From an outsider’s point of view, the tradition of afternoon tea must seem downright peculiar. Why would you eat a stack of sandwiches, followed by a cream tea, followed by an ungodly amount of cake at 4pm? Because we’re British and that’s what Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, inventor of the afternoon tea, would want us to do.
These days, afternoon tea is an activity we sort of engage in by default, whether it be to show off our Britishness to a friend visiting England for the first time, or for the annual and inevitable catch-up with your godmother. But this guide is here to remind you that we really should be partaking in this activity more frequently - it turns out that afternoon tea is actually quite lovely. So next time you feel like sacking off an afternoon to drink tea and eat a tonne of cake, here’s where to go.
The All time Classics
Located just around the corner from Buckingham Palace, The Goring has been serving tea for 100-odd years, and we’re pretty sure that the actual Queen pops in for a cuppa once in a while. The stately home vibe means that this afternoon tea is dead posh, so it’s not the occasion to finally bust out that arse-scraping skirt that’s been sitting in your wardrobe for the last six months. This is also one of the most popular London afternoon tea services, so you’ll have to book a couple of months - yes, months - in advance for a table. The Christmas-themed afternoon tea is worth booking for the mini mince pies.
If you’ve been around the afternoon tea block, The Langham is the best place to have a chilled out one in London. This isn’t to say that the surroundings are casual - the mirrored, pillared Palm Court room is very fancy, as is the Wedgwood crockery your tea’s served on. That said, this is a place you can feel comfortable hanging for a while with your pals without worrying about disturbing others around you. It’s even a good place to bring kids, which helps if your sister absolutely insists on bringing your constantly-in-motion nephews.
Fortnum & Mason is a department store that’s famous for supplying the royals with their tea, and at times can feel like a very posh human zoo - until you sit down for the extremely pleasant tea service. While most tea services are held in whatever old drawing room a hotel could come up with, the entire fifth floor at Fortnum & Mason was clearly designed for the sole purpose of afternoon tea. Come for a classy experience, or if you’re with someone who refuses to eat clotted cream, they’ll accommodate pretty much any dietary requirement here. Don’t turn up expecting a table (remember, this place is a human zoo), but you can usually book online the day before and get a table, so do that.
The Wolseley is excellent at anything you throw at it - a fancy breakfast, a business lunch, a late night dinner, and yes, an afternoon tea. It’s always lively here, and the space, a converted 1920s car showroom with high ceilings and marble columns, would make even a paperclip convention seem like an exciting event. It does get extremely busy and a tad touristy at times, but that’s only because everyone knows The Wolseley is always a good idea.
We mentioned that you should never do afternoon tea on the cheap, but if you’re tight on the pennies and still want a decent one, The Ham Yard is where you should book. They have a sliding price range, starting at £22 and going up depending on the amount of additional savouries, bubbles, or cocktails you add to your set-up. This is also one of the most flexible afternoon teas in London. Haven’t booked? They can squeeze you in the bar lounge. Need an alternative date idea? Here’s your spot. Allergic to gluten, dairy, sugar, meat, pollen, or politics? They’ve got you.
We like to think the design brief for the Oscar Wilde room at Hotel Café Royal went a little like this: ‘Dearest Designer, We have way too much money - please design a room that looks like our wealth threw up in it’. With its gold, velvet, and mirrors, this is by far the most opulent room hosting afternoon tea in London. When you sit down, the high society person inside you just can’t help but click into action - look at you nibbling at excellent savouries and sweets all fancy. You’ll want to keep the champagne flowing. To do otherwise would be sacrilege.
Afternoon tea at Sketch is like having scones and clotted cream in a Wes Anderson-inspired spaceship. Afternoon tea is served in the all-pink ‘gallery’ room of this multi-room establishment. As for the eating and drinking, the cakes and finger sandwiches are nice, but you’re really here because there isn’t anywhere like it in the world. Make sure you go to the bathroom while you’re there. That’s the best room in the building.
The Savoy is the best representation of old London glamour in the city, and as you may suspect, having afternoon tea here makes you feel like a real life fanny-flapping aristocrat. The Thames Foyer, where you’ll have your tea, is a beautiful space, and it’s easy to get carried away with the whole experience because they look after you so well. There’s no extra charge for refills here, so go ahead and ask for another round of sandwiches and cake.
Despite sounding like a hippy yoga tent at Glasto, The Crystal Moon Lounge, where they serve tea in The Corinthia Hotel, is actually a very elegant spot. The humongous globe-like chandelier that makes the centre of the room would distract you totally from the task at hand if it weren’t for the cakes, which are more ‘diabetes-inducing creative confectionary’ than actual cake. The Corinthia’s also a great place for people watching, and there’s always a high chance of spotting the mum of that celebrity you stalk religiously on Instagram.
THEMED AFTERNOON TEAS
Yes, we were initially skeptical of the Alice In Wonderland-themed Mad Hatter’s Afternoon Tea at the Sanderson Hotel - it sounds like an activity you would be emotionally manipulated into by your five-year-old goddaughter. But this is actually one of our favourites in London. Tea is served in the courtyard of the hotel, making it one of the few afternoon teas you can have outside, and they also objectively serve the best scones in town.
The afternoon tea at The Rosewood is art-themed and comes in the form of cakes inspired by Yayoi Kusama, Damien Hirst, Alexander Calder, Banksy, and Mark Rothko. The whole thing goes down in a beautiful mirror-filled room, so consider bringing the narcissistic, art-loving person in your life. Everyone has one of those.
The Athenaeum Hotel does a couple of tea menus, most notably a savoury ‘Gentleman’s Tea’ that includes a serving of whiskey on the side. We don’t really believe afternoon tea should be gendered, but there’s a lot to like here regardless: the elegant and laid-back setting, the bonus glass of champagne, and the value for money (£32 all in). They do a ‘normal’ afternoon tea as well, but it’s definitely one to keep in mind if you’re with someone who claims they don’t get down with sugar.