Through sickness and through health, tea has and will always be the world’s beverage of choice. According to legend, in 2737 BC, the Chinese emperor Shen Nung was sitting beneath a tree while his servant boiled drinking water when some leaves from the tree blew into it creating the first cup of Tea. Since this fateful meeting, Camellia Sinensis, the species of evergreen shrub or small tree whose leaves and leaf buds are used to produce tea, has become one of the most traded, consumed and highly coveted commodities in the world.
Tea has grown from a medicinal crop in China five thousand years ago to a multibillion-pound global industry which hundreds of millions of people around the world depend on for their livelihood. Estimates have China with 80 million tea growers, India has around one million permanent tea workers and twice that of seasonal tea laborers, while tea supports the livelihoods of over three million people in Kenya.
Our list of the top 10 best cities to experience tea culture not only includes places where the growing of tea and production of it take place, but also cities where you can relax and appreciate it in tea houses. This list is definitely not set in stone; the world is a big place and tea is a big deal everywhere, so no offense to cities we couldn’t list, because there is a great booming tea culture all over. This is a ranking of cities we feel are most proud of their Tea Culture and want to share their appreciation of this ancient crop with the world.
10. Charleston, South Carolina, USA
Today, 85% of tea consumed in the United States is iced. When we couple this fact with another — 85% of tea consumed in the United States is black tea, an American tea tradition becomes apparent: Southern Sweet Tea. Tea is South Carolina’s official hospitality beverage and the only place black tea is grown in the USA. It was introduced to the USA as a cash crop in 1799 by a French botanist named Francois Andre Michaux, and first planted on a plantation just outside this historic American city. Most of the major American tea brands call Charleston and its surrounding areas their home. When you’re strolling through a Charleston city market, one of the most vibrant and historic places in all of the South, or along the Cooper River, grab a sweet tea from any of Charleston’s historic cafes, and they’ll gladly serve up their legacy drink.
9. Moscow, Russia
Tea arrived in Russia in the 16th century via Siberian cossacks who brought this exotic drink to the Russian Tsar from China. Back then, tea entered Russia by way of the “Great Tea Road” with a route through Siberia. Because of the long and difficult journey, tea was only affordable for the affluent and it was only after the Trans-Siberia Railway was built that tea became readily available to the masses. Russians drink tea all day long and is becoming Russia’s national drink. Russians take pride in their tea, but enjoying tea in Moscow at any tea house isn’t cheap. If you want to experience the true Russian tea culture, head to the Perlov Tea House. This tea shop is situated in a wonderful old building that has housed a tea shop from the very beginning.
8. Cuzco, Peru
Cuzco or Cusco, located high up in the Southern Sierras high up in the Andes. It is a fascinating city that was the capital of the Incan Empire and base camp for journeys to the elusive Machu Picchu. The Incan tea culture of the Andes dates back over a thousand years and is still practiced by their descendants, the Quechua people. Their version tea is derived less from the Camellia Sinensis leaf but comprised of medicinal mountain herbs or the illicit coca leaf. Coca tea, also called mate de coca, is an herbal tea made from raw leaves from the coca plant. It is greenish-yellow in color and has a mild, bitter flavor similar to green tea with a more organic sweetness. Many Andean indigenous peoples use the tea for medicinal purposes. Coca tea is often recommended for travelers in the Andes to prevent altitude sickness. Head to the Plaza de Armas, Cuzco’s central square for one of the most beautiful plazas in South America, with great views, great cafes, and great history to enjoy what this culture serves up, they’ve had thousands of years practice to get their tea culture right.
7. London, UK
Everyone has heard of High Tea, so it would be a travesty to overlook London as having one of the world’s great Tea Cultures. It was the British who really spread the thirst for tea on a global scale. They waged wars, held economic monopolies and used tea as leverage in modern politics. Proper British afternoon tea was introduced in England by Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, in the year 1840. The Duchess would become hungry around four o’clock in the afternoon. This became a habit of hers and she began inviting friends to join her, giving birth to this quintessentially British fashionable and social event. There is a wide selection of hotels in London offering the quintessential afternoon tea experience, consisting of scones and the vital ingredient, Devon clotted cream, as well as cups of hot sweet tea, served in china teacups — treat yourself.
6. Colombo, Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka’s tea history started with one tea plant brought by the British in 1824. The history of tea in Ceylon, Sri Lanka’s original name, actually began with coffee, which was a bust. Luckily, James Taylor, a coffee farmer on the Island, had the foresight to start planting tea. By 1890, Thomas Lipton arrived to purchase tea estates and 23,000 tons of tea were exported to London’s tea auctions. Ceylon had become an island synonymous with tea. Travel anywhere on the Island and visit any tea farm along the way to see the amazing landscape of the many tea farms clinging to the jungle hills of the Island. Any local will proudly boast of Columbo’s tea culture, its rich history and strong future in Sri Lankan society.
5. Fez, Morocco
Moroccan mint tea (Touareg tea) is the drink of social events, ceremonies, and business deals. Legend has it that Moroccans drink so much mint tea because it was the favorite drink of the Prophet Muhammad. Mint tea is the core of Moroccan hospitality. It is poured generously, three times, each having a different meaning – round one representing “as bitter as life”, two “as strong as love” and the final “as gentle as death”. Out of politeness, all three glasses should be drunk. You can throw out those Western etiquettes; sipping loudly is the norm here, showing appreciation to your host. Once mint tea has been offered, you must accept. Fez el Bali is the oldest walled part of Fez. Get lost in the labyrinth of this medina’s and stop at any cafe along the way for a glass of this tea town’s minty Moroccan treat.
4. Darjeeling, India
Tea planting in the Indian district of Darjeeling began in 1841 by Arthur Campbell, a surgeon of the Indian Medical Civil Service. He was transferred to Darjeeling from Kathmandu, Nepal. The Chinese- Indian hybrid tea tree flourished here resulting in a crop of the city’s namesake. This prized tea was awarded geographic indication (it is protected and regulated the same as, for example, the beverage champagne as a product that can only be grown and produced in Champagne, France) in 2004 and was the first product in India to receive this designation. In the green foothills of the Himalayas where the jungles turn to mountains, venture anywhere in or around Darjeeling for a cup of the Champagne of teas (technically an Oolong). Definitely try to enjoy at least one cup without milk to really experience the layered flavor of this coveted black tea.
3. Hangzhou, China
A pilgrimage to Hangzhou, the tea capital of the largest tea consuming and producer in the world is paramount. Hangzhou, home of the renowned Longjing (Dragon Well) green tea, is considered one of the most authentic tea drinking experiences you can have. Just about an hour bullet train ride outside of Shanghai, you enter the real China. Hangzhou is located on the famous West Lake, which is the number one tourist destination for Chinese people. It is a large national park with mountains and pagodas, dotted with tea fields. Not only is it scenically pleasing, it is the beginning of the silk road, which as we all know puts it in the big league, as an ancient hub for trading. Make sure to swing by Tai Ji Tea House, to watch how these masters uniquely pour their green tea and learn a bit of history in the capital of tea.
2. Uji, Japan
Tea in Uji is said to have its origins at the beginning of the 13th century. With quality soil and topography, as well as other favorable conditions, tea cultivation in Uji quickly expanded. It earned the value of best tea in Japan, and it is said that this tea was used to produce, in the 16th century, the first batch of the holy grail of tea, Matcha, Japan’s famous powdered green tea. Matcha is the process of traditionally stone grinding the whole green tea leaf into a dust like green powder. Because demand for this type of tea is so high in Japan and the rest of the world, Japan is only able to produce enough Matcha to barely satisfy Japan’s thirst, due to land restrictions. Research has shown that only 2% of Japanese Matcha is actually exported and many Japanese companies outsource their production to #3 on our list, Hangzhou, the capital of green tea and historically the true origin of Matcha (It migrated to Japan in the 12th century). Make your way down the path beside Byodin Temple along the river to Taihoan s definitely the place to experience an authentic Matcha tea ceremony. It’s an experience not to be missed.
1. Prague, Czech Republic
Throw in some new age music, add some Turkish rugs, a few Moroccan tiles, a few Chinese lanterns and finally, add some tea — what you get is a new tradition, a Czech cajovna or tearoom. A place which has gradually earned its spot alongside Czech pubs. While it could never pose a serious threat to the most popular Czech beverage, beer, it has positioned itself in the market to become unshakable over the last two decades. Over the last few years, quality tea has become quite a common thing in the Czech Republic and you can get a great cup of tea from anywhere in the world even in an ordinary coffeehouse. Prague’s claim to tea fame is that of having the most tea houses, density wise, of any city in the world. Walk down any of Prague’s cobblestone streets and you’re bound to stumble upon the booming tea culture. Cool and Chic, the Czechs are putting a modern twist on traditional tea by giving it a hip global feel, and a peek into what this ancient brew will become.