Shopping at the Megamall
The Mall of America is huge, but take your time and you'll find its heart.
Twin Citians can boast all they want about their quality of life, their lakes and their urban civility.
But the only thing most people in other states and countries really want to know about is the Mall of America, and the very interesting fact that there's no tax on clothing and shoes in Minnesota.
Opened in 1992, the megamall was an instant hit, attracting eager shoppers from all over the world, most arriving with empty suitcases they can stuff with deals.
It's the No. 1 attraction in Minnesota — those 10,000 lakes aren't even in the running — drawing 40 million people every year to its 4.2 million square feet of stores, restaurants and amusements.
This massive bubble in the 'burbs holds more than 520 shops, and grumblers complain that it's like any other mall, except bigger.
I was one of them until I spent a whole day there. I saw interesting things, I met interesting people and I ate a lot of free goodies offered by friendly shopkeepers. Then I had to eat my words.
The last time I'd been to the megamall, I thought I was coming down with the flu. Turns out it was just the deafening white noise, the heavy gray air that seemed to press against my eyes and the masses of shuffling shoppers.
This time, I arrived just after opening on a sunny weekday, as the mall walkers were making their final rounds. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee and cinnamon rolls hung in the air, and sunlight seeped in through the dome over Nickelodeon Universe, the world's largest indoor theme park.
The first thing I noticed was that there were plenty of shops you don't see in every mall, as well as seasonal carts. I passed a Zubaz cart and offered silent sympathies to the otherwise attractive female clerk wearing the baggy striped pants; at the Panda Hats cart, the clerk managed to make his tassled pig hat look jaunty.
Rounding the corner from Bloomingdale's, I saw Stuart Weitzman, Michael Kors, Hugo Boss, Burberry and Lacoste, a mini-Manhattan. The LEGO store made me smile — who wouldn't, at the sight of a giant armored knight, a Spanish explorer and a man rappelling out of a helicopter, all made of blocks?
Then I came upon a young woman drizzling chocolate onto fresh-raspberry dessert cups right there in the window of the Godiva shop. Screech! There was no way I could pass that up, even at $4.83. They were giving out free peppermint truffles, too.
There's a constantly changing selection of locally owned shops, too. In a little lane near Nordstrom, I found a locally owned shop with a trove of exquisite gifts and Christmas ornaments from Eastern Europe.
"The herd only goes in a circle, so if you follow the herd, you never find these hidden treasure lanes," said the owner, who said he and his neighbors pay less rent to occupy their "butt-up" off the main route.
He also supplied tips on how to avoid congestion getting into the mall: "Don't follow the car in front of you," he said.
When I headed back into the main lane, I had a one-of-a-kind ornament. And I was actually having a good time.
On the second level, I was greeted by the cartoon character Dora the Explorer, looming at the side of the Ferris wheel at Nickelodeon Universe.
This seven-acre thicket of spiraling coaster tracks and rides is a fun spot, and like thousands of other Twin Cities parents, I've thrown birthday parties there for my kids. It's not cheap, but you can't miss.
On the second level, I passed Famous Footwear, Zales Jewelry, Old Navy — national brands, ho hum.
At that point, the duplicate shops started messing with my sense of direction, but I was careful and stayed on course. On the third level, I found Moose Mountain Adventure Golf and shops that cater to a less upscale crowd — Marshall's, the Dollar Tree, a food court with McDonald's and Arby's.
But I found my way to a gelato cafe, where an adorable young man handed me samples as fast as I could eat them — banana toffee, hazelnut, amarena black cherry, pink lemonade, orange tangerine.
At an imports shop, I picked up a $75 gingerbread Advent calendar from Nuremberg, Germany, for $15. "You got the deal of the day," the pleasant owner said.
Then I had no more arm space on which to hang bags, so I made my way back to the first level and Kiehl's, which was giving away almond-cake lollipops covered with white chocolate and a tiny dark-chocolate mustache. They were delicious.
I stopped to snap a photo of the jaunty young man in the pig hat, who turned out to be an Israeli college graduate who had come from New York with the hat cart, and we had a fun chat about the shopping habits of American consumers.
Many people who come to the Mall of America praise the people-watching; I didn't see anything notable about the shoppers, but the people who work there are really interesting. They also seemed to be on top of their game, competent as well as friendly; it was a pleasant change from shopping in most other places.
My last stop was the Rotunda, where chairs were being set up for that evening's free concert. This is Minnesota's town square, the place where celebrities can make a splash.
I spent more than six hours at the mall, and I had a great time. It's got people-watching, for sure. It's got great shopping and sightseeing. All you have to bring is the right attitude.
Trip Tips: The Mall of America
Getting there: It's in the southern Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington, just southwest of the airport, at the southeast corner of Minnesota 77, or Cedar Avenue, and Interstate 494/Minnesota 5.
Most people take the Lindau Lane exit from 77; if you want to avoid congestion on weekends, take the Killebrew Drive exit.
The mall is connected to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and downtown Minneapolis by the Blue Line/Hiawatha light-rail train, which runs frequently to and from the Transit Station on the lower level of the East parking ramp.
It's a 12-minute ride from the airport and 35 minutes from Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis.
Parking: It's free, and most spaces are in ramps. On busy weekends, it's fastest to drive straight to the top level of the ramp. Be sure to remember where you parked.
Getting around: Wheelchairs, strollers and shopping carts can be rented at first-level entrances, which also have rest rooms and lockers.
When to go: If you don't mind crowds, go on weekends, when there's more going on and lots of people-watching.
Otherwise, go on early in the day on weekdays, when salespeople have more time for you and there's not so much white noise and hubbub.
If you find giant malls oppressive, go on a sunny day, when natural light shines in through skylights.
What to know: From 4 p.m. through close on Friday and Saturdays, youths under 16 must be escorted at all times by an adult age 21 or over, and adults 21 or younger may be asked to show a photo I.D.
Events: Celebrities frequently sign books, launch products or perform in the Rotunda, on the East side of the first level.
In December, there are nearly non-stop holiday concerts in the Rotunda and the Patio inside Nickelodeon Universe.
Shopping: The mall is anchored by Macy's and Nordstrom.
An IKEA is across from the north side of the mall.
Nickelodeon Universe: There's a log chute, Ferris wheel, carousel, adventure course, tower and coasters, most requiring a height of at least 42 inches. Birthday-party packages reduce prices significantly for groups.
Sea Life Minnesota Aquarium: The attraction at the East entrance shows more than 10,000 sea creatures in 30 tanks.
Stay overnight with the Sleep Under the Sea Overnight Program, which includes pizza, breakfast and souvenirs.
A Great Wolf Lodge with an indoor water park is next to the mall. It has a wave pool, lazy river, raft ride, tube slides, ropes course, Magiquest game and bowling alley.
Dining: There are dozens of snack and fast-food joints plus 20 restaurants, many of them good but rarely listed as among the best in the Twin Cities.
The Embassy Suites is right next to the American Boulevard light-rail stop.
Information: Mall of America, 952-883-8800.