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An Introduction to Afternoon Tea in London

Exploring the tradition of afternoon tea in London? Join us in uncovering the elegant interplay of history, culture, and culinary finesse that marks the city’s tea experiences. Learn about the origins, what to expect from the settings and the taste of luxury within every carefully crafted bite and sip.

Most importantly though, don’t be intimidated by all those traditions and rules when enjoying Afternoon Tea. London has so much to offer, from simple menus in local cafes to elaborate experiences in luxury hotels. There is something for everyone when it comes to a location, menu and budget, so before your tummy starts rumbling, let’s dive in!

Steeping in History: The Origins of Afternoon Tea

Tracing its roots back to the 1840s, the afternoon tea tradition emerged from a noblewoman’s desire to stave off her afternoon hunger. Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, found the long gap between lunch and dinner challenging. To remedy the ‘sinking feeling,’ as she phrased it, she requested her servants to serve her a pot of tea with bread and butter in her private rooms in the late afternoon.

So, the afternoon tea tradition, also known as the afternoon tea ritual, was born – a delightful solution to late-afternoon hunger pangs which was soon to explode in popularity.

A Duchess's Delight

The Duchess of Bedford’s habit of afternoon tea swiftly evolved from a personal pastime. As a lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria, she held a significant position in society, and her actions did not go unnoticed.

During her visits to the Duke of Rutland, she would ask for tea and cake or sandwiches in the late afternoon. She also began inviting friends to join her for tea in the afternoon, and the practice became incredibly popular.

Once a private affair expanded to larger gatherings known as tea receptions, where up to two hundred guests might attend with an open invitation between 4 pm and 7 pm. Thus, the humble tea ritual became a significant societal event, marking the birth of the traditional afternoon tea we know today.


Tour Guides Top Tip

“Leave room to enjoy all of the treats on offer”

Afternoon Tea doesn’t always look like a lot of food, but I can promise that you won’t leave hungry, make sure you arrive with a suitable appetite to enjoy the experience 

Tour Guide

The Elegance of Afternoon Tea Service

The table setting plays a crucial role in creating the perfect ambiance. Some key elements to expect for a proper high tea table setting are:

  • Fine bone china, with its distinctive warm, creamy appearance

  • High-quality table linen signifies cleanliness and elegance

  • Polished silverware offers a sensory pleasure that is both visual and tactile

  • Use of such fine materials not only enhances the visual appeal but also contributes to creating a comfortable and cozy atmosphere.

The Art of the Teapot

The frequently neglected teapot holds a significant place in the afternoon tea service. Traditional afternoon teas feature either bone china or silver teapots, symbols of luxury since the late 17th century.. Silver teapots, prized for their ability to retain heat, are not just beautiful but practical, ensuring the tea remains warm throughout the service.

A full silver tea service includes not just a teapot, but also a coffee pot, sugar bowl, cream jug, and often a matching service tray and teaspoons, adding to the grandeur of the event.

The Afternoon Tea Menu Decoded

An afternoon tea menu embarks on a culinary voyage, commencing gently with savoury finger sandwiches. These light and flavorful bites pave the way for the next course – warm, freshly baked scones.

The climax of this culinary symphony is the top tier of the stand, laden with a variety of sweet pastries and cakes. From delicate éclairs to traditional fruit cake, the sweet course is a celebration of classic and contemporary patisserie.

Savory Starters

Tiny finger sandwiches traditionally make up the first course of afternoon tea. These bite-sized delights offer a range of fillings to cater to different palates. Some popular options include:

  • Egg and cress

  • Cucumber

  • Salmon

  • Coronation chicken

These savoury starters set the tone for the rest of the meal. In some luxury hotels, they will bring you more of your favourtite sandwiches free of charge, so do ask, but make sure you leave room for the next “course”!


Scone Etiquette

The adored scone serves as the second course of afternoon tea. Freshly baked on the same day, scones are ideally served warm, accompanied by clotted cream and strawberry jam, forming an irresistible trio.

When it comes to enjoying scones, there is a certain etiquette to follow:

  1. Slice the scone in two halves horizontally.

  2. Apply clotted cream and jam to each half.

  3. This preserves the freshness of the scone and allows for a balanced flavour in each bite.

Cream or Jam first on Scones?

The traditional Cornish method is to spread the clotted cream first followed by jam, while in Devon, it’s common to spread the jam first followed by clotted cream.

It’s a classic dilemma that often sparks passionate discussions, especially among fans of afternoon tea and British cuisine. Both ways have their advocates, and ultimately, it comes down to personal preference.

Some argue that spreading jam first allows the cream to sit better on top, while others believe that spreading cream first creates a more balanced flavor. We would argue that if you’re eating sones with cream and jam, you’re winning either way!

Pastries and Petits Fours

The concluding course of afternoon tea presents the sweetest delights. From classic cakes like Victoria sponge or fruit cake to smaller pastries such as lemon tarts or madeleines, the dessert tier is a paradise for those with a sweet tooth. Seasonality often influences the selection of pastries and cakes, with the confections being exquisitely decorated and flavoured according to the time of year. This final course is not only a treat for the palate but also a feast for the eyes, bringing the afternoon tea experience to a delightful conclusion.

Choosing Your Cuppa: The Tea Selection

The afternoon tea experience, including the delightful cream tea, remains incomplete without its main attraction – the tea. Guests can choose from a wide array of teas, including:

  • Classics such as Earl Grey and traditional English breakfast tea

  • Herbal options like peppermint and chamomile

  • True teas including green, white, oolong, black, and pu-erh, all sourced from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant

This diverse selection caters to a range of tastes and preferences, ensuring every guest finds their perfect cuppa.

The Tea Spectrum

The tea domain encompasses a wide array of flavours. White and green teas oxidized the least, offer delicate sweetness with floral and fruity notes. On the other hand, black tea, being fully oxidized, encompasses robust tastes ranging from chocolate to spice or citrus.

Oolong tea, with partial oxidation, provides a versatile flavour profile from floral to malty. Even Pu-erh tea, which varies significantly with ageing, offers a range from green tea-like freshness in raw pu-erh to deep earthiness in aged versions. The variety of flavours in the tea spectrum ensures there’s a tea for every palate.

Beyond the Tea Bag

Upscale tea houses, in particular, highlight the afternoon tea experience with the use of high-quality loose leaf tea. Loose leaf tea is prized for its superior quality and flavour compared to standard tea bags. The brewing process of loose leaf tea is often treated as a ritual, with specific steps designed to ensure the ideal tea flavor and aroma.

From selecting the tea to steeping it at the right temperature for the perfect amount of time, every step contributes to creating the ultimate drinking tea experience.

Tour Guides Top Tip

“Always check the dress code when you make a booking for Afternoon Tea

You don’t need to dress to impress, but some venues have specific requirements and we’d hate for you to miss out.

Marina Pechiborshch Blue badge Guide
Tour Guide

Modern Twists on Traditional Afternoon Tea

Despite the enduring love for classic afternoon tea, modern versions have surfaced, introducing a contemporary flair to this timeless rite. These modern takes incorporate contemporary flavours into the menu, offer savoury alternatives, and even provide themed experiences based on books, places, characters, or musicals.

Moreover, they cater to a broader range of preferences by offering dietary accommodations such as gluten-free and vegan options, ensuring the afternoon tea tradition remains inclusive and accessible to all.

Afternoon Tea Etiquette: Do's and Don'ts

Despite being a delightful experience, afternoon tea historically has a distinct set of social etiquettes. Understanding these etiquette rules can help ensure a comfortable and enjoyable atmosphere for all guests. From proper attire to table manners, knowing what to do and what not to do at an afternoon tea service can enhance your experience and reflect well on you as a guest.


Dressing for Tea Time

Depending on the venue, the dress code for afternoon tea can range from business casual or country club customary to formal attire. As a rule of thumb, sportswear and trainers are generally considered inappropriate. High-end establishments like The Ritz in Mayfair, for instance, enforce a strict dress code reflecting the formal atmosphere of the venue.

While modern afternoon tea experiences may not require the long gowns and gloves of the 1880s, it may be worth checking the dress code in advance so you aren’t disappointed on the day.

Minding Your Manners

Historically, beyond dress code, there is advice covering table manners as well.

  • When stirring tea, it is important to do so gently and quietly, without clinking the spoon against the cup.

  • Once you’re done stirring, the spoon should be placed on the saucer behind the cup.

  • Sandwiches and scones are designed to be eaten with your fingers, but licking your fingers or utensils is a faux pas.

  • As for the tea itself, drinking from the saucer or blowing on the tea to cool it down is considered impolite.

The most important rule!

Don’t let the above lesson in history put you off or cramp your style! You’re here to enjoy the experience, as long as you dont eat like a caveman no one will judge you.

Our Favourite Afternoon Teas Across London

London, where afternoon tea originated, boasts a myriad of venues for you to relish this quintessentially British experience. Some of our favourite locations include:

Crown Jewels Themed Afternoon Teas

Step into a world of elegance and tradition as you indulge in an exquisite afternoon tea provided by our freinds at the Four Seasons. Presenting the Crown Jewels Afternoon Tea inspired by the treasures of the Tower of London. From Victorian-era Minted Cucumber sandwiches to iconic Coronation Chicken, every bite tells a story fit for kings and queens. Indulge your sweet tooth with meticulously crafted pastries, each evoking the grandeur of the British monarchy. Your experience is complemented with enchanting live piano music, serenading you as you sip and savor in elegant surroundings.

🥂✨ Champagne Afternoon Tea: Add a Touch of Glamour to your experience ✨🥂

Take your luxury afternoon tea to new heights by upgrading to include champagne. Elevate every moment with a glass of bubbly, adding a touch of glamour to your regal affair. Whether you’re celebrating a special occasion or simply treating yourself to a lavish afternoon, our champagne upgrade promises to make your experience truly unforgettable.


In conclusion, the tradition of afternoon tea is a delightful blend of history, gastronomy, and social grace. From the elegant tea service and varied menu to the wide array of tea selections and inclusive indulgences, afternoon tea offers a unique experience that caters to a multitude of tastes and preferences. Whether you’re observing the ritual in a historic venue or indulging in a modern twist on the tradition, afternoon tea is a timeless experience that continues to captivate and charm its participants. So, why not join in the tradition and savour the quintessential afternoon tea experience for yourself?

Contact us 

Don’t hesitate to contact us if you’d like help planning your Afternoon Tea in London.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who started the tradition of afternoon tea?

The tradition of afternoon tea was started by Anna Russell, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, in the 1840s.

What is the dress code for afternoon tea?

The dress code for afternoon tea can range from country club or business casual to formal attire, but sportswear and trainers are generally considered inappropriate. Choose your attire accordingly for the venue you are attending and if in doubt check before you visit.

What does the afternoon tea menu include?

The afternoon tea menu typically includes finger sandwiches, warm scones with clotted cream and jam, as well as a selection of sweet pastries and cakes. Enjoy!

What types of tea are served at afternoon tea?

At afternoon tea, guests can choose from a wide array of teas, including classics like Earl Grey and traditional English breakfast tea, as well as herbal options such as peppermint and chamomile. The selection also includes a variety of true teas, including green, white, oolong, black, and pu-erh.

Are there any etiquette rules for afternoon tea?

Yes, there are specific etiquette rules for afternoon tea, such as stirring tea gently and quietly and eating sandwiches and scones with fingers, but avoiding licking your fingers or utensils. That said most importantly, have fun and enjoy your experience!


About the author

Denisa holds the highest UK qualification for tourist guiding, the Blue Badge. She also holds a Management in Tourism degree and a National Tour guiding certificate for the Czech Republic. Denisa’s employment history has covered many roles within the tourism sector, she couples this with the ability to speak several languages. Denisa runs our customer-facing business, she frequently enjoys days spent guiding clients and authors our blogs.

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