Start your kettle and set out your saucer, because we’ve got the ultimate guide to throwing a top-notch tea party. From recipes and favor ideas to fun facts and brew recommendations, it’s everything you need for a relaxing afternoon.
History of Afternoon Tea
Novelist Henry James famously said: “There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” This ritual is a well-known British pastime that got its start on the island in the 17th century, thanks to King Charles II and his Portuguese wife Catherine de Braganza. (It’s important to note that tea has been enjoyed in other regions for millennia. It’s been said a Chinese emperor accidentally invented it when leaves blew into his pot of boiling water.)
But back to Britain—when King Charles married Catherine, her father shipped gifts, including a chest of tea, a favorite drink at the Portuguese court. Tea was so rare in England at the time that it’s been said that when Catherine first set foot in Portsmouth she asked for a cup of tea and was offered ale instead.
Tea’s high import price made it fashionable in aristocratic circles and at the royal court, but the pleasure of an afternoon cup didn’t start trickling down to the rest of society until closer to 1840, when Anna Russell, the seventh Duchess of Bedford requested a tray of tea, bread, butter, and cake to be delivered between lunch and dinner. Anna began inviting friends, and by the 1880’s, upper-class women were changing into long gowns and donning hats and gloves to enjoy afternoon tea in the drawing rooms of their large estates.
High Tea vs. Afternoon Tea
Before you send out invites, know which type of tea you’re hosting!
Afternoon tea is typically served around three or four o’clock and includes scones, tea sandwiches, and cakes. This style of tea, sometimes known as “low tea” is usually taken at a low table, like a coffee table in the living room or in front of the fire.
High tea is enjoyed in the early evening, and includes more substantial edible offerings, like meat, fish, and egg dishes, as well as breads and desserts. Think of it more like a light supper with tea on the side. This version gets its name from how it’s served—usually at a higher table like a dining table or counter at the end of the workday.
Afternoon Tea Etiquette
Brush up on these tips to avoid a teatime faux pas! (You may even want to print them out for guests to read at the table!)
Serve with style
- Follow the rules: There should be a designated pourer who fills each cup with hot tea one at a time. The full cup should be passed to the recipient before pouring the next. Pour tea over a tea strainer to catch any loose leaves.
- Make it modern: This process works if everyone is drinking the same tea. To serve several varieties, pour hot water for everyone, but let your guests add their favorite tea bag to steep.
Don’t mess with milk (or sugar)
- Follow the rules: Everyone should add their own milk and it’s always poured after the tea. Sugar (if using) can be added after the milk, and stirred by moving the teaspoon back and forth in an up-and-down motion. In some social circles, circular stirring can be seen as inelegant.
- Make it modern: These days, a splash of whole milk isn’t the only way to go. Keep plant-based options like almond or cashew milk on hand, and try alternative sweeteners like agave syrup or honey.
Practice your posture
- Follow the rules: Always sit up straight and spread a napkin on your lap. To drink, hold the cup firmly by the handle and bring it to your mouth—never lean forward to drink, cradle the cup in your hands, or put up your pinky finger. Small sips are preferred, slurping is frowned upon, and be sure to place the cup on its saucer between sips.
- Make it modern: Turn this etiquette tip into a fun activity by seeing how difficult it is to properly drink a cup of tea! If anything, making the effort will be a conversation starter at every table.
Cue the cutlery
- Follow the rules: First things first, scone is pronounced “sconn,” not “scoan.” If you enjoy your pastry with jam and cream, be sure to spoon it onto the side of the plate and break your scone in half lengthwise with your hands (not a knife!)—keep the knife for spreading the condiments.
- Make it modern: A quick pronunciation switch should be easy to make, but don’t worry about the perfect placement of your jam and cream. And while we like the tactile quality of breaking apart a scone with your hands, don’t bother scolding guests who use a knife instead.
Afternoon Tea Around the World
The British might be the most well-known tea drinkers, but lots of other regions enjoy tea rituals. Here’s a look at some of the top destinations!
When it comes to a fancy afternoon tea, there are plenty of iconic destinations to choose from like the Savoy and The Dorchester. You’ll enjoy five-star service, traditional foods like cucumber sandwiches, and an elegant atmosphere (with a sizeable bill to match). Don’t miss afternoon tea at Claridge’s for Scottish salmon and Cornish clotted cream.
Across the pond, you’ll find afternoon tea to be had in both five-star hotels and intimate tea rooms throughout the Big Apple. Make reservations for The Palm Court at the luxurious Plaza hotel (where you can also sip on literary-inspired cocktails), the Russian Tea Room (for champagne and caviar), or enjoy afternoon tea at the Ritz.
Angelenos might not have a history of pausing for afternoon tea, but there are plenty of places to enjoy a lavish experience, like the stunning Getty Villa in seaside Malibu, or the Peninsula in Beverly Hills (harp player included).
Enjoy afternoon tea in Asia! For live piano music, a skyline view from the 28th floor, and inventive desserts like pistachio cream puffs, head to the Shangri-La Hotel. If Imperial Garden views are preferred, snack on bite-size éclairs and freshly baked scones at Andaz Tavern. Before heading home, be sure to pick up tea to-go at specialty shops like Tokyo Saryo (where you can try the world’s first hand-dripped Japanese tea) or Saryo Tsujiri Daimaru, the Tokyo branch of a chain that’s been open since 1860.
How to Plan the Perfect Afternoon Tea Party
Now that you’re well-versed in the history and etiquette of afternoon tea (and have a few destinations on your bucket list), let’s plan the party!
Types of Tea
There’s more to tea than English Breakfast—here’s the lowdown on brews from black to green, and everything in between. Stock your cabinet with Thrive Market and sip on our new line of premium, organic teas that come free from “tea dust”—the fine powder often found in the bottom of your cup. Happy steeping!
Black tea gets its rich, dark color when tea leaves are allowed to fully oxidize before being heat-processed and dried. Oxidation also gives black teas unique flavor profiles that can be malty, fruity, or even smoky, depending on the tea.
Bold and elegant, this popular tea variety would surely be voted most likely to succeed. This blend is full-bodied with oaky and malty undertones, and a higher caffeine content provides a pick-me-up any time of day. Try it with a splash of milk!
Since the 1930s, PG Tips has been making this favorite English blend, and now it’s on this side of the pond! Innovative pyramid bags give the tea more room to float around, so you can enjoy maximum flavor. The tea is also Rainforest Alliance Certified, grown using sustainable methods and helping workers earn a better living.
This aromatic black tea is infused with the essence of bergamot and a few citrusy notes, too. Every cup is delicate, distinctive, and full-bodied—truly a highbrow tea that knows it’s the cream of the crop! Give it nutty notes with a tiny splash of almond extract or even amaretto liqueur, or try a squeeze of lemon.
Woven into everyday customs and ancient rituals—green tea is more than a drink, it’s a way of life. This family of teas is made up of different varieties like sencha, matcha, genmaicha, and more. Its leaves are delicate, so be sure not to over-steep! Sometimes one minute is all you need (just check the recommendations on each box).
Fragrant jasmine flowers make a beautiful pairing in this green tea from Numi Organic that’s layered with subtle fragrance, and fair trade certified.
Revered for centuries, sencha is a quintessential green tea. Made with organic green tea leaves sourced from Japan, each sip is smooth and sweet with a slightly grassy ending.
Yogi Tea has a passion for this warm beverage, and its passion fruit-flavored matcha blend really proves it. Sip it when you’re dreaming of a tropical vacation and enjoy a little mental relaxation!
Technically, herbal tea isn’t tea, because it doesn’t come from the Camellia Sinensis plant. Instead, they’re infusions, or tisanes, made from ingredients like roots, berries, seeds, and spices.
This unique tea blends sweet elderberry and hibiscus with yaupon leaves, which grow wild in the southern U.S. and are part of the yerba mate family. This sip provides a natural caffeine source without the jittery side effects.
Embrace your “me” time. Each cup is brewed with fragrant hibiscus, soothing lavender, calming chamomile, and glowing rose. Cinnamon and cloves add warmth to this heart-opening blend that’s oh so dreamy.
Admired for its beautiful balance of sweet and spicy, “chai” (meaning “tea” in Hindi) has been used for centuries in Ayurveda. Warming and soothing, ours is made from a blend of fair trade, organic, black tea and exotic spices. Pro tip: add milk and honey for the full experience.
Calm and collected, this refreshing, crisp tea has been enjoyed for centuries by ancient Roman and Greeks. Made from organic peppermint leaves, it’s delicious hot or cold!
Tea Party Favors
Want to send your guests home with a little memento? Here are our favorite ways to say “thanks for coming.”
Sometimes all a teacup needs is a little squirt of honey. Pop one of these to-go pods into a bag for your guests to enjoy the next time they’re on the road.
Tea is wonderful on its own, but sometimes a little nibble is in order! These lemon shortbread cookies are tender with a refreshing citrus flavor, and gluten-free!
If cookies aren’t your cup of tea, there’s always chocolate! This bar is made with ethically sourced, organic cacao that’s stone-ground and lightly sweetened with coconut sugar.
They’ll remember your tea party every time they wipe up a spill with this colorful tea towel. Organic cotton will inspire more conscious cleaning!
Enjoy tea at home just like the English. After brewing your tea in a teapot, pour it through the strainer so any loose leaves don’t end up in your cup.
Tea Party Recipes
Sit down to a traditional afternoon tea and you’ll be offered a tray of dainty sandwiches, scones served with clotted cream, fruit preserves, and pastries. We’re in full support of cookies and cakes (see below!) but it’s a nice touch to offer something a bit heartier, too, like grain salads or spiced nuts.
Savory Tea Time Snacks
Scones and clotted cream might be classics, but spruce up the party with these filling dishes.
Gluten-free dough is just the beginning of this twist on a classic pastry. Flax seeds, almond, flour, and coconut oil bind the batter, which gets a superfood boost from black seed (also known as nigella) and turmeric.
With all the sugar to be had (don’t miss the cookies section below!), balance the treats with a bowl of roasted golden and red beets. Star anise, goat cheese, and a splash of red wine vinegar make it extra elegant.
Keep it simple with a platter that’ll offer something for everybody. From nuts and fruit jam to transparent slices of prosciutto and creamy brie, this will be your showstopper.
Make it ahead! These spiced nuts are the perfect nibble to enjoy by the handful. Just toss mixed nuts in fresh rosemary, lemon zest, and a sweet and savory blend of garlic powder, spicy cayenne, ginger, and brown sugar and throw everything in the oven. Done and done.
It doesn’t get much easier than this quick and colorful salad, but the end result is undeniably elevated. Simply toss sliced strawberries with fresh spinach and top it all with a tangy Dijon dressing.
Tea Time Cookies
Pass the cookie plate! These treats deliver incredible flavor— from delicate (lavender and honey) to bold (hazelnut and dark chocolate)—for whatever vibe you’re going for.
You can’t go wrong with these gluten-free mini cookies that are sweetened with unstrained honey and scented with dried lavender. A tart lemon icing finishes each bite.
From the Good Clean Food cookbook, don’t hesitate to make these raw cookie dough bars—no eggs involved! They taste like the real deal thanks to the vanilla-date flavor combo, and we recommend doubling the recipe for a crowd.
These might be the prettiest, laciest cookies you ever did see. They’re slightly crisp and a hint of flaky salt is just enough to cut through the sweetness.
Gluten-free and Paleo-friendly, these nutty cookies are downright delectable with hazelnut flour and generous chunks of chocolate. Go ahead, indulge!
Here’s a gluten-free cookie with a gingery bite. They’re a little fruity thanks to rich pomegranate molasses, but the strong ginger flavor still shines through.
Tea Party Desserts
Did you think we’d stop at cookies? No, ma’am! Bake one of these cakes and finish the party with a sweet slice.
For tea time or anytime, this tea-infused dessert takes the cake. Bonus: no baking required! Mascarpone (Italian cream cheese), whipping cream, and an earl grey-infused simple syrup mix up for an ethereal filling that’s spread between layers of buttery cookies.
An olive oil cake is the perfect centerpiece to any dessert table. Orange juice, rosemary, plus robust oil make for a truly unforgettable flavor combination. (Don’t be surprised if people ask for the recipe before they leave.)
Vegans will be very excited to try a slice of this glazed cake. It’s grain-free and Paleo-friendly (with cassava flour), and the warm spices like nutmeg and clove make it extra inviting. Don’t forget to soak the nuts for the cashew-based frosting overnight!
Could there be anything cuter than a mini lemon cake? We can’t think of anything! These delicate little towers are so darling, no one will guess they came from a boxed cake mix and premade frosting! Simple Mills takes the cake with its delicious GF and grain-free ingredients, making this recipe work for nearly every diet.