Tea parties have always held a special place in my heart since I was a little girl. From the pastel goodness of Alice and the Mad Hatter to the iconic “Let them eat cake” moment in Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette, afternoon tea is something to be savored. In England, high tea is inextricably linked to the culture.
Two meals a day were the standard during the 19th century. You’d start the morning with an early breakfast, and then you’d have to wait until 8 p.m. for your evening meal. It wasn’t until 1840, when Anna Russell, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, decided a snack was in order to curb her hunger pangs that things changed. She asked her staff to prepare a light repast and serve it in her boudoir.
She satiated her hunger with tea, bite-sized sandwiches, sweet rolls, and cakes. The idea caught on so well that Englishmen began drinking aftertoon tea at 4 p.m., a ritual that’s commonplace now. Today, the British consume 165 million cups of the hot beverage, a startling stat when you consider the Chinese invented tea. So, it’s time to spill the tea about the must-visit places to have a cuppa in the British capital.
Brigit’s Bakery Bus
Naturally, the distinctive red double-decker bus is one of the first things that comes to mind when you think of London. But did you know that some of these driving landmarks also serve some of the best afternoon tea in London? While you enjoy a feast of freshly prepared finger sandwiches, mini cupcakes, scones, and exquisite pastries such as a lemon tart with meringue, vintage Routemaster buses from Brigit’s Bakery drive around the streets of Central London, taking in some of the city’s best sites.
Bite into their decadent treats as you admire Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Hyde Park and Downing Street from the comfort of your spot in the top or lower deck—the buses have been reconfigured with tables and cozy diner-style loveseats. The 90-minute tour is the perfect way to see the city and get your fill of the British tradition.
Are you looking for a high-end afternoon tea in an Instagram-worthy setting? Head to Sketch, a Michelin-starred restaurant in the upscale Mayfair district. The former Christian Dior workshop-turned restaurant boasts two floors, each with a distinct theme. Unlimited afternoon tea is served in the playful David Shrigley Gallery, with more than 200 of the Turner Prize–winning artist’s whimsical illustrations adorning the walls. The theme until recently was rose quartz velvet—banquettes and curvaceous chairs, designed by India Mahdavi—a wannabe princess’s dream come true. But the decor was recently changed to decidedly Art Deco yellow.
Savor creative dishes such as caviar and egg mousse on toast. The high tea also features sophisticated sandwiches with corn-fed chicken and smoked salmon and sweet treats such as raspberry cakes and ever-so-flaky apple tart. And then there’s the requisite scones with clotted cream. But before you leave, use the bathroom. It’s eggactly as you’d expect!
London Secret Garden
Tucked away in the back streets of Kensington, you’ll find London Secret Garden, a setting so calm, you might forget that you’re in Central London. The oasis operates five private domes, each with heat and AC and comfortable rattan furniture, in a one-acre garden. It’s become a hotspot since COVID restrictions came into place in 2020.
Freshly made classic sandwiches, such as free-range egg salad and oak-smoked Scottish salmon with dill cream cheese, are served. End your light repast with traditional Earl Grey tea, along with plain or raisin scones with Cornish clotted cream. Gluten-free and vegan options are available, too.
Mr. Fogg’s Gin Parlour
Without a tipsy tea, this list of the best afternoon tea spots in London wouldn’t be complete. The eccentric British adventurer Phileas J. Fogg, the protagonist of Jules Verne’s novel “Around the World in 80 Days,” inspired this Covent Garden gin emporium. The Victorian-themed Mr. Fogg’s, complete with vintage chaise longues and tufted chairs, boasts a collection of more than 200 gins, ranging from well-known favorites (Hendricks, Bombay) to unique gems (Ki No Bi Kyoto, Sipsmith).
Choose from five of Mr. Fogg’s best teapot cocktails, each created by in-house mixologists and infused with botanicals. Sip on your favorite cocktail made of gin, tequila, rum or bourbon (or opt for the alcohol-free variety) from quaint Victorian teacups while eating a variety of plant-based treats, all served inside a birdcage with lush flora and vegetation.
A little birdie once told me that the Chinese Whispers afternoon tea at Kai Mayfair was one of the most delightful afternoon tea menus in London. Cake with coconut and pandan custard, white chocolate bonbons in the shape of Mah-Jong tiles, crispy duck bao, and marble tea eggs—is your stomach already grumbling? The Michelin-starred eatery returns tea to its Asian origins with Chinese takes on sweet and savory dishes.
Expect quirky quotes on each menu and the sound of songbirds nearby. Instead of the ubiquitous scones with clotted cream, Kai serves delicate macarons with the creamy condiment. Teas run the gamut from Earl Grey to Jasmine Pearl to Dragon Well, the last being the most famous green tea in China.