What is high tea? Places to explore and tips on hosting high tea at home

Updated: Aug 23, 2021

We have all heard of high tea (or morning / afternoon tea) - what’s the tradition behind it and what makes it so popular?

High tea setting at home with loose leaf organic tea served in porcelain china alongside teacups and patisserie.
High tea at home with a pot of steaming tea served with pastries.

Let's look into high tea in this blog post covering these three aspects:

  • Where did high tea originate from?

  • Best places to go and visit to experience some amazing tea and snacks,

  • Tips on how to put on high tea at home.

Let's start with the history.

What is high tea?

It all originated in Victorian England. Traditionally, high tea was a meal working people in England ate at about 6pm in place of a late dinner. This is believed to have been started by the 7th Duchess of Bedford in the mid 1800s, who found herself in need of sustenance between lunch and dinner. She started inviting friends to join her and it took off. So essentially, high tea is an english tradition of drinking a late afternoon tea served with sandwiches, pastries, tarts etc. It typically occurred between 5 - 7pm and didn’t consist of hot, cooked meals. It was supposed to be light and elegant. In England, it is still referred to as afternoon tea, but in many other countries high tea is the norm.

Other parts of the world have adapted this tradition and turned it into a mid-morning or a mid-afternoon gathering where tea is served along with little scones packed with strawberry jam and cream, finger sandwiches (cucumber and cream cheese being the most popular ones), fruits, crackers and more. It’s quite a popular meeting format for baby showers, hens parties or family gatherings. It can often be a dedicated social gathering to bring the community together - some great examples are Cancer Council's Biggest Morning Tea, Sconetime in regional Australia to combat loneliness amongst the elderly. We love these initiatives because it’s very much in line with how we think here at Oolo - do something good with something (seemingly) small and watch the impactful magic happen. Back to high tea though.

What tea can I serve during high tea?

A steaming pot of tea often served in beautiful porcelain teacups is an iconic tradition when it comes to enjoying high tea. Typical tea type served is black Ceylon tea, and again, it goes all the way back to Victorian England as that’s how it was drunk. However, this can vary depending on your (or your guests) individual preferences. It can be any type of green tea or even herbal (I love to have peppermint with my high tea, it helps with all the sweetness from cakes and muffins!). As long as you do have some sort of tea featured during your high tea, it’s all good. We strongly recommend loose leaf tea - it’s a special kind of gathering and you want to make the most of your brewed tea.

What food goes with high tea?

It can be anything really as long as it’s fairly ‘sandwitch-y’ like. The rule is ‘no hot food’. Food such as cakes, finger sandwiches, patisserie, muffins, fruits, crackers and of course scones are the most popular. These days, it often comes with champagne or any types of bubbles (such as prosecco or sparkling white wine) and is considered to be a little bit more celebratory than back in the day. Nice loose leaf tea and celebratory bubbles go well (and no, this doesn’t mean it’s a ‘bubble tea’).

How can I make high tea at home?

It’s a fairly easy and quite satisfying gathering format to put on when you want to get together with your friends and family. Like we have outlined in this post, it’s basically tea with little cakes and sandwiches. Scones with jam and cream are a really good idea (it’s usually the winner when I host my high tea). You can add some fruits, chocolates, cakes, olives - whatever you fancy, really! If you want it to be a little bit more special you can always serve your pot of tea and little bits and pieces on a special high tea/cake stand along with some celebratory bubbles. The right way to set the table is to place a small cake plate in front of each chair with the cup and saucer to the top right of the plate. If you are serving bubbles and water add these on the right side as well for each person. You can also decorate the table - I love adding candles, native flowers and other table decorations - it makes everything seem so much more special. Be creative - there are plenty of ideas around.

What are the best places to go to for high tea in Australia?

There are a few famous places that offer an amazing high tea experience. We will focus on Melbourne and Sydney here.

Sydney and surroundings:


Key takeaways

High tea is a lovely gathering format that can be enjoyed at a venue or at home. As long as you have a pot of beautiful steaming loose leaf tea with some tasty finger food type patisserie and sandwiches you are all set!

Share your ideas for hosting a high tea or add other places you went to and enjoyed. You can always hop on our forum to chat with others about this topic.