In recent years, bubble tea (also known as boba) has taken the world by storm, finding its way into the hearts of many Londoners. Perhaps its charm lies in the fact that bubble tea is sweet, chewy, and customisable—making the possibilities endless.
Two individuals, both originating from Taiwan's Taichung City, claim to be the innovators behind bubble tea in the late 1980s. Teahouse owner Tu Tsong claims that he was inspired by white tapioca balls sold at the local market and subsequently had the idea of adding chewy tapioca "pearls" to his signature drink. However, tea company worker Lin Hsiu Hui asserted that she created the first bubble tea in 1988 when she poured tapioca balls into her tea during a staff meeting and encouraged others to drink it as well. Regardless of who invented bubble tea, it is unsurprising that many of London's bubble tea shops are branches of Taiwain-based chains. Hundreds of variations of the drink have evolved since its creation, especially throughout areas such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan, in which there are large East Asian diaspora populations.
The beverage is usually made with Assam or jasmine tea, with the addition of tapioca pearls, although nowadays drinkers can choose from a variety of teas, coffees or juices. Popular renditions include taro tea, brown sugar tea and matcha green tea. Moreover, in addition to the traditional tapioca boba, you can also add several popping fruit pearls, coconut or grass jellies, milk foams and cream cheese toppings. It's consequently no wonder that bubble tea's enticing combination of traditional tea with a modern, customisable twist has resulted in its resonance with Londoners, making it a trendy and widely enjoyed beverage in the cultural hub that is the city of London.
Join me on a flavorful adventure to decode the secrets of the perfect boba, one tapioca pearl at a time. Whether you're a seasoned sipper or a bubble tea newbie, this guide is your passport to uncovering both popular spots and hidden gems serving up the best boba delights. And no, I won't be considering the likes of Bubbleology.
Located in the bubble tea epicenter that is central London's Newport Street, Cuppacha is the perfect spot for beginners. Although their extensive and affordable menu offers everything from milk and fruit teas to ombre teas and texture juices, their signature Cuppacha Pearl Milk Tea, made with the finest black tea with tapioca, is a must-try for all boba newbies.
Must Try: Classic Cuppacha Pearl Milk Tea
Location: 23 Newport Ct, London WC2H 7JS
If you live in London, you will almost certainly have come across T4: a boba store that comes straight from Taiwan. The workers pride themselves on using whole tea leaves that they grow themselves and emphasize the classics. For King's students, there's a handy branch right by the Strand campus, so you can get your bubble tea fix in between classes.
Must Try: Earl Grey Milk Tea with French Pudding
Location: 30+ Branches Across London — Strand Store 137 Strand, WC2R 1HH
Milksha UK hails from the well-established bubble tea brand Milkshop, which is located in Taiwan. The company's emphasis on healthy and unique flavors demonstrates its keen interest in sustainability and the use of quality ingredients. The store sells cakes, ice cream and soft serve in addition to bubble tea, making it the perfect place for a sweet treat. The shop is famous for its honey pearls, which are fragrant, floral and strongly aromatic—in addition to wonderfully golden and chewy.
Must Try: Strawberry Yakult with Honey Pearls
Location: 65 Shaftesbury Avenue, W1D 6LH
7. Xing Fu Tang
Xing Fu Tang is renowned for serving the best brown sugar bubble tea in the city. In fact, the workers hand-roll and stir their syrupy brown sugar boba in-store right before your eyes. The shop prioritizes specializing in spectacular and outlandish options rather than nailing the classics and subsequently serves up the likes of gold foil boba, dalgona coffee and even a mango smoothie complete with a bunny panna cotta! Xing Fu Tang translates to "pure happiness store" in English—something that the shop certainly delivers on.
Must Try: Brown Sugar Boba Milk Tea
Location: 29 Frith St, W1D 5LG
6. Yi Fang
Another prominent staple, Yi Fang dominates the fruit tea scene, which easily steals the spotlight. The shop creates a harmony of fresh seasonal fruit teas and premium loose-leaf teas, with a wide range of toppings. The store's individuality comes from its focus on good quality natural ingredients; they hand-braise fruit with a secret recipe that has been handed down from the founder's grandmother, and no artificial flavours are ever added to the drinks.
Must Try: Any Yi Fang Fruit Tea — I Recommend the Passion Fruit
Location: 20+ Branches — Flagship Store 104 Shaftesbury Ave, W1D 5EQ
5. The Alley
Boba hotspot The Alley is known for its handmade boba, which workers playfully call "deerioca," in reference to the shop's deer icon. The shop has numerous thriving sites in Holborn, Mayfair, Camden, Hammersmith, and most recently, Stratford Westfield. The shop's rapid expansion certainly speaks for itself. A must-try is the delicious Brown Sugar Deerioca Crème Brûlée Milk: the milk is rich and velvety, it has just the right amount of syrup, sports perfectly cooked tapioca pearls and the little crème brûlée bits and creamy layer top off the wonderful beverage.
Must Try: Brown Sugar Deerioca Crème Brûlée Milk
Locations: 5 Locations — Flagship Store 272 High Holborn, WC1V 7EY
4. Lucky Tea
Another bubble tea shop located on Newport Street (or "bubble tea alley," as I like to call it), Lucky Tea has a diverse selection of drinks and toppings to choose from. The shop stands out for its thicker drinks such as their smoothies and slushies. It is one of my favourites precisely because of the passionfruit Yakult, watermelon milk foam smoothie and matcha slushie with adzuki beans, but the shop is certainly most popular for its fantastic grape slushie.
Must Try: Grape Slushie Made with Grape Pieces, Cheese Milk Foam and Crystal Boba
Location: 35 Newport Street WC2H 7PQ
3. Hey Tea
Similarly named, HEYTEA has very recently emerged in London. The Chinatown store is its first one outside of Asia, and the shop has been met with rave reviews and huge queues. In particular, HEYTEA is known for its cheese brew beverages, which have become a phenomenon across China in recent years. While it may sound odd, the flavours combine to taste similar to a cheesecake.
Must Try: Very Grape Cheese or Mango Pomelo Sago
Location: Unit 2 Ground Floor of Wingate house, 93-107 Shaftesbury Avenue W1D 5DA
2. Gong Cha
"Gong Cha" is the Chinese phrase for the act of offering the best tea to the Emperor. It evokes an image of teas and beverages of the highest and finest quality, which are fit for royalty. The shop has been brewing up bubble tea magic since 2006, perfecting its recipes and techniques to bring you that perfect cup every single time. Gong Cha's menu is delightfully colourful and filled with playful milk tea combinations. My personal favourite? The yoghurt popping pearls.
Must Try: Milk Foam Matcha Strawberry Milk Tea
Location: 3 Garrick St, London WC2E 9BF
1. Whale Tea
For me, Whale Tea takes the spot. Whale Tea is a bubble tea company that has come from Nanjing, the former capital of China. It is named after the whale because of the animal's symbolism of strength and sustainability—two things that the shop also stands for. The workers pride themselves on matchinng the amazing taste of bubble tea along with dazzling and eye-catching visuals. This is precisely why I love Whale Tea; your drink will both look and taste phenomenal. I would firmly say that the store's brown sugar boba is the best in London; it's silky smooth and impossibly rich.
Must Try: The Flaming Whale — Classic Sugar Boba with Fresh Cheese Cream on Top
Location: 7 Locations Across London — Flagship Store 45 Wardour Street, W1D 69Z
And there you have it! Whether you're after the classics or something special, there is a bubble tea store in London in which you'll find the perfect boba for you. While most of these stores are located in Chinatown, a large majority of them allow you to either order to your home or skip queues and order online for in-store collection. It's clear that the city is a treasure trove for bubble tea enthusiasts. Cheers to endless boba discoveries!
Edited by Trisha D. Gupta, Co-Food and Drink Editor