MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Shopping at the Megamall

The Mall of America is huge, but take your time and you'll find its heart.

Theme park at Mall of America.

© Beth Gauper

Dora the Explorer welcomes kids to the Ferris wheel.

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.

It's easy to buy local at the Mall of America, if you want. In a little lane near Nordstrom, I found Irish Blessings, based in St. Paul, and the Izba Store of the Museum of Russian Art in south Minneapolis.

Pastries at Pardon My French.

© Beth Gauper

The locally owned Pardon My French sells European-style pastries.

At the Izba Store, I found a trove of exquisite gifts and Christmas ornaments from Eastern Europe, some hand-blown and some from the Russian ceramics village of Yaroslavl. I picked out a $34 court jester made by Natalia Pavlova, who happened to be in town the next weekend to sign her works.

“The herd only goes in a circle, so if you follow the herd, you never find these hidden treasure lanes,'' said clerk Tom Van Speybroeck, 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. Then I went into The Afternoon gift shop, recommended by the woman at a Thymes fragrance cart, and if I hadn't sworn off expensive stocking stuffers, I would have bought a bundle there.

Still, the Omaha-based shop sucked me in long enough to buy a $10 bright-yellow silicone stirring spoon.

I also had to buy some chocolate toffee at See's Candies, which is famous for it. It's fun to buy things from friendly women in white uniforms who give you a free Scotchmallow, a fat square of caramel and honey marshmallow encased in dark chocolate.

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, the Amazing Mirror Maze 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 Paciugo Gelato & Caffe, 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.

I ended up with pistachio, cappuccino and berry acai, all top-notch – the gelato is made on-site every morning. If you call 24 hours in advance, he said, they'll make your favorite flavor.

At European Gifts & World Treasures, I picked up a $75 gingerbread Advent calendar from Nuremberg, Germany, for $15. "You got the deal of the day,'' the pleasant owner said.

Selling hats at a kiosk.

© Beth Gauper

Two Panda Hats carts sell fuzzy animals for the head.

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 celebrating its grand opening by 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; Bristol Palin came here in 2011 to sign her memoir, bringing her parents, Todd and Sarah. In 2003, Hillary Rodham Clinton drew a crowd of 4,000; the wrestler The Rock drew 8,000 in 2000.

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 rent for $5 and strollers and shopping carts for $6 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.

Giant figures made of Legos.

© Beth Gauper

Giant figures made of Legos sit on the roof of the Legos store.

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, Nordstrom and Sears.

A Mall of America coupon book is $2. Macy's offers a pass for 10 percent off to out-of-state visitors who can show an I.D.

An IKEA is across from the north side of the mall.

Nickelodeon Universe: There's a log chute, Ferris wheel, carousel, tower and coasters, most requiring a height of at least 42 inches.

An all-day wristband for unlimited rides is $31.99. Birthday-party packages reduce prices significantly for groups.

The Dutchman's Deck Adventure Course is $10.99 without a wristband.

Sea Life Minnesota Aquarium: The attraction at the East entrance shows more than 10,000 sea creatures in 30 tanks. Check in advance for feeding times.

Admission is $22.99, $17.99-$15.99 if bought online. Children 3-12 pay $16.99, $14.99-$12.99 online. Watch for frequent deals.

Overnight Adventures are $55-$65, including evening pizza, breakfast and souvenirs.

Other attractions: At the mall, they include the Moose Mountain 18-hole miniature-golf course, the A.C.E.S. Flight Simulator and the Amazing Mirror Maze.

Tyrone the moose at Nickelodeon Universe.

© Beth Gauper

Tyrone, one of the Backyardigans, says hello to kids at Nickelodeon Universe.

The Water Park of America is attached to the nearby Radisson Hotel. It has a wave pool, lazy river, raft ride, tube slides and FlowRider surfing waves.

Admission varies from $14.95 weekdays (though the park often is closed weekdays during school terms) to $34.95 on holidays. Check for coupon offers; Goldstar frequently offers tickets for as low as $5.

Attraction deals: The three-day Big Ticket, $89, $79 for children 2-13, includes visits to Nickelodeon Universe, Sea Life and the Water Park of America as well as the Minnesota Zoo and its IMAX theater in nearby Apple Valley and the Science Museum of Minnesota in downtown St. Paul.

Bloomington CVB discounts include $4 off Sea Life and 20 percent off the Big Ticket.

Nightlife: After shopping, you can stay for a show at Rick Bronson's House of Comedy or the 14 movie theaters.

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.

They include Crave, Twin City Grill, Bubba Gump's, Tucci Benucch, Napa Valley Grille and Cadillac Ranch. Many offer happy hours and specials.

Accommodations: There are dozens of nearby hotels, nearly all offering free shuttles to the mall. Check for package deals.

The 15-story JW Marriott and the 13-story Radisson Blu are the only hotels connected to the mall.

The Country Inn & Suites is across from the south entrance of the mall. It's flanked by the Best Western and Homewood Suites.

The Ramada, Airport Marriott and Fairfield Inn & Suites are a short walk from the north entrance.

The Embassy Suites is right next to the American Boulevard light-rail stop.

Information: Mall of America, 952-883-8800.

Last updated on February 11, 2016