Former President Bill Clinton wanted to explore London like a tourist, visiting gardens and sampling Indian food.

By Jessica Poitevien
July 21, 2021

It's not often that a head of state declines an invitation to tea with Queen Elizabeth, but newly released documents reveal that former U. S. President Bill Clinton did exactly that on his 1997 visit to the U.K.

He also turned down an offer for dinner at the British prime minister's official country house. Instead, President Clinton, who was also visiting with Hillary Clinton, wanted to "be a tourist," go shopping, and eat Indian food, CNN Travel reports.

These details of the Clintons' May 1997 visit — the first official U.K. trip with Tony Blair as leader — have been revealed through the declassification of several documents made public by the U.K.'s National Archives.

According to memos between Dominick Chilcott, assistant private secretary to the foreign secretary, and John Holmes, Blair's principal private secretary, Downing Street was "pulling out all the stops" to make sure the visit was a "public relations success." After all, Blair had just been elected earlier that month to his position as U.K. prime minister, and both the British and the Americans agreed that the visit needed to "show the president and the prime minister to the wider world as young, dynamic, and serious leaders," The Guardian reports.

he Queen And Prince Philip With President Bill Clinton And His Wife Hillary At Buckingham Palace in 1995
Credit: Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

And yet, the Clintons had other ideas for their one-day stop in London between summits in Paris and The Hague.

"The Americans said that the president and Mrs. Clinton were very grateful for HM the Queen's invitation to tea at the Palace, but would wish to decline politely," Phillip Barton, Blair's private secretary, said in a May 21 briefing.

Barton's notes also reveal that Clinton's team had "no clear idea" of what the former president wanted to do after giving his speech, but they knew he "wanted to be a tourist" and visit a garden and shops, as well as try Indian food with the prime minister.

In the end, after a great deal of coordination due to the presidential couple's constantly changing schedule, the Clintons joined Blair for dinner at Le Pont de la Tour, a French restaurant, where they spent about $400 on a meal.

Jessica Poitevien is a Travel + Leisure contributor currently based in South Florida, but she's always on the lookout for her next adventure. Besides traveling, she loves baking, talking to strangers, and taking long walks on the beach. Follow her adventures on Instagram.