The Storied Tradition of Afternoon Tea at the Empress

A tea haven in Victoria.

One of the quintessential things about Victoria is its blend of easygoing West Coast culture and British tradition. Tea is a tradition local residents have embraced for decades, and a walk through the city takes you past specialty tea shops, restaurants, and cafés offering afternoon tea. But it’s hard to beat the elegance, history, and careful attention of tea service at the Fairmont Empress. The experience begins before the first cup of tea is brewed. Steps from Victoria Harbour and surrounded by immaculate gardens, the eye-catching copper-roofed brick-and-stone building looks like a storied British estate.

The 464-key hotel has been serving afternoon tea since it opened 115 years ago. While high tea began with labourers coming home after work and enjoying tea with their hot supper, the Duchess of Bedford, needing something to tide her over until dinner, popularized afternoon tea served with lighter fare in the mid 1800s. Today, afternoon tea at the Empress is served in the light-filled Lobby Lounge to 80,000 people each year.



With live baby grand accompaniment, stately columns, and doorways wide enough to accommodate hoop skirts, being at the Empress feels like stepping into the best parts of history. There is a strict dress code for tea—Barbra Streisand was famously turned away for not wearing appropriate attire—so embrace the royal ambiance and wear your finest. Guests can opt for traditional tea or elevate the experience with a glass of bubbly. The pink-and-blue floral china the food is served on was brought to the Empress in 1939, when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth had it imported for a dinner they hosted at the hotel. It was kept in storage until Queen Elizabeth II visited 12 years later, and in 1998 the pattern was revived by the original manufacturers.

If you’re overwhelmed by the more than 20 varieties of tea, ask the staff for recommendations. They’re well versed in all things tea, and many have been at the Empress for years—one of the servers, Marlene Watson, has poured tea in the Lobby Lounge for over 50 years. When I visited, my server’s favourite was the Organic Creamy Earl Grey, and with its heady florals, it does not disappoint. The resident tea sommelier ensures each blend is of the highest quality (his favourite tea on the menu is the extremely rare Tong Mu Phoenix Lapsang Souchang). The Madame Butterfly Jasmine, another rarity, is exceptionally bright and full bodied, and a can’t miss.


Tiered trays are laden with light bites featuring local ingredients, like smoked salmon, chicken salad, and cucumber sandwiches, as well as pecan tarts and blackberry macarons. The culinary stars of the show are the freshly baked raisin scones, served with house-made clotted cream and strawberry-vanilla preserves. Enjoy the melt-in-your-mouth texture and play between the tangy raisins and the clotted cream.

When you’ve eaten and drunk your fill, the happy chatter of conversation has ebbed, and the melodies from the nearby piano have lulled you into contentment, there’s nothing left to do but drag yourself upstairs to one of the Empress’s comfortable rooms and reflect on an afternoon well spent, as guests have been doing for 115 years.