Afternoon tea is a classic British tradition. If you love finger sandwiches and decadent pastries, it’s a great way to indulge. But if you’re new to it, it can be a bit intimidating. If you’re in need of helpful tips, today I bring you A Lady in London’s guide to afternoon tea etiquette.

Afternoon Tea Etiquette

Afternoon Tea Etiquette

I realize I’m writing this guide as an expat, so I won’t claim to have been born and raised in the British tea culture.

But I’ve been to enough afternoon teas and talked with enough British friends to have gotten a pretty good grasp on things over the last decade or so.

Reading Watching the English, the expat Bible, has helped as well. If you haven’t read it, you should. You can get it here.

Additionally, I like to think an outsider’s perspective means I’ll cover topics a born-and-bred Brit wouldn’t think to. Like how to pour loose leaf tea (it can be so confusing!).

In any case, the aim of this guide is to cover the basics of afternoon tea etiquette and help you feel confident going for afternoon tea in London or elsewhere in the UK.

Whether you go to a luxury hotel or a casual restaurant, I hope you’ll feel more comfortable knowing the rules and fitting in with the locals.

Afternoon Tea in London

What’s the Best Time for Afternoon Tea?

So what time should you go? People usually have afternoon tea between 3 and 5pm, and 4pm is often cited as the best time for afternoon tea.

Many hotels and restaurants offer it from noon until early evening, though, so you don’t have to stick to the rules if you want to have it earlier or later. Some people go for tea in lieu of lunch, while others go late and use it as an early dinner.

The reason it’s traditionally served between 3 and 5pm is because when it was invented it in the 19th century, afternoon tea was intended to be a time of refreshment for the upper classes between lunch and dinner.

Today there’s enough food to feed an army—many places allow you to have seconds (or even thirds) of anything you order—so a lot of people aren’t hungry for dinner after having tea.

Pastries

What Do You Wear to Afternoon Tea?

Another question people have is what to wear to afternoon tea. The answer depends on where you have it.

If you’re going for tea at one of London’s luxury hotels, afternoon tea etiquette dictates you dress up a bit. I usually wear a dress or a nice skirt and top. Men often wear a jacket and tie.

If you’re going for tea at a casual cafe or restaurant, there’s no need to dress up or change clothes.

Most of the time you’ll be having tea alongside people eating lunch or other meals, so if it’s a casual place to begin with you won’t need to alter your attire for the occasion.

Outdoor Afternoon Tea

How Do You Pour Tea?

One thing that stumps some foreigners is how to pour tea. Many hotels and restaurants serve loose leaf tea, which means the leaves float around in the teapot.

If you pour tea from the teapot directly into the cup, you end up with leaves in your cup. This is neither ideal nor conducive to drinking tea without getting leaves in your mouth.

The tea etiquette here is to take the strainer (your server will have put it somewhere near your teacup), hold it over the cup (or place it on top of the cup if it’s big enough), and pour the tea through the strainer so the leaves stay in the strainer and out of the cup.

When you’re done pouring, place the strainer back onto its holder so any excess tea drains into the holder and not onto the tablecloth. This takes a bit of getting used to, but by the end of afternoon tea you’ll have the hang of it.

Tea Strainer

What’s the Right Way to Hold A Teacup?

I know some foreigners have a stereotype that British people drink tea with their pinky finger sticking out, but I’m sorry to say that’s not actually a thing.

Afternoon tea etiquette is to hold the cup by joining your thumb and index finger in the handle, then support the handle on your middle finger. Pinky in.

Teacup

Do You Put Milk or Tea in the Cup First?

Whether you pour milk or tea into your cup first is a subject of much debate in Britain. Everyone seems to have a strong opinion.

That said, I will tell you what my Scottish grandmother told me when I was a child. She said that in times past, poor people drank from cheap cups that would break or crack if they poured hot water directly into them.

As such, they would pour milk in first so the cups would stay intact when they came into contact with the hot tea.

Today that’s not a problem, so you’re free to do what you like. That said, some people will say afternoon tea etiquette dictates you put the tea in first if you want to act like a proper aristocrat from the 19th century.

Once the milk is in, stir the tea back and forth, shake the spoon gently over the cup once to get the excess tea off, and put the spoon back on the saucer.

Afternoon Tea Pastries

Which Teas Do You Drink with Milk?

Whether you put milk in your tea at all is another subject for debate. Generally speaking, people have black tea with milk, and green tea and herbal infusions without.

That said, some people argue that Earl Grey tea should never be taken with milk even though it’s a black tea. Other people always put milk in Earl Grey.

Still others drink all black teas without milk. Given there’s so much variation, you can really do what you want. The same goes for sugar. If you want it, have it. If not, don’t.

Hotel Restaurant in London

Should Milk Be Hot or Cold?

As far as hot or cold milk, many British people feel passionately that you should only drink tea with cold milk. You can order hot milk, but you might get disapproving looks from those around you.

It always surprises me that people feel so strongly about this subject, and yet nobody has ever been able to tell me why it’s so important to have cold milk (and I’ve asked a lot of people). I think it’s one of those things that just is.

Afternoon Tea in London

Do You Put Jam or Cream on Scones First?

Whether you put jam or clotted cream on your scones first might be the biggest debate in Britain. As with the milk question, everyone seems to have a different opinion.

Because of that, you’re free to make your own choice on this one. If you’re at afternoon tea with a British person, it’s a fun subject to get their opinion on (trust me, they’ll have one).

Scones

In What Order Do You Eat Things at Afternoon Tea?

If you’re wondering what order to eat afternoon tea in, it’s pretty straightforward. Usually the food is served on a three-tiered tray, with sandwiches or savories on the bottom, scones in the middle, and pastries on the top.

Afternoon tea etiquette is to eat the sandwiches first, then the scones, then the pastries. Some places will serve the food in courses, so you won’t have to worry about remembering the order.

Finger Sandwiches

Do You Eat Everything With a Knife and Fork at Afternoon Tea?

Regardless of the order in which you eat things, you’ll have to navigate whether to eat them with a knife and fork. Sometimes the answer is obvious, while others it can be a bit confusing.

Afternoon tea etiquette dictates that people eat the sandwiches with their fingers. Pretty simple.

Scones are a different story. You gently break the scones in half with your hands before spreading jam and clotted cream on them with a knife.

You don’t sandwich the scones back together afterwards. You eat each half on its own with your fingers.

Pastries are a bit more complicated, as some are small enough to eat with your hands, and others require the use of a fork. You can use your judgement on this one.

Afternoon Tea in London

How Long Does Afternoon Tea Last?

As far as how long afternoon tea lasts, it varies from place to place. If you’re at a more formal afternoon tea in a hotel in London and you’ve opted for champagne, it can last a few hours.

This is also true if you’re somewhere that offers seconds (or thirds) of all the food and you choose to go for more.

If you’re somewhere more casual, you don’t opt for champagne, or you’re at a place where they only do one round of food, it can be quicker.

All this comes with the caveat that some places have a time limit for afternoon tea.

Usually they’ll make this clear when you book, so you’ll know up front that you have an hour and a half or two hours before they need the table back. Some places are strict about this, others less so.

Champagne Pouring into a Glass

What’s the Difference between Afternoon Tea and High Tea?

There’s a big difference between afternoon tea and high tea, so it’s an important part of British tea culture to call it by the right name.

Afternoon tea is what you think of when you think of all the things I’ve been writing about in this blog post about afternoon tea etiquette.

It was originally an aristocratic invention, and was served on low tables in upper class households. As I mentioned previously, the idea was for it to offer light refreshment between lunch and dinner.

In contrast, high tea was a meal servants ate around 6pm. It was served at a high table, hence the name high tea. It consisted of a larger meal and was more a dinner than an afternoon snack.

Afternoon Tea Pastries

What is the Best Afternoon Tea in London?

While there’s no easy answer to the question of “what is the best afternoon tea in London?”, I’ve written a lot of reviews and guides that can help you choose which one best fits your personal style and taste.

You can read my blog posts and reviews about afternoon tea in London to help you decide. If you want my favorites, you can find them in my post about the best afternoon teas in London.

Afternoon Tea

Tea Etiquette

In the end, afternoon tea is about relaxing and having a good time. Don’t worry too much about doing everything exactly right. London is a city full of people from all cultures and backgrounds, and it’s pretty forgiving of faux pas.

Trust me. I’ve made more than my share of mistakes over the years and I’ve lived to tell about them. So enjoy your experience, afternoon tea etiquette (or not) and all.

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Afternoon Tea Etiquette

6 Comments on Lady’s Guide to Afternoon Tea Etiquette

  1. I love going for afternoon tea when I am in London. Am hoping to be back in London again soon and will choose some place different than I have been before. So many choices, it’s hard to narrow it down to just one or two per trip!

  2. Is there a difference between afternoon tea and cream tea? My British family members all use the term cream tea. Thanks!

  3. Thanks so much for your blog. We just moved here for my husband’s work and my graduate program doesn’t start until the end of the month, so I have been exploring London largely on my own (with my dog as much as possible)! As you say, some things that are obvious to Brits are not so obvious to me, so I appreciate your guidance! Also love your walks- we live in Kensington/ Notting Hill so I am definitely using your posts as a to-do list!

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