While America proclaimed its independence by symbolically dumping pounds of tea into the Atlantic Ocean, other countries see the leaves as the veritable gold they are. And though there’s plenty of good tea to be had without leaving the United States, adventurous sippers or curious students should include a tea-shop visit into their next travel itinerary. Besides being great places to spend an afternoon resting between walking tours, these shops and tea houses are home to classes, samples, and perfect local-approved souvenirs.
Fortnum & Mason, London
If you ask the average American what they think tea is supposed to be like, odds are good they’ll sketch out the cliche of Proper British Tea, complete with scones, tiny sandwiches, and posh-accented women sticking out their pinkie fingers just so. Stereotypes aside, Fortnum & Mason truly is a haven for tea lovers--and it comes with the Queen’s official approval. The Earl Grey and Royal Blend black teas are classics, but consider a Cornwall-grown darjeeling that F&M touts as the “first truly English tea.” Bonus: the colorful, souvenir-ready tins are so pretty you won’t even need wrapping paper.
Tea Chapter, Singapore
Singapore’s notoriously intense food scene has no room for snobbery—people will line up just as long for buzzy restaurants opened by celebrity chefs as they will for the perfect bowl of $2 noodles. Thanks to the country’s Indian, Chinese, and British traditions you won’t struggle to find a nice cuppa, but Chinatown’s Tea Chapter has a holy feel—hidden and dusky, sort of like an ancient library, which its own name hints at. Teas come in simple, elegant beige cylinders with green English and Chinese writing, and your best bets are the delicate whites.
Tea Drunk, New York City
The real treat of most teas isn’t just the beverage—it’s the ritual around drinking it. One of the few places in America to experience a bona fide Chinese tea service is New York’s Tea Drunk, on a quiet East Village side street. The red (which Westerners call black), oolong, and pu’erh teas are sourced directly from small Chinese farms and served in the traditional way—in tiny cups the size of one swallow, with leftovers poured over slotted tables and ceramic “tea pets.”
Mariage Freres, Paris
The French take craftsmanship—sorry, craftspersonship—as seriously as college kids take spring break: products like cheese, Champagne, and couture are labeled and regulated. Surprisingly, there isn’t a French governing body related to tea, but if there were Mariage Freres would win the highest distinction--their complex blends are as intricately thought out as perfume and stored inside bright monochromatic metal canisters. Try the limited-edition “Laos” blend from Mariage Frere’s new international range, or just go into the flagship store in the 6th arrondissement, sniff a few things, and figure out what would go best with your favorite sweets.
The Tea Centre, Stockholm
While many countries have their own signature tea—Japan loves its matcha, India its masala—few cities can say the same thing. Stockholm, though, has its own tea blend, Soderblandning (“Sodermalm blend,” named for the city’s central district), a warm, floral black tea that stops short of being cloying. In the winter, it’s often paired with mulled wine or port. The best place to source this tea is at The Tea Centre, whose long wooden shelves stacked neatly with boxes and glass canisters gives it a curiosity cabinet feel.
If green tea were a god, Korea’s O'sulloc would be its temple. The four-floor flagship store in the artsy Insadong neighborhood—historically home to scribes and craftspeople—fits right in thanks to its approach to tea as an art form. Teas sourced from Jeju Island—the equivalent of a Faberge egg from Russia or an uncut diamond from Botswana—are in abundance here, but the real treasures are limited-edition blends with hilariously specific names like Moon walk: Azure night beach where the moon dances. Hang out in the upstairs cafe with a tea-flavored freddo or shaved ice, then stock up on green tea soaps and bath products or wonders like matcha spread (think Nutella if it were made with tea powder instead of hazelnuts).
Royal Elixir Tea, Melbourne
“Bespoke” has gone from being a descriptor of expensive Savile Row suits to a word that makes most people roll their eyes. But bespoke really is the right word for talking about Royal Elixir, an Aussie tea shop that lets customers mix their very own personal blends. Think of it as a higher end Pinkberry: The best way to go is beginning with a basic green, white, or black, then incorporate in flavors you already like, whether it’s pieces of ginger, chunks of mango, slivers of coconut, or bits of herbs. You can taste as you go just to make sure the proportions are right, and you can feel good knowing that this isn’t a product you could buy in your grocery store back home. The only downside? Laws about what foods and plants you can bring back home with you from Oz can be strict, so do your reading.