10 American Smells Brits Will Learn to Love

Why does a hot dog smell and taste better when outside at a baseball stadium? (AP Photo/Scott Boehm)

Why is a hot dog so much better when at a sporting event? (AP Photo/Scott Boehm)

To outsiders, the U.S. smells like more than just freedom. These are just some of the all-American scents every expat will come to adore. Or at the very least tolerate.

Hot dogs
Head to any sports stadium or major metropolitan area in the U.S., and there’s that smoky, chemically stabilized meat scent, like someone microwaved a Peperami. You’ll start off not quite trusting the smell—or the street vendors hawking its source. But before long, you’ll succumb and eat a hotdog bought from one of those little carts, and it will be good. Very, very good. Suddenly, that smell signifies intense deliciousness.

Apple pie
Whether it’s the real thing or an artificial reproduction funneled into an air freshener, sweet apple pie smell permeates America—from its cafes and fast food joints to shops and homes. At first it’s cloying, but eventually it’ll be comfortingly familiar.

U.S. supermarkets, restaurants, malls and department stores tend to smell of cinnamon. Whether this is because businesses pipe the smell in a conspicuous move to make us drool and open our wallets, or we’re just sniffing the overabundance of cinnamon-flavored products on sale in the U.S., isn’t quite clear.

Every American recipe for a sweet baked good calls for far more vanilla essence than we’d ever feel comfortable using in the U.K. The smell is delicious, if a little overpowering. Head to any bakery or cupcake shop in the U.S., and this is the dominant scent.

Pumpkin spice
Around late October, pumpkins take over America. And so does their sweet aroma. But surprisingly, the unadorned flesh of these resplendent gourds doesn’t smell very nice at all. (Think rotting vegetable odor.) But put it in a pie, blend in sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice, and it becomes a completely different—and delicious-smelling—beast.

Java is to Americans what tea is to Brits. So it’s reliably found in the scent mix anywhere that people gather. Here in NYC, coffee smell even dominates peak commuter times on the subway. New Yorkers think nothing of holding a paper cup the length of their arm in one hand and an iPad in the other.

Bacon and maple syrup
I’ve talked before about America’s obsession with combining sweet and savory. But this eccentric fusing of food groups has just as powerful an effect on the nose as the tongue. The most aromatic example is pancakes with bacon slathered in maple syrup. Breathe in deep next time you order a short stack.

Fast food
America produces so much of the stuff the smell can be extremely concentrated. Sometimes, it’s like breathing in chip fat essential oil. This should be revolting but, sadly for our arteries and waistlines, is the exact opposite.

Air conditioning
Public buildings in the U.S. seem to keep the A/C on no matter what the temperature is outside. So everywhere—from banks to malls—has that processed, dry air smell. Weirdly, it’s not unpleasant.

In cities like New York where it’s common for people to do their washing at Laundromats, the air can be thick with soapy flowers and chemically reproduced meadow smell. You might actually find yourself pausing at those sweet spots on the high street where the scented air is most concentrated to breathe it in.

What whiff catches your nose? 

See More: 
10 British Smells You’ll Miss When You Leave the U.K. 
Never Mind the London Eye, Here’s the London Nose
Why the U.S. Should Adopt British-Style Supermarkets

Ruth Margolis

Ruth Margolis

Ruth is a British freelance journalist who recently swapped east London for Brooklyn. She writes about TV for Radio Times and is working on her first novel.
View all posts by Ruth Margolis.
  • Alastair

    This has got to be the strangest list you’ve out together yet. Laundry?!? Do other nations not wash their clothes?

    • MontanaRed

      I took it to mean that the laundry soaps and rinses popular in the USA are more highly scented than their British counterparts, not as an unfamiliar smell because of lack of hygiene…

      Okay. Cinnamon. I’ve seen many a comment/reference by expats to the prevalence of cinnamon in our foodstuffs. I love the aroma of cinnamon, myself, and prefer it to vanilla scents, which I find too sweet. I also love to eat cinnamon-y things. Sue me.

      • expatmum

        I took it to mean the smell of laundry steam being piped out of a building, – another city smell.
        And after 23 years here the smell of cinnamon makes me want to barf! You’d think I’d just get used to it.

        • Pat

          The smell of boiled hot dogs and of fast food anything is unpleasant to me. I love the smell of cinnamon and associate it not only with the US but travels to Mexico, India and the Mideast where it is used in many of their foods and drinks.

          • MontanaRed

            So, Pat and Expat Mum, do you think the tolerance/intolerance for cinnamon aroma (as an example) is something one becomes accustomed to in childhood? Or not, as the case may be? Or is more likely to be an idiosycransy originated from, say, genetic sources?

          • Pat

            Good question, MontanaRed. I don’t have a good answer! I always assumed cinnamon was a taste and an aroma everyone grew up with and everyone liked.

          • expatmum

            I think it must be something we didn’t grow up with since it’s not just me (a Brit) who mentions it. There are certain food places in the US (selling cookies etc) where the smell of cinnamon as you enter, is over-powering. The fact that a lot of Americans here are saying they don’t even notice it (etc.) suggest to me that you’re just used to it. Ditto the taste.

        • Becky Lynn 1973

          I cannot stand the taste or smell of cinnamon and I have lived my whole life in the USA. My parents, hubby and daughter like it, but I cannot. During the holidays, there is such a concentrated smell of it in some stores that it takes my breathe away.

    • Mdeeper

      Yes, at home..

    • Kathryn Kuchenbrod

      I think what she’s smelling is the exhaust from clothes dryers in basements of big apartment buildings in New York City. They are vented to the street and you sometimes get that warm, dryer sheet smell as you walk by. It’s nice.

      • Miss Dashwood

        I live in a condo and when my neighbor runs their dryer it vents out over my courtyard – I love the smell of their dryer sheet – it is very nice.

  • John H Harris

    This seems to be a “big city” list. Those of us who live in smaller cities and towns don’t really have many of these aromas pervading the air. Indeed, in residential areas, most of the British aromas, such as cut grass, rain and Petrol are rather common.

    We don’t have chip shops, but we don’t have hot dog stands on every corner, either.

  • Kay Kelley

    I’m good with most of these, but as an American I loathe the smell of hot dogs. Really? I don’t really notice cinnamon as much either, but hey, maybe I’ve developed an immunity from stewing in it all my life?

    • Kim Hughes

      My Brit loves cinnamon but that only came from being here. It’s not used there in a sweet way as much as here. More as a savory spice and not nearly as much as we use it.

  • Olivia

    Just the thought of smelling coffee is making me drool. Mmmm…

    As soon as maple syrup and bacon was mentioned, I thought of Voodoo Doughnuts here in Portland, Oregon. They sell maple bars with strips of crispy bacon on top. Delicious!

  • Brittany

    Yeah, the smell of hot dogs and fast food makes me sick. And if you live outside of a city, you are not going to see and smell hot dogs everywhere.

    Gasoline, or petrol, whatever you want to call it, smells good!

    These types of lists make it sound only the US has these things.

    • rallybug

      The gasoline smell doesn’t smell quite so nice when you live a couple miles from five refineries and the wind is coming from the wrong direction….

  • Jo

    What about popcorn? An English guy I know told me that the movie theaters over there don’t make popcorn, they get it pre-made, so you don’t get that popcorn smell when you go in. Anybody confirm?

  • Aurelas

    As an American who lives not far behind a laundromat, I would have to say that I prefer the scent of freshly washed sheets hanging on a line to the heavy fragrance that fills the air more often than I like. One that isn’t on the list that I do love is the smell of the heater as it is first turned on for the winter. Dust burning? lol Also Southern-style biscuits and field peas cooking at the same time–never fails to remind me of my granny. But how anyone could like the smell of hot dogs is beyond me.

  • CatRenee

    Some of these are correct, some not. I don’t drink coffee, eat hot dogs, not that fond of pumpkin except the seeds, don’t like cinnamin or coffee (although the smell of coffee if its well made I do like). Actually I drinks tons of tea from morning to night. I love apple pie if its cooked well, love vanilla if its the good stuff, and don’t believe that bacon needs to come with syrup, since I hardly eat anything that requires syrup. I like air conditioning although I rarely have it on in my apt unless the temp get unbearable, I just drink more water. I hate the way its blasting everywhere which give places that freezer effect.One of my favorite smells is rain and fresh grass, peppermint and yes, tea.

  • Wildheartmuse

    Skunk! 30 years ago I was floored by that smell. Couldn’t imagine what was making it……now it smells like fresh ground coffee to me!

    • nine8102

      At a distance, a skunk smells to me like roasted sunflower seeds…as it gets closer (in my area the most prevalent smelly skunks are the roadkill ones), or as you get closer to it, though I can’t compare the more pungent smell, but it’s not altogether unpleasant….so long as you keep driving… =)

      • Jay Jay

        A friend of mine was staying over my house. A skunk walked past. The next hour’s conversation was me trying to convince him it was the animal and not a person partying on Friday night.

  • Matt G

    I grew up in a suburb of NYC in NJ (Bergen County), and there is a Nabisco factory close by. Every time the barometer dipped, you’d smell “Animal Crackers”. I always liked the rain :)

    • Jay Jay

      I know what you mean Matt, I lived near the Stella D’Oro factory in the Bronx. OMG the smell in the mornings. UGH! I am drooling!

    • Georgia Lewis

      My town smells of Cheerios. I live very close to a General Mills plant. But in the late fall, it smells of fermenting wine. Not a pleasant aroma, and yet, full of promise.

  • Jay Jay

    I’m a native New Yorker. Bronx born and raised. That is exactly the biggest odors. Of course there are those spots you don’t want to go near but for the most part it’s a constant mixture of TONS of food smells from the cuisines of the world. I once spoke to a Brit about my love of New York hot dogs. He was totally grossed out because he claimed the hot dogs over there are horrid. I told him he needs to try them in New York. They are unlike any other. Especially the snappy kind (natural casings). New York cart dogs are all beef with spices, boiled in vinegar water. You can’t just eat one. They are AMAZING!!!! Throw on your favorite topping (or not they are just as good without) and you got a party going on in your mouth! If you’re still hungry get a knish and dip it in spicy mustard. Ooh! Or a big warm pretzel coated in salt and put spicy mustard on that too. Ugh ok yeah, I’m hungry now.

  • Debbie

    <~ American here.
    I really like the smell of bacon with pancakes covered in maple syrup and the taste too <3 don't even mind if the syrup gets on the bacon.
    I do think some hot dogs smell good. Nathan's franks are so Delicious in scent ans taste while other dogs make me wanna hurl.
    I like the warm scented air that comes from laundry being done. This isn't restricted to just laundry mats as homes also have the tube pushing that air out from the laundry room or garage.
    Cinnamon is a strong scent in Fall. you'll find pinecones and decorative brooms soaked in the scent. My husband's a big fan of cinnamon smell and cinnamon apple. as air fresheners. I really dislike the apple scent blended in.
    I love apple pie. Can't say I smell it often but when I do it reminds me of how yummy it is and of my dad because he bakes the best apple pie .
    Coffee.In a place where there is a Starbucks coffee shop on every corner and a few cafes in between I wouldn't doubt that a big city area would smell of it. I don't drink the stuff but I do enjoy the smell sometimes.
    Sometimes I just stick my face in front of the A/C and breathe it in. I like the smell.
    Fast food. I like when I am out shopping and I get out of the car and smell food cooking .I can't always figure out the source but it always smells good.

    • Jay Jay

      so true the pork dogs…yuck!!!

  • Abdullah The Sheik of Tikrit

    The smell of popcorn is pretty good too.

  • Michelle Zentis

    Just one quibble: there is no such thing as an “overabundance” of cinnamon products!

  • Mairéad Scully

    I think this is a pretty narrow, selective list. It doesn’t really represent the US as a whole. Also, I loathe the majority of these smells.

  • JR48

    Do other cities outside of NYC have hot dog vendors on their corners? However, a good dog, is a good dog. Bad dogs (bad fast food, etc) are bad. Have to have a dog at a sporting event, even if you don’t normally eat them.

    Smells? Rain. Freshly cut grass. Cinnamon for most is about cinnamon rolls. Even if you don’t eat them, you can appreciate them. Pumpkin or apple pie, but it has to be coming out of the oven. (Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.) Vanilla, yes. A clean smell of baking. Even in candles, vanilla won’t overwhelm you like some of that floral yak.

    One of the best smells growing up was driving near a company that made bread. Best part of a predawn commute was rolling down the windows. You could smell it on the freeway. SO good.

    Coffee. As a kid, I hated the taste, loved the smell. Now it means ‘good morning’. I drink both coffee and tea but love the smell of coffee.

    Laundry: Best laundry detergent for smell, original scent Gain. It’s also pretty darn good on stains.

    But BACON cooking is the best. Good bacon in your own kitchen. Again, its’ like the hot dog. Fresh bacon cooking, nothing like it. Old bacon on some sort of restaurant warmer, bleh. Fresh bacon, crispy and happy, yummy. My young son once said that guys couldn’t be vegetarians. I asked why. He said ‘bacon’. I said ‘what?’ He said ‘yep, bacon. I could be a vegetarian..but it would be a vegetarian PLUS bacon!’ LOL

    • Bean

      We have hot dog carts here in Philly too. :)

  • Lynn Michael Rappolt

    at Christmas time in walmart they get cinnamon scented pine cones and the smell is nauseating. I also do believe recipes call for way too much vanilla, as yesterday I as trying to bake these chocolate chip cookies that my sister had given me the dry mix for for Christmas and it called for vanilla after we baked the cookies I felt the vanilla was an unnecessary component for these cookies. I also am not very fond of the smell of vanilla either.

  • Bruce Mitchell

    In West Virginia our water smells like licorice. Just don’t drink it or bath or do laundry in it.

  • chocoshatner

    The cinnamon thing has a lot to do with sales. Studies were done a while ago showing the smell of cinnamon makes people want to buy more.

    • Guest

      Around the Christmas season when these smells will hit as soon as you in walk in to a store, makes me want to leave.

  • Kitten

    I’ve had to leave stores because of the cinnamon smell. Especially around the holidays. It will make me vomit if I smell it too long. Bleach.

    • William R. Cousert

      The cinnamon scented pine cones can be a bit much for some people.

  • Keldee

    I’m from New Orleans and we don’t really have those smells at all. The smells here are a little more damp and swampy in the rural areas as well as the smell of diesel and gasoline, cut grass, murky water, and sometimes there is a wood burning smell.
    In the city it’s definitely car smells like gasoline, dirty oil, and car emissions, (if you’re near Bourbon Street in the French Quarter there is a smell of urine, vomit, and beer, and hard liquor), there is a refreshing wet smell coming off of the Mississippi river, in the French Quarter (closer to Decatur and the French Market) there is a smell of fresh baked goods, fruity drinks, and delicious, mouth watering Cajun food and spices. As well as a smell mixture of old bricks and metal, and luscious gardens. It’s smells you can only appreciate if you grew up here. Other people have told me that it stinks here. People who move here and live here a while get used to the smells…and even become fond of it.

  • Shannon K

    I am a proud America tea drinker. I’ve never liked the smell of coffee.

    • Shannon K


  • Dee Kottkamp

    I am probably the only American who hates bacon and the smell of bacon oh and eggs too. Just grosses me out. I love the smell of cinnamon and pumpkin spice and I really like cinnamon on my food. I also hate the smell of popcorn- it smells like dirty feet to me.

    • hotgeek88

      You are not the only one. I’m the same. Bacon is DISGUSTING! 😉

      • spectravar

        I have this slight, split-second moment where the first hint of bacon smells good, like I’m trying to be reminded of breakfast from a childhood memory. Once that split second is gone, all it does is remind me of grease and oily sweat. Disgusting, indeed.

    • Azul

      Bacon is good but it’s way over rated.

  • Debbie McCarrick

    Okay this is probably weird but puppy breath is a smell I have always thought was pleasant. :)

  • Louise

    Unfortunately, the only new scent I’ve discovered is the smell of a skunk’s spray…

  • http://www.isbyjof.com/ John Oliver Frederick

    Wow the smell of fast food turns you on… Im sure there are better things in NYC to smell…

  • $46504314

    This list is bullshit.

  • Johnny Panic

    Remember though to ask for pure maple syrup, not corn syrup dyed brown that is marketed as “breakfast syrup” (IE: Aunt Jamima, Log Cabin, Vermont Maid, etc). Most places that serve breakfast in New England will give you the option. That goes very well with bacon.

    • Knights Folly

      Down south, pure cane syrup is the way to go. I hated the smell and taste of maple syrup but I’m slowly beginning to warm up to it. (I’m pushing 50 so it’s taken a while.) Still prefer old-fashioned cane syrup though.

  • John Davenport

    Living in the Midwest in an area where we have extremely rich topsoil, there are certain times of the year when you can actually smell the earth in the fields as you drive along. I’ve never really experienced it quite as intensely outside of this region.

  • ArissaKaeGillette

    I’m a small town girl, and many of these don’t really apply. The fast food one might when you’re right down town. I however loath the smell and taste of hot dogs, and rarely use cinnamon as one of my best friends is highly allergic. Vanilla and cinnamon do seen to be the most popular smells anywhere you go.

  • Le_Grand_Schtroumpf

    Many of these smells are disgusting to a UK ex-pat, and, I believe to many Americans. US hot dogs are foul. American Apple pie is made with sugar, too much cinnamon, more sugar, more cinnamon, apple flavoring and a pinch of mashed apple. Nasty things.

    US coffee smells (and tastes) of burned cork.

    Vanilla, like cinnamon is overdone to the point of making you puke.

    The smell of fast food is a constant reminder that it will kill you.

  • Kim Hughes

    My Brit fiance’ says you might want to add pancakes to the list. It’s the one thing he loves to eat and smell here over anything else. While they do have pancakes over there, he says they are different and not a staple breakfast food like here in the states.

  • Aron Brondo

    bar-be-cue in the south… tex-mex, cal-mex, southwest-mex, in the west.. chestnuts and pretzels roasting in the east…

  • SmokeyBehr

    The smell of wood smoke from a meat smoker, particularly oak, mesquite, or hickory, depending on the region, is one of the smells that makes America with it is.

  • don

    I dont like or cant stand all of this list!@!@. what is it with over-the-top stuff in the US?

  • Wally Rowe

    biggest thing I see missing is BBQ – good list

  • http://www.devingaughan.com Devin Gaughan

    This guy has obviously never been out of New York City.

  • Mitch

    I’m not a smoker but I love the smell of cigars and pipes ! Chinese food also !