Sipping tea in rarefied surroundings is a simple treat that can turn a fun city break into something truly memorable. High (or afternoon) tea, involving delicate cakes, buttery scones and the occasional glass of bubbly, is an English tradition dating back to the 1840s. So it’s unsurprising that the world’s best spots to indulge in this culinary luxury can be found in former British imperial outposts, often at swanky, high-end hotels.
Whether you’re after some London glamour or an alternative Singaporean take on the classic afternoon tea, here’s our pick of the best the world has to offer.
Eastern & Oriental, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Hidden down a long corridor stretching from a vast, opulent foyer, the E&O’s tea room in Penang is as traditionally English as you’ll find this far east of the Kentish countryside. You’ll realise you’re not in Blighty only when you look past your lavishly laid table and see the glorious sea-front palm garden. The huge tea menu, which includes delicious local Malaysian Boh infusions as well as classic Indian and Chinese teas, is supplemented by moreish finger sandwiches (the beef-and-horseradish is delicious) and an impressive array of petit fours.
Erawan Tea Room, Grand Hyatt Hotel, Bangkok, Thailand
It might be in one of Bangkok’s fanciest crash pads, but the Erawan’s Tea Room offers a totally different take on the traditional English afternoon tea. Although you’ll find refreshing Indian, Sri Lankan and, of course, Thai teas, the food is local, with savoury and sweet delights from the country that offers Southeast Asia’s finest cuisine. Formal chairs and modern sofas are liberally mixed in a relaxed room overlooking the Erawan Shrine.
The Strand, Yangon, Myanmar (Burma)
Built by the same brothers who founded the E&O, and a favourite of Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling, Yangon’s Strand hotel is one of the city’s few grand colonial structures that hasn’t fallen into disrepair. A room costs the better part of $400, so the $18 afternoon tea is a steal by comparison. Offered in the Strand Grill restaurant on wide wicker chairs and under choppy ceiling fans, the tea service’s scones and sandwiches come piled high on a tiered cake stand. The petit fours may look too delicate to eat, but don’t let that stop you from scoffing them.
Claridge's, London, UK
London is spoilt for high teas, with the Patisserie Valerie chain and the Wolseley offering excellent – and affordable – versions. But Claridge's is the pinnacle of this afternoon art form. The classic afternoon tea costs £39 per person plus service, and there’s a smart-casual dress code – but boy, is it worth stumping up for. Raisin-and-apple scones with clotted cream follow as many sandwiches as you can eat, and that’s after you’ve chosen from an array of 40 teas. Served in the hotel’s foyer, this is a must-do on any visit to London.
House, Dempsey Hill, Singapore
Far less traditional than rival hotels’ offerings, Singapore's House holds a ‘Vintage High Tea’ every Thursday and Friday afternoon in its former British barracks home. A snip at 22 SGD, it’s served as a swanky buffet, with tables sagging under the weight of huge cakes (try the lemon-and-pistachio sponge for starters) and savoury treats – and you can reload your plate as often as you want. The squid-ink pizza is a great alternative to the sandwiches you’ll find at standard high teas.
Tea & Sympathy, New York, USA
New York has plenty of full-on high tea spots where you can enjoy fancy service and dainty nibbles (The Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel is especially good). But if you want hefty scones, homemade strawberry or raspberry jam and sandwiches that you’d find at tea on the lawn of an English stately home, then Tea & Sympathy is the go-to place.
Mount Nelson Hotel, Cape Town, South Africa
Cape Town’s Mount Nelson Hotel serves up one of the finest afternoon teas you’ll ever set your eyes on. The cucumber sandwiches melt in the mouth, the scones rival those at Claridge's, and the lemon meringue alone is worth the R135 price tag. There’s a local flavour too, thanks to the melktert, a delicious milk tart that’s an absolute must-have. Every tea imaginable is on offer, even one made with rose petals from the Mount Nelson’s gardens.