It’s no secret that, for Brits, tea is not just tea – it’s a national institution, and one of the best things to do in England. All too often, though, treating yourself to an afternoon tea can mean eating tiny sandwiches and slightly dry slices of cake, then paying £50 for the privilege. Those days are over – we’ve done all the arduous research for you, so you can enjoy an altogether more appetising experience. Let us help you find the best afternoon tea in London with our favourites.
This article is inspired by our Rough Guide to England, your essential guide for travelling to England.
1. For the ultimate traditional experience: The Ritz
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”), head to the Palm Court at The Ritz.
This is the absolute classic setting for afternoon tea, complete with besuited waiters, resident pianist and harpist duo. Not to mention, of course, belt-breaking amounts of cake. You'll get all the classics — scones with jam and cream, finger sandwiches. There is also a choice of 18 different loose-leaf teas, chosen by the in-house tea sommelier (the only hotel in the UK with such an individual), Giandomenico Scanu.
2. 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 an impressive afternoon tea specially designed for children – and the menu can even be used as a colouring book.
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3. For vegans: Fortnum & Mason
Looking for the best vegan afternoon tea in London? You're in luck. Vegan (and/or gluten free) options have been booming in the city in the last 5 years, and now even erstwhile Royal tea suppliers Fortnum & Mason have joined the trend.
You'll get delicious treats like millionaire shortbread, cucumber sandwiches, and even vegan scones, all served in the classy calm of the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon (opened by the Her Majesty the Queen, no less). Non-vegans are well looked after too of course – with all the usual favourites like scones with fresh clotted cream, chocolate cake and more.
4. 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, 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.
5. For indulgence on a budget: Gallery Mess at Saatchi
If you’d like to enjoy a great afternoon tea in London, but don’t fancy spending a small fortune, head to the Gallery Mess at Saatchi. Here you can enjoy a proper afternoon tea in airy, elegant surroundings for a surprisingly reasonable price. You can of course wander around the world-famous contemporary art gallery afterwards, too. Entrance to the gallery is free; another bonus for your budget.
6. For something different: Cinnamon Bazaar
London is a multicultural city, so it makes sense that you’ll find plenty more versions of afternoon tea in London than just the classic scones-and-jam one. Cinnamon Bazaar in Covent Garden, for example, offers a 'Trader's High Tea', where you can try a fragrant combination of freshly made chai, savoury nibbles like tandoori chicken and chutney sandwiches, and Indian desserts such as chocolate rasgulla with spiced passion fruit.
Cinnamon Bazaar in Covent Garden offers tea with an Indian twist © Cinnamon Bazaar
7. For sheer imagination: St James’ Court
If you’re looking for one of the most unique afternoon teas in London, head to the St James’ Court Hotel just down from Buckingham Palace, for tea with an imaginative twist. Take your pick from the Alice in Wonderland tea – featuring the Queen of Hearts' mango tarts and a 'Drink Me' strawberry potion, the Candy Striped Carousel afternoon tea – with banana and passion fruit spinning top, or the Indian-inspired Jasmine tea where you can feasts on Gulabi scones with kismis and almonds.
8. For adventures: a 'moving' afternoon tea
What do you get when combing iconic London activities with tea? A Thames River cruise afternoon tea or classic double-decker bus tour with an afternoon tea experience. Both tours are long-standing favourites with London visitors and the combination with high tea makes them even more enjoyable.
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This article has been updated to provide the most up-to-date information. For more restaurant recommendations, take a look at The Rough Guide to London.
Top image © Jo millington/Shutterstock