High tea on a low budget: You don’t need to be royalty to sip a nice cuppa in London

Brigit's Bakery photo
Brigit’s Bakery combines afternoon tea and a bus tour of London for 45 pounds (about $56). (Megan Forrester/MEDILL)

By Megan Forrester

Medill Reports

LONDON — If you find pure bliss in choosing between English breakfast or chamomile, try a true pinkies-up high tea experience in London. 

I still dream about the moist cucumber finger sandwiches, floral china cups and marmalade jam at the Dorchester Hotel, where I once sipped on my parents’ dime. But now, as a graduate student, an elaborate spread is not in the tea leaves, and I’m not the only one craving authentic British tea and buttery-soft scones without the hefty price tag.

“I went to afternoon tea with my daughter recently at the Ritz as a special treat for her birthday. It came to over 200 pounds (about $250),” said Carri Hecks, the client account manager for Camellia’s Tea House, a wholesale tea company that partners with hotels and spas across the United Kingdom. Most often, services at five-star hotels are 85-100 pounds (approximately $106-$125) per person, not including the U.K.’s automatic 12.5% service fee.

Unfortunately, coupons for bargain afternoon tea are nonexistent. “You do have to set aside the money and treat yourself,” Hecks said. “It’s a massive indulgence.”

Could I find budget-friendly places for high tea – more accurately referred to as afternoon tea? Mission: Possible. 

Traditional afternoon tea experiences, minus the credit card debt

Afternoon tea began in the 19th century, when the Duchess of Bedford reportedly experienced a “sinking feeling” between lunch and dinner, and ordered tea and light snacks — as legend has it, she nibbled bread, butter and cake. Shortly thereafter, the place for this activity became a gossipy watering hole, where the upper class would sip tea and chomp on finger food that did not require a fork and knife. 

Alas, a Queen Victoria-like experience comes at a steep price. Fortunately, instead of coughing up hundreds of pounds at the Savoy or Four Seasons Park Lane, you can try other hotels that offer signature afternoon teas for about half the cost. 

With breathtaking views of the Strand and old-school china plates, The Clermont, Charing Cross serves pistachio macarons, salmon finger sandwiches and English breakfast tea for 65 pounds per person (around $82). Similarly, for 45.50 pounds per person (around $57), the Vintry & Mercer hotel features a lemongrass and ginger tea, scepter-shaped chocolates and savory roast beef fit for a queen (who is counting her pence).

Charing Cross Photo
The Clermont, Charing Cross, in the heart of the West End, features a traditional afternoon tea full of five-star luxury, but at half the price of many London hotels. (Megan Forrester/MEDILL)

But if posh and luxury still call your name, afternoon tea expert Eileen Donaghey suggests getting  “cream tea,” which is simply tea and scones, at lavish hotels and restaurants for a fraction of the price. The Wolseley, in Mayfair, for example, offers a cream tea for just 17 pounds (around $21).

“If you were on a budget, that would be a good way to have a similar experience, but at a lower cost,” Donaghey said. 

Bakeries, restaurants and pubs put their own spin on afternoon tea 

Want something fast, cheap yet still very British? Many restaurants, pubs and bakeries throughout central London provide modern twists on afternoon tea. 

“In the last seven years, more and more venues look at it as a way of bringing in more revenue in the afternoon, when it’s a bit quieter,” Donaghey said. 

Anyone obsessed with tea, pink and a good deal should drool over Peggy Porschen Belgravia, a short walk from Buckingham Palace. “Everyone wants to go and get their picture taken there,” Donaghey said. For 39 pounds (around $49) per person, the morning tea includes avocado toast, eggs Florentine, smoked salmon and an artisan tea selection (anything from matcha to rose-flavored tea). 

Cutter & Squidge, a bakery in Soho known for its Instagram-worthy birthday cakes, also hosts a wizarding-themed afternoon tea that includes scones, brownie bites, a trio of savory rolls and unlimited “potions” of tea and coffee, starting at 45 pounds (around $56) per person. 

Peggy photo
Peggy Porschen Belgravia is a wallet-friendly, Instagram-worthy spot for afternoon tea in central London. (Megan Forrester/MEDILL)

Finally, a bakery that is kicking afternoon tea into fourth gear is Brigit’s Bakery, in Covent Garden. At 45 pounds (around $56) per person, it takes place aboard a converted 1960s London red bus. Instead of fragile glass mugs, the unlimited tea is served in pink souvenir mugs and placed in convenient cup holders (lest one spills the remnants of their chai while taking in the sights of Notting Hill). 

Kira Worysz, a 41-year-old American tea enthusiast, attended the “Classic Afternoon Tea Bus London Sightseeing Tour,” which combines quiches and tea with views of Kensington Palace and Big Ben. “This is a great alternative option,” she said. “You are able to do a couple of touristy things all at once.” 

Put on the kettle at home

Maybe the closest you can get to London is watching “The Great British Bake Off” on the couch while leafing through the latest issue of HELLO! magazine. Do not fret. Donaghey, author of “A Beginner’s Guide to Afternoon Tea at Home,” suggests tips and tricks for this experience. 

“It doesn’t need to be quite fancy or elaborate,” she said. “It’s just one or two sandwiches, one type of scone and a cake to share. It is a more cost-effective option.” 

Don’t cheap out and buy a bulk pack of Lipton. Tea shops like Whittard Chelsea and Twinings (the oldest tea shop in London and the first producer of Earl Grey tea) sell traditional blends and unique packs — like golden caramel or even hot chocolate — for just around 9 pounds (around $11) a box, both in-store and online.

DIY still requires British etiquette, with Hecks imploring newbies to never tear apart the scone completely nor cover the entire surface in jam. Dab on just a little per bite.

Regardless of whether you don the poofiest of floral gowns or rock a pair of Paddington pajama pants, Hecks encourages every tea drinker to experiment with different flavors, sip with loved ones and judiciously spread the marmalade. 

“Imagine you’re going out for dinner, and you don’t want the house wine. Go for something you would not necessarily have tried before,” Hecks said. “There’s a whole world of tea out there beyond English breakfast. It’s good to spread your tea wings and try something different.” 

Megan Forrester is a magazine graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter (X) at @meganbforrester.