‘Bland and barbaric’: Britain through the eyes of American tourists

In 2022, some 4.6 million Americans visited Britain
In 2022, some 4.6 million Americans visited Britain - Alamy

“Britain is barbaric,” my American friend decreed, sitting in an expansive banquette at a central London brasserie. The middle-aged New Englander, in town with his wife for a long weekend without the kids, had a bee in his bonnet, specifically, about temperature. The tap water at our table lacked ice, he moaned, and he’d had to change hotel rooms because the climate control hadn’t worked (“How hard is it to get to 18C?”).

Brits like to discuss the weather, but American visitors hone in on the temperature of all things. Coffee in Britain, by their standards, is served neither hot nor cold – there’s never enough ice for iced coffee (“If the cafe stocks ice, coffee will be served with maybe two small cubes, so it’s cool-ish”), and hot drinks “are barely lukewarm, so it’s acceptable to order your coffee ‘extra hot’,” Mary, a New Yorker, told me. “In America, such an order would be fishing for a lawsuit.”

For many Americans, a visit to the UK represents a chance to experience European culture in a familiar language
For many Americans, a visit to the UK represents a chance to experience European culture in a familiar language - Alamy

Kathleen, another recent visitor, observed: “Brits and Americans take different approaches to weather. If it is raining, a Londoner will go out in long sleeves and a raincoat, even on a warm day. Often with black tights. Conversely, if the sun shines on a bright, cold January day, you’ll see people in tank tops, exclaiming how hot it is.”

Americans love visiting Britain. In 2018, almost 4 million of them came, spending a whopping £3.4 billion, making them our keenest fans, followed by French and Germans. In 2022, that rose to 4.6 million. Cliché and marketing campaigns suggest that prime among the lures to Britain are castles, English country gardens, literary trails, Scotland (for heritage), Wales (ditto), Harry Potter, the Royal Family, and a sense that this is Europe-lite: the olde worlde in a (mostly) recognisable language.

Navigating the pub

Most Americans think they want to visit the pub, but often end up disappointed by poor quality food and a lack of good beer on tap. “The food was unforgivably bland, and they were out of half of the menu items,” Donna and Fred complained after a recent trip to a popular Kensington boozer. “And the beer, mainly craft, was in bottles or cans – nothing like the pubs we used to visit.”

(Insider tip: there are many truly outstanding pubs that serve cracking food in Britain, but you need to do some research. In London, they include: south, The Canton Arms; north, The Bull and Last; east, The Scolt Head; west, The Cow).

The British pub experience can be fraught with confusion for many visitors
The British pub experience can be fraught with confusion for many visitors - Alamy

Stiff upper lip = no one complains

Frequent American visitors put the prevalence of poor pub grub and “unreliable restaurants outside of London” down to complacency. “Things that bother Americans won’t bother the British,” observed Mary. “For example, crowds and long waits at airports. In fact, these happen more now in the US than in the UK, but an American will complain; a Brit will not. Or big crowds in museum exhibitions, where you paid for timed entry, when there are no crowds in the rest of the museum, which is free.”

She notes that, given the cost of living crisis, people really ought to be complaining about high prices. American visitors do, about the cost of the Harry Potter Studio tour (“Excellent attraction, but so overpriced!”), spiralling domestic rail fares and steep hotel rates.

What to do

“No tourist will take this advice, but mine is that you can have your Buckingham Palace and Westminster Bridge; give me a London park any day over those,” said Henry.

Buckingham Palace remains top of many US tourist itineraries
Buckingham Palace remains top of many US tourist itineraries - getty

Mind your language

We nearly speak the same language. But we don’t. “Every time my American father visits and sees a sign for the ‘Way out’ on the Underground, he pronounces it like a surfer dude and giggles,” said one long-term London resident. In America, it’s just an exit.

Speaking of the Tube, navigating that requires its own special code: “The rules of the Tube make sense once you know them,” said Mary. “But just when you know you have to stay to the left, about 20 people who aren’t following the rule get in your way. But they’re tourists, too. So the rules don’t actually work. Also, why does no one over the age of 50 take the Tube?” Tall Americans also note the smallness of Tube carriages – and hotel rooms, houses, restaurants, roads, cars…

We mind your behaviour

Americans who come as tourists may have loud voices, but they expect a certain level of decorum. Heaving crowds around pubs therefore often raise the tourist eyebrow, as does Britain’s binge-drinking culture. “And those public urinals in central London? Sick!” observed Nate, 42.

American visitors to Harry Potter World complained of the high cost
American visitors to Harry Potter World complained of the high cost - alamy

Shopping culture

“Why are there basically no brands in supermarkets?” asked one suspicious New Yorker. Department stores, by contrast, win much praise: “You can buy excellent sewing and knitting materials at normal department stores,” observed Debbie, “as well as pretty clothes for upper-middle-aged women. In America, that’s when women, style-wise, are put out to pasture; in England, they can still dress well.”

Royal mess

“Everyone hates the King, right?” asked one 30-something American, who is genuinely befuddled by the endless tabloid churn around the Royal Family. “I mean, what a terrible investment. No one cares.” This was a position echoed by other Americans I spoke to. It must be a hangover from King George.

Talking about the weather

Spoiler: it’s actually fine. This was noted by most interviewees.

Pleasantly eccentric

Of course, sometimes even the barbaric can be splendid, and the quaintness endearing. The same Anglophile who found fault with the temperature of water and hotel rooms has spent years watching PMQs with his family as entertainment.

The truly unfathomable

There are no water fountains.

And cricket? Not a clue.