounded by the formal gardens of Kensington Palace, you can relax as you admire the classical 18th century architecture, and imagine for an hour or so that you really are a member of British Royalty…
9. The Cultural One: The Royal Academy of Arts
The centrally located Royal Academy of Arts might not be the first place that springs to mind to take afternoon tea. But if you’re looking to visit one of the many exhibitions here, you can add in a special afternoon tea as well for a total cost of £37.50. It’s essential to book in advance, and you can look forward to some truly tantalizing food, including cucumber and crème fraiche cake or chicken liver truffle. Definitely one for those who are adventurous in their food tastes.