How to have the perfect UK holiday… according to Americans
While the English binge-watch shows like Selling Sunset to get a dose of glamour from over the water, Americans are streaming The Crown and The Great British Baking Show (that’s Bake Off to us). They’re obsessed: in November 2022 alone, the New York Times published ten features about the new series of The Crown. And programmes like these have fuelled a love affair with the UK that’s placed Americans among its most frequent visitors and made them its highest spenders too, according to data from VisitBritain.
In 2023, the American press made it official, with US magazine Travel + Leisure declaring the UK its destination of the year. Meanwhile, the New York Times labelled London its top place to go, thanks in part to King Charles’s coronation and the Battersea Power Station revamp. It seems that, while many UK holidaymakers have a complicated relationship with their home country (the weather! The homogenised High Streets! The overcrowded tourist honeypots!), Americans view it through a different lens.
What they bring is two utterly un-British traits, optimism and enthusiasm. Thus, everything is cute, even the lack of elevators and the non-mixer taps. Meanwhile, distances that seem mammoth to us are mere hops to those used to the great sprawl of the USA. Alexandra Avila, a director at US PR firm REYA Communications, describes her favourite hotel, The Goodwood, as “a great retreat just outside the city”. In reality, it’s an hour and 40 minutes from London by train, her preferred method of transport due to the easy-to-use commuter network.
This willingness to travel means US visitors can see the very best of the country in one big hit, ticking off Cornwall, Bath, York, Stratford-upon-Avon and Edinburgh along the way. These tourists aren’t seeking hip hangouts, out-there activities or the next big neighbourhood (for reference, Travel + Leisure calls the Lake District “under-the-radar”). Instead, according to research from VisitBritain, they want to eat, sightsee, shop and go to the pub.
As most of these are regular occurrences for British people, it’s easy to see why we’ve become a little jaded. However, it’s clear that there’s a US-inspired recipe for UK holiday success that we Brits would do well to replicate on our staycations: the Four Cs. One interesting footnote to all this: in a section of VisitBritain’s survey which compared some of their favourite destinations, Americans rated the UK as the best country for fun and laughter – not only the best medicine, but surely also the ultimate sign of holiday success?
London is the starting point for most American visitors: almost 70 percent spend time here. Unlike Londoners themselves, they’re not just trying to save money and avoid the drizzle. These people want the Capital’s classics. Despite being more than 20 years old, the 1998 Friends episode filmed in London (The One With Ross’s Wedding) remains an approximation of many Americans’ dream trip, featuring Buckingham Palace, Tower Bridge, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, an open-top bus ride and a cameo from minor royalty.
Jenny Hollander, author of upcoming novel Everyone Who Can Forgive Me Is Dead, worked for years as a US-based journalist, and one of her assignments was to recreate the entire Friends trip and document it online. Now back in the UK and imminently marrying her American fiancé, she’ll be bringing US guests over for a wedding which will share similarities with the sitcom’s.
She’s arranged double-decker buses as part of the celebrations. “They asked if we wanted white or red and I said, ‘we’re going to have Americans. We’ve got to have red ones’”.
“I felt weird about our guests making this huge trek,” she continues. “But everybody has been so excited and I think it’s because it’s in London. They’re not just flying in and flying back. They’re making huge trips and bringing extended family. In some cases, they’re bringing nannies.”
American visitors are big spenders, with shows, afternoon teas and food market tours on their to-do lists. And no time is better than Christmas. “Nowhere does holiday decor like London,” says Avila. “I make it a tradition to stop in at Fortnum and Mason and find a Christmas ornament”.
But London isn’t the only UK city to get American attention. Edinburgh scores highly for its castle and tartan shops (the city’s ScotlandShop made it into a Travel + Leisure round-up of the UK’s six can’t miss pubs, shops and towns thanks to its customisable garments), while Liverpool’s Beatles links make it another popular stop.
Market towns, half-timbered villages and quaint, olde world inns – one (English) man’s trite is another (American) man’s tremendous. Just as the B&Bs of New England are cute to us, so the Cotswolds and its most heavily horse-brassed country pubs work for them. Tour operator Adeo, which runs trips for a mostly American market, even has a pub-hopping itinerary that traces its way through the thatched and beamed ale houses of the Cotswolds, Lake District and Yorkshire.
As Tripadvisor user Ronescout from Colorado puts it when reviewing Stow-On-The-Wold’s market square, “While somewhat of a tourist trap you cannot visit this area and not be charmed. It is hard to fake something that is actually, really old”. Meanwhile, a visit by Rebecca from Indiana meant discovering one of the British High Street’s most prolific institutions: “We went to many charity shops and found some great deals”.
Another must-do stop-off is Stratford-upon-Avon, which Americans have been visiting for aeons thanks to its Shakespearean past. In fact, the first entry in the earliest visitors book held by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is by an American, one TH Perkins of Boston who visited in 1812. Even earlier in 1786, soon-to-be-presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson travelled to the town together. Unimpressed with the house that Shakespeare was born in, Adams called it “small and mean” and made up for it by chipping off and stealing a bit of the playwright’s chair as a souvenir.
There are more must-do literary links in Bath, home of the Jane Austen centre and the Saracens Head pub where Dickens purportedly stayed. Refreshingly, this has not been done up as a tribute to the man and continues to put on poker and live comedy nights – no doubt a source of confusion to some Americans on literary pilgrimages. Meanwhile, one editor at Traveler declared her love for an AirBnB with a cameo in the opening scenes of Bridgerton (the scene-stealing role making up for the lack of lift or tumble dryer).
Castles (Scottish ones)
Scotland is second only to Italy in the Americans’ quest to find their heritage. It may explain why the US is the country’s biggest inbound market – and why many tours are tailor-made to help them on their journeys. Some such tours are run by Graeme Clive, of Kilted Piper Tours, who proudly dons his tartan as he escorts guests (90 percent of whom are American) around lochs and castles and Highland scenery, playing the bagpipes and feeding them shortbread at opportune moments.
With a genuine love for his home country and a beguiling Scottish accent to convey it, it’s easy to see why he’s such a popular guide.
“I take the bagpipes along and tell them short stories or histories of the places we go,” he says. “They’re into the beautiful scenery we’ve got up in Scotland, as well as the local music and inns,” he says.
The Isle of Skye’s rugged beauty is particularly popular with Clive’s guests as are the country’s castles. Luckily, some of these have been converted to hotels, allowing American visitors to tick off two birds with one stone. The grandest, such as Glenapp and Inverlochy, come dressed as stately homes with brocade drapes, four posters and glittering chandeliers.
Unlike AirBnB-loving Brits, most Americans are diehard hotel fans. Almost half of their UK stays are spent in them according to VisitBritain, while a further 30 percent involve crashing with friends and relatives. The best hotels? Ones with heritage, good restaurants and the kind of service that they’re used to (hard to find amongst traditionally surly British staff).
The research also revealed that Americans like nice drives in the British countryside, so it follows that these hotels are hidden in some of the UK’s greenest and most pleasant spots. One such is Surrey’s Beaverbrook, billed as “the quintessential British Country Estate”.
Elizabeth Taylor and Winston Churchill, both of whom feature in the American pantheon of ideal guests, have both stayed at the former home of newspaper boss Lord Beaverbrook. However, you can’t please every American all of the time. After one stay, Tripadvisor user Jeffrey wrote, “We were excited to be staying in the room Churchill used and then felt nothing but pity for him when we saw [it]”. (Clive confirms that American guests can sometimes be nonplussed by bijoux British hotel bedrooms.)
Though most just chalk UK differences up to charming eccentricities, others do struggle. One Zicasso reviewer added plus points in caps for UK hotel stays with air conditioning while bemoaning the uncomfortable seats on the Jacobite steam train (otherwise known as the Hogwarts Express from the Harry Potter movies). “Had we known that there were upgraded cars available for a higher cost like the ones that Harry and Hermione took on their way to and from Hogwarts,” she says. “We would have booked those”.
What I've learnt from a decade of guiding Americans
Sometime during the Great War the economy of America overtook that of the British Empire. I often wonder if that shift produced the weird mix of sneering and envy that once characterised the attitude of Brits to Americans. Then I remember Fanny Trollope’s acerbic Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832); perhaps it was just Independence.
It’s rare today, thank goodness. However, I’m struck by how often Americans visiting London apologise for being ... American. Or loud. Or ignorant. Or having “no history”. None of which I’m thinking, by the way. Most know more about Britain than I do about America.
In over a decade of guiding, I can count the unpleasant ones on the fingers of one hand - if that. Tired, yes. Stressed, sometimes. Bored witless, every so often. But unfailingly polite, even the teenagers.
My best exception was a 10-year-old who turned around on the top deck of a full bus and said: “So, how much are we paying you, then?” A thousand quid a day*, I said rudely (*fat chance), thinking that would shut her up, and saw an expression flit across her face. It was sympathy.
There’s a generosity of spirit. And before you say it’s the tips, it’s not. Americans are prodigal of tips, it’s true, happy to pay for a good service – but there’s a great willingness to join in, to ask questions and to express appreciation.
It’s also true that many of those who can afford to pay for a guide in London are pretty well-off, often highly educated, with children in private schools and small ‘c’ conservative values. Republican or Democrat (I never ask), most want to see the Churchill War Rooms, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace if it’s open, Hampton Court.
Others, who may have lived here as students, or travelled or had a job in Britain, are up for any adventure and will happily eschew the Changing of the Guard in favour of a walk around Royal Docks, or a march along the Thames, or a visit to a small, unfamiliar museum. “We know all the usual stuff. Surprise us!” is my favourite request.
I learn a lot from them. There are realtors who cast an eye over the red lights dotting London’s skyline, work out the number of cranes per square mile and pronounce on the health of our economy. There are art collectors who know arcane galleries, and families who root out branded sneakers available only in Europe. All Americans have a preternatural ability to sense the presence of a nearby Starbucks.
As Londoners, we also have much to thank them for: Selfridges, The Wasteland, Peabody Estates, Poetry on the Underground, Benjamin Franklin, the Underground itself (Bakerloo, Piccadilly and Northern Lines were nicknamed “Yerkes Tubes” after the swashbuckling financier Charles Yerkes). Oh, and the Second World War, in which they not only stepped in militarily but introduced us to the Blues.
Some things do dismay them. Sarkiness. Warm beer. The lack of ice in high summer, despite my feeble protests of “less ice, more drink”. Marmite, spread like Nutella on toast. And the inexplicable failure of London restaurants and hotels – with the exception of The Stafford in St James’s - to offer jugs of refreshing iced tea on stinking hot days.
But overall, they enjoy themselves, and so do we. It’s a win-win.