It was the seventh Duchess of Bedford that first introduced the idea of afternoon tea to friends in 1840. She felt a pot of tea, light sandwiches and a little cake served at 4pm was a perfect pick-me-up, and just the thing to keep her going until dinner. The idea soon caught on and by the mid-1800s, top London hotels started serving indulgent afternoon teas to guests and visitors. The tradition continues today, with many hotels, cafés and tearooms offering a classic three-tiered china stand packed with finger sandwiches, fluffy scones and mouth-watering cakes and petit fours.
Best for fairytale magic: The Sanderson
Fans of Lewis Caroll’s magical Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland will love The Sanderson hotel’s quirky homage to the book. The afternoon tea takes inspiration from the Mad Hatter’s tea party, offering guests an oddball array of food served in the enchanting courtyard garden. Expect colourful sandwiches made from saffron and beetroot breads, and alternative sweets, such as hot and cold lollies, playful cakes that say "eat me", and an exciting, three-flavoured drink served in a small bottle labelled "drink me".
50 Berners Street, W1. T: 020-7300 1400. www.sandersonlondon.com/
Best for a grand experience: The Savoy
Originally founded as London’s first luxury hotel in 1889, The Savoy reopened following a £220-million refurbishment in 2010 and has since reaffirmed its status as the grandest hotel in the capital. Tea is served in the plush Thames Foyer, where a domed glass roof fills the space with light and a pianist plays beneath an intricate birdcage-like structure. Luxurious lounge chairs, ornate chandeliers and pretty Wedgwood china complete the setting, while a refined and generous afternoon tea is served by friendly and efficient waiting staff.
Strand, WC2. T: 020-7420 2111. www.fairmont.com/savoy-london
Best for vast tea selection: Fortnum & Mason
Renamed the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon and opened by the Queen herself in March 2012, Fortnum & Mason’s top-floor dining room remains one of the most tranquil and refined places to take tea in London. The Royal grocers and department store has been sourcing and selling tea for some 300 years, and has channeled its experience into an expansive menu featuring more than 80 single estate teas, blends and tisanes. Together with the tea, you’ll be offered a selection of well-filled finger sandwiches, moreish scones and sweets from the cake carriage.
181 Piccadilly, W1. T: 020-7734 8040. www.fortnumandmason.com
Best for the oldest tea in London: The Langham
The Ritz may be London’s most famous afternoon tea destination, but it’s The Langham that served the city’s first hotel afternoon tea back in 1865. It continues to out-do The Ritz even today, offering visitors a superior selection of teas, dainty finger sandwiches and warm scones in the glitzy, comfortable Palm Court dining room. Pastry chef Cherish Finden also turns out incredible patisserie, from mouthwatering salted caramels, to achingly sweet macaroons.
1c Portland Place, W1B. T: 020-7965 0195. london.langhamhotels.co.uk
Best for home comforts: The Athenaeum
The Athenaeum hotel serves its afternoon tea in The Garden Room, where lush plants surround the glass walls and sofas and lounge chairs create a relaxed, homely feel. Staff are friendly and attentive and leave you plenty of time to enjoy you finger sandwiches, scones and crumpets, before coming around with a cake trolley packed with French fancies and British classics. You can opt for a few smaller sweets—a chocolate-dipped strawberry, mini-Bakewell tart or raspberry macaroon, for example—or tackle a slice of chocolate gateau or piece of creamy cheesecake.
116 Piccadilly, W1. T: 020-7499 3464. www.athenaeumhotel.com