It’s no secret that, for Brits, tea is not just tea – it’s a national institution. All too often, though, treating yourself to an afternoon tea can translate to spending a couple of hours eating tiny sandwiches and slightly dry slices of cake, then paying £50 for the privilege. Luckily, we’ve done all the arduous research for you, so you can enjoy an altogether more appetizing experience. Let us help you find the best afternoon tea in London with our top seven favourites.

For fanciful art and fancy pastries: sketch

At sketch, you can check your preconceptions about afternoon tea being a staid, stuffy affair at the door. Instead, expect irreverent art, stylish staff and delicious food. Tea is usually served in the Gallery, a cavernous pink room currently lined with hundreds of David Shrigley drawings (the exhibitions change from time to time), and where even the tea sets are tongue-in-cheek works of art.

Alternatively try the more intimate, colourful Parlour or the (indoor) fairytale woods of the Glade. Even the space-age toilets are talking points; you’ll certainly never run out of conversation topics at this excellent, artistic afternoon tea.

One of the best afternoon teas in LondonImage courtesy of sketch

For a family-friendly treat: Claridge’s

Kids, as a rule, like cake. That said, even the most ambitious child (and many adults) would struggle with the gut-busting towers of sandwiches, pastries and scones some places serve up. As well as offering a deliciously indulgent set of options for adults, Claridge’s is one of the few venues which serves a full, impressive afternoon tea especially designed for children – and the menu can even be used as a colouring book.

For indulgence on a budget: Gallery Mess at Saatchi

If you’d like to see what all the fuss is about but don’t fancy spending a small fortune, head to the Gallery Mess at Saatchi, where for only £15.50 you can enjoy a proper afternoon tea in airy, elegant surroundings. You can of course wander around the world-famous contemporary art gallery after, too – entrance is free, so you can still keep to your budget.

One of the best afternoon teas in LondonImage by Rebecca Hallett

For special diets: Bake-a-boo

As well as being an adorable place to spend an afternoon, all bunting and doilies, Bake-a-boo happens to be one of the best spots in the capital if you have dietary restrictions. If you’re vegan, diabetic or have to avoid wheat or dairy, for instance, you’ll have no problems here. That said, this is not virtuous food in the slightest – think hefty scones, creamy cupcakes and gooey brownies. You can also buy the cakes to go, so you can enjoy your allergen-free treats at home.

For a change from scones and sponge cake: Cinnamon or Momo

London is a multicultural city, so it makes sense that you’ll find plenty more versions of afternoon tea than just the British one. Cinnamon in Soho, for example, offers high chai, where you can try a fragrant combination of spiced tea, savoury dishes and subtly Indian takes on traditional English desserts. Another good option is Momo, where you can enjoy fresh mint tea alongside an intimidatingly comprehensive range of British and Moroccan treats.

One of the best afternoon teas in LondonImage courtesy of St James' Court hotel

For total opulence: St James’ Court, a Taj Hotel

If you’re really looking for indulgence, head to the St James’ Court hotel for an afternoon tea worth its weight in gold. Plates, teapots and teacups have gold accents, the cutlery is golden, the delicious sweets and pastries are dusted with gold… And if that’s not opulent enough for you, you can even drink it; they serve champagne which contains flakes of pure, 24-karat gold.

For the traditional experience: The Ritz or The Connaught

Some places in London are renowned for their afternoon teas, and with good reason. They may not be cheap, but for a real once-in-a-lifetime experience they can’t be beaten. If you’ve got the wardrobe for it (“Gentlemen are required to wear a jacket and tie”, and not just flung on with a pair of jeans), head to the Ritz. This is the absolute classic setting for afternoon tea, complete with besuited waiters, resident pianist and of course belt-breaking amounts of cake.

The Connaught, though, is the afternoon tea connoisseur’s preference; not only do they have an extensive range of teas and world-class chefs preparing your treats, but there’s an entire menu of jams. Now that’s attention to detail.

For more restaurant recommendations, take a look at The Rough Guide to London, The Pocket Rough Guide to London and The Rough Guide to Vintage London