Wander With Wonder contains affiliate links. If you click through and make a purchase, we may earn a commission, at no additional cost to you. We thank you for your help — it is what keeps Wander With Wonder bringing you great content.
I fell in love with the idea of afternoon tea as a child. My grandmother, on special Saturday afternoons, would invite me to her house for afternoon tea. She had a pretty little teapot and cups, with beautiful plates that matched. We would eat her pound cake, sip tea, and talk. Just the two of us. It was a special time. As an adult, in my travels, I have often discovered that afternoon tea transports me back to those happy moments. There is nothing more relaxing for me than afternoon tea in London. When I can't travel, creating an English afternoon tea in my dining room is one way to bring travel home.
History of Afternoon Tea
We all think of afternoon tea as a British tradition. While it definitely started in London, most people find it surprising that it didn't begin until about 1840. According to history (perhaps a bit of folklore tucked into the story), Duchess Anna of Bedford was always hungry about 4 p.m. However, as is still the British custom, the evening meal is not served before at least 8 p.m. The duchess requested tea, cake, bread, and butter brought to her each afternoon. The tradition gained popularity. By the 1880s, it was a highlight of the day among society women,
If you watch Bridgerton on Netflix, you can get a glimpse of what afternoon tea might have been like in the 19th century. I have loved seeing that tradition carried on around the world in my travels.
Afternoon Tea in London
If you ever travel to London, I recommend that you book afternoon tea. Don't let the idea that you aren't a tea drinker stop you. It's all about the experience. Most of the major hotels serve afternoon tea, as do many restaurants.
I have enjoyed several over the years, but my favorite was enjoying afternoon tea at The Capital London with my friend and fellow travel writer, Shannon Hurst DalPozzal. We were hosted for two days at the hotel before we embarked on a week in a little cottage in Ely, outside of London. We so enjoyed our afternoon tea, sitting for several hours talking, sipping tea, and watching London outside the window.
The Capital serves traditional afternoon tea. It begins with lovely finger sandwiches–smoked salmon, cucumber, and more. We ordered Champagne for the beginning and sipped our bubbles while we nibbled the sandwiches. My favorite part is that they bring the steaming pots of tea along with piping hot fresh scones. Of course, the scones come with Cornish clotted cream (a bit like whipped butter, but so much better) and strawberry preserves. I take my Earl Grey tea with a bit of cream, just like my grandmother always did. After the scones, the tea ends with a 3-tiered tray of sweets. These little homemade cakes and pastries were so beautiful. And, if you find one you particularly love, they'll bring more.
Afternoon Tea Around the World
You can find traditional afternoon teas across Canada, particularly at the beautiful Fairmont hotels. I've enjoyed lovely afternoon tea in such diverse places as Long Beach, California; Portland, Oregon; on safari in Zambia; and oceanside at the Moana Surfrider in Hawaii.
While many of the afternoon tea experiences were a nod to the British tradition, others interpret the experiences through a lens of local customs, traditions, and cuisines. For example, when my husband Bill and I went to Bali, we spent a few nights at RIMBA Jimbaran BALI by Ayana and experienced the Indonesian afternoon tea.
We sat outdoors on the open patio and sipped local teas, including one of my favorites, a Jasmine Green, or the Hibiscus tea that my husband sampled. The 3-tiered tray of delectable treats included a scone with homemade cream and jam, local cakes, and sweet treats. Something you might always see during afternoon tea in Bali are the sticky rice balls known as klepon, which are usually green (shown at the right in the below picture). Other favorites include pisang goreng, or deep-fried bananas, which are in the center front of the photo. My favorite was lapis legit, or the thousand-layer cake, with Dutch origins. Those are the slices at the left of the photo below.
You can find unique twists on afternoon tea right here in the U.S. For example, Elizabeth Rose shares her experience with a Russian tea in Portland for Wander readers. I also attended the Tipsy Tea at The Camby in Phoenix, Arizona. At the Bees Knees inside this boutique hotel, you can sip boozy-infused tea cocktails and nibble on sweet and savory treats. Be sure to check on availability during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Passing on the Afternoon Tea Tradition
I began my love of tea with my grandmother, so I wanted to share that tradition with my granddaughters. I had enjoyed an afternoon tea at The Phoenician in Phoenix, Arizona with my mom. I was impressed with how well the resort emulates the British tradition, so I decided it would be perfect to share with my girls.
The girls—then age 6 and 9—and their mom joined me at The Phoenician, along with photographer Debby Wolvos, who came to document the celebration. The girls thrilled at having their own pots of tea.
We started with the traditional finger sandwiches. These are kids with 5-star palates, so smoked salmon was a favorite.
Of course, when it was time, the sweet treats were a hit. Both girls (and the two bigger girls) chose one—or more—of everything. The chocolate-dipped strawberries and shortcake were the two favorites.
The girls so enjoyed the afternoon tea at The Phoenician that they still ask me, four years later, when we are going again. I had to laugh a few months after our afternoon tea when the 6-year-old received an invitation to a children's tea. She was thoroughly unimpressed with the PBJ sandwiches they served. She had expected smoked salmon!
Creating an Afternoon Tea at Home
When you want to bring travel home, you can create your own afternoon tea at home.
This is an occasion when you might want to dress up. Remember those tea parties as a young child? You want an adult version of the perfect afternoon tea party. This is a special occasion, so go ahead and wear that special outfit.
You're also going to want to create just the right feel. Only you know exactly what you want. If you want to go outdoors, you can create the feeling of an English garden experience.
If you prefer to stay indoors, you can set up your dining room and imagine a setting from the 1880s. Put on some mood music and while away a couple of hours sipping tea and eating cakes and scones.
Many afternoon teas now also include a glass of bubbly, as I mentioned earlier. As I'm fond of saying, “There's never a bad time for champagne.” You might want a glass of classic French champagne, or you can check out these recommendations for a wonderful American sparkling wine.
Checklist for an Afternoon Tea at Home
You can go traditional, white linen or liven it up with a lovely springtime motif for your tablecloth. Be creative and find something that makes you feel happy and helps you relax. I love to explore the tablecloth options on Etsy. These are a couple of my favorites.
English Gardens Round Tablecloth
You're going to want some type of a tea set with a teapot, teacups, and plates for your pastries and scones. Some people prefer to go flowery and traditional.
You might check out The Delicate Dish on Etsy if you want those classic teapots and place settings. It's always fun to mix and match.
Or, perhaps you prefer to go modern and sleek. There is no right or wrong. Choose what speaks to you. I love the sleek lines of this modern ceramic tea set, also available on Etsy from Blooming Flower Tea.
You're going to want the right tea for your afternoon tea. If you have a teapot and strainer, I suggest going with a looseleaf tea. There is an amazing flavor that you only get from steeping the leaves. However, there are some great teas already in bags that you might want to consider. Personally, I prefer Earl Grey tea or perhaps an Assam for afternoon tea. I love the tea from Harney and Sons for Earl Grey and Assam.
I also enjoy the aromatic sweetness of Jasmine Green Tea and this is a tea I order to keep on hand. I usually have at least one cup of this every day. These are in little sachets, so you don't have to strain the tea.
Plenty of Great Food
Of course, you need to have some treats to go with your tea. I recommend every tea include warm scones. Make these ahead and warm them up just before tea time. I suggest you use a recipe for a traditional British scone. While American versions tend to be sweet, the traditional scone is not sweet. This is a good recipe if you want to make your own scones.
If you prefer to start out with a mix, I recommend this one from Stonewall Kitchen. I don't think they're quite as good as the real thing, but it is much easier.
You will want to serve your scones with clotted cream, which is available in most gourmet sections of the store. You can also make your own clotted cream by heating and separating heavy whipping cream. This recipe walks you through the steps. And don't forget that you need that strawberry jam. I recommend Wilkin & Sons, which you can order online.
Every afternoon tea needs finger sandwiches. These don't need to be complicated and you can get creative with even everyday ingredients.
Don't forget the desserts. I suggest that you choose little bite-sized treats. You can make them yourself, or order up some special goodies from a local bakery.
Traditional 3-Tiered Dessert Stand
Don't forget to get the 3-tiered stand for all of your sweet treats. You can find fun modern ones, pretty ceramic stands, or I love this fun resin 3-tiered stand available on Etsy from SimplySanDIY. It is safe for food and has pretty wildflowers pressed inside.
I invite you to bring a bit of England home and enjoy afternoon tea at home. This is such a comforting part of my life. I hope you find the same joy from sipping a cup of tea. You can also check out these other ideas on ways to bring travel home. When you are ready to travel to England for your own cup of tea, be sure to check out what the Wander writers recommend.