I took a short trip to London for the first time in March, and no visit to London is truly complete without experiencing the quintessentially English custom of a traditional afternoon tea.
I enjoy my daily cup of tea at home, and also while traveling because it’s a relaxed affair, allowing me to savor each moment, while taking time to pause to enjoy each course and the whole experience from start to finish.
As you can imagine, there are SO many places to go to enjoy tea in London, and with the cold weather that graced us the weekend of my visit, indulging in one of Britain’s favorite pastimes was an appropriate treat.
I decided to make a reservation at The Palm Court at Sheraton Park Lane, which was only a short walk from Buckingham Palace.
While doing pre-trip research, not only did I came across many options where one can enjoy tea in London, I finally cleared the air for myself by learning about the differences between high tea and afternoon tea – terms I’ve mistakenly used interchangeably in the past.
High Tea vs Afternoon Tea
I’d imagine that some readers may also be confused about the real distinction between high tea and afternoon tea, just like I was. Historically, they are indeed different, so let me share what I’ve learned.
Historically speaking, “high tea” typically refers to the evening meal of the working class, usually taken between 5pm and 7pm, before dinner was served “upstairs”.
On the other hand, “afternoon tea” (also confusingly sometimes referred to as low tea) has always been regarded as a luxury for the upper class – a truly decadent and sophisticated experience that dates back to Victorian England.
During an opulent afternoon tea in a glitzy London hotel or restaurant in present day, you can expect to find delicacies such as crustless finger sandwiches (the Queen’s preference), scones, and ornate pastries, beautifully served and paired with superior quality loose leaf tea blends.
I’ve come across some fantastic options and unique tea experiences in London that are worth checking out.
A Fancy Afternoon Tea
The Sheraton Park Lane is located on the corner of Park Lane and Green Park, facing Buckingham Palace.
The hotel’s Palm Court lounge was recommended to me as one of the most stylish places to experience an authentic afternoon tea service in London.
I found it interesting that the treats were served in what resembled a “birdcage”, which I later learned was inspired by the hotel’s history. During the 1920s, the hotel property was nick-named “the birdcage” due to its internal steel structure used during original construction.
The afternoon tea service I experienced at the Palm Court features a warm plate appetizer, delicate finger sandwiches, freshly-baked scones, beautiful pastries and over 27 Twinings loose-leaf tea blends.
The ambiance is upscale and elegant, complete with a resident harpist play. SPG members receive 10% off the total bill and you can attach your Starwood number to earn points too.
A Local Favorite
One of my good travel friends, who is now living in London shared one of his personal favorite spots from a local and value-perspective, The Wolseley. The Wolseley is situated in a prime location, very close by to the Intercontinental Park Lane (which is a great use of the annual free night certificate from the IHG credit card).
There’s an extensive traditional afternoon tea menu priced reasonably for £29.75 per person as well as a la carte items available from 3-6:30pm Monday-Friday and 3:30-6:30pm on Saturday and Sunday.
Aside from the traditional tea service at The Wolseley, I’m also told they offer an amazing brunch. This spot is on my list for my next visit.
For True Tea Enthusiasts
For decades afternoon tea has been all about elegance, but this is a way to bring the focus back to tea and the unique history.
The classes are intended to walk tea-enthusiasts through centuries of Twinings and afternoon tea history, teaching you everything from where the tea comes from, how it’s made, to food pairings based on the blends. This seems like the most authentic experience any tea lover can ask for.
The 2018 dates are as follows:
- June 29 & 20
- July 14 & 15
- August 18 & 19
- September 18 & 19
- October 20 & 21
- November 24 & 25
The cost is £40 per person, and you can reserve your spot ahead of time by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tea in the Air
Since we’re all frequent travelers, perhaps you’re just transiting through London or have a short stay and still want an authentic taste of British tea in the sky.
Many airlines offer a variety of tea options in premium and business cabins, but only a few take the tea offered on board to the next level.
As you may know, taste can be reduced up to 30% at cruising altitude, and the hot water on board the aircraft typically boils at around 89°C, when a temperature of 100°C is recommended and ideal for brewing black tea.
The cabin pressure alone alters the way taste buds function, and airlines take that into consideration when crafting and fine-tuning food and beverage offerings.
With that in mind, airlines are going the extra mile to try to deliver a distinctive soft product that fits within the culture of the airline.
For example, British Airways commissioned Twinings to develop a special signature blend teabag using a combination of Assam tea for body and roundness of cup, and Kenyan tea for briskness exclusive to the airline that would taste perfect in the sky.
Virgin Atlantic, another British carrier, recently announced that they’ll be offering afternoon tea service on flights later this summer. For now, afternoon tea is available at the London Heathrow Clubhouse from 3p.m. to 5:30p.m. daily if you’re passing through Heathrow during those times.
The airline announced a collaboration with Master Pâtissier Eric Lanlard for the tea service. Right now, Clubhouse guests can enjoy pot of tea or a glass of Lanson rose champagne, along with a full spread of cakes and finger sandwiches.
An assortment of these items will be available:
- Prosciutto, sun-blushed tomato and rocket on a stone baked Campagne brown roll
- Smoked salmon, cream cheese and dill mint mini croissant
- Broccoli, goat’s cheese and cress savoury tart
- Homemade plain and sultana scones with strawberry preserve, lemon and clotted cream
- Eton mess verrine with strawberry coulis
- Apple and blackberry cake
- Dark chocolate brownie with salted caramel sauce
When the full in-flight tea service launches, passengers will enjoy tea along with a sampling of the menu listed above as well as macarons, mini sandwiches, and scones onboard.
Brits take their tea seriously, and if you have an appreciation for tea, it’s nice to experience the famous British pastime in an authentic way when traveling to (or even through) London.
Where have you done afternoon tea in London? Any other great spots worth mentioning?