London - Tourists & Tea
When I'm planning a trip I often have an internal debate, should I spend my time in one city to really get a feel for it or squeeze in as many destinations as possible? With a major city like London it's a no brainer. My friend Katy and I spent a (mostly) leisurely ten days in the city. We were able to take our time exploring London and took a lovely day trip to Oxford. But even with well over a week to sight see, our last day crept up on us. Suddenly we had a handful of places to see and things to do, all within a span of 12 hours.
We started our day at the massive National Gallery. It's free (!!!) and full of masterpieces essential to the canon of Art History. It's also huge and kind of exhausting to navigate. And we didn't even attempt to conquer the National Portrait Gallery. There's so much great art in London that it can be a little overwhelming. For a slightly more manageable art experience, make sure to visit the lovely Courtauld Gallery, which houses many important Impressionist and Post-Impressionist pieces.
But back to The National Gallery, here's a list of paintings that you should make certain to view during your visit. As a former Art History major, I was thrilled to see so many of the pieces I had once studied, like 'Madonna of the Rocks' by da Vinci, Manet's 'Music in the Tuileries Gardens' and, especially, 'The Arnolfini Portrait' by van Eyck. In person, the latter was much smaller than I expected. But that just made the level of detail involved all the more impressive.
After a few hours immersed in the museum, we found a wonderfully sunny London waiting outside. We paused for some photos at Trafalgar Square then looped around Big Ben, Westminster Abbey and, finally, Buckingham Palace. We didn't stay for the changing of the guard, just stopped for a peak before heading to posh tea emporium, Fortnum & Mason. The multi-storied Piccadilly location is enormous, with a floor full of teas and treats, one for china, and their own tea room (next time!)
We spent entirely too much time ogling the hundreds of teas, jam, and sweets, then debating which to take home as gifts and souvenirs. I left with two tins of cream biscuits (lemon marmalade and chocolate covered orange,) two jars of preserves (amazing lemon curd and gooseberry & elderflower) plus a box of Countess Gray tea, a delightful smoky citrus blend that I have been carefully doling out since the trip. All that shopping for tea had us ready to try some, so we set off for our final London indulgence, the most British of pastimes, afternoon tea.
There are tons of options when it comes to traditional afternoon tea in London and, after a little research, we chose Brown's Hotel in Mayfair. Doing my homework, I learned that afternoon tea and high tea are not interchangeable terms. Traditionally, afternoon tea was more of a luxury for the upper classes, a sustaining bridge between midday and a late evening meals. While High Tea was a full, heavier meal, served around 6pm, to hungry members of the working class after a long day. Tea at Brown's falls firmly in the luxury category and it's evident as soon as you step into the hotel. Our coats were quickly whisked away and we were settled onto plush, low couches. Afternoon tea is an experience, an expensive, fancy experience.
The menu at Brown's features around 17 teas and I wish I could recall which I ordered. I do remember that both Katy and I were pleased with our selections. Our teas were delivered promptly followed by an elegant tower of delicious things. You absolutely won't leave hungry. Knowing that tea would be both pricey and filling, we prepared by eating breakfast then smartly abstaining until our reservation. From top to bottom, all treats are continually replenished on request. Including the perfectly trimmed and filled finger sandwiches. From left to right: cucumber, smoked salmon, roast beef, egg salad, and chicken salad. I enjoyed all, but my favorites were the salads, chicken and egg.
If you've never been lucky enough to try clotted cream, you should get on that asap. Though the name is kind of terrible, clotted cream in fact tastes like pure, unsweetened whipped cream with a thick, almost sticky texture. Paired with loosely set strawberry jam on top of a tender scone, it's basically heaven. Brown's petite scones are delivered separately from the rest of the tea tower, so they're fresh and warm from the oven.
At the top of the tea tower is a plate of sweets, varieties change seasonally. We were served a cup of chocolate moose, a darling pistachio eclair, a raspberry filled tea cake, an oversized macaron, and a two-bite fruit tart. I admit that I filled up on scones and sandwiches so I don't remember much about these, especially after a trolley came around, delivering slices of chocolate cream and vanilla strawberry cake.
Although the setting and service was quite formal, we never felt uncomfortable. In fact, it was quite fun to observe the visitors surrounding us. A clearly affluent couple to our left breezed in for some champagne and tea then left after just a few bites from their tower of food. Meanwhile, to our right, a pair of girls were clearly making a day of it, having arrived before us and still there as we took our leave. We too made the most of our time, taking seconds of sandwiches and scones along with several refills of hot water for our tea.
Booking ahead at Brown's is recommended. It's super easy to do online, just a few clicks and a credit card and we had our reservation. We were a little early for our seating, but it was no problem. Tables are reserved for 90 minutes but we were never rushed in any way, perhaps it would be a different story during prime weekend hours. Spending a leisurely afternoon at Brown's was a wonderful way to end our trip to London. Even if it was a bit of a budget buster it was one of the most memorable experiences of the visit.