Visit: Sunday, September 30, 2018
We’ve always loved shopping, especially at big malls. I know not everyone agrees, and that’s okay, but for us, malls are a relaxing way to spend an afternoon. We don’t have to have a specific shopping list or destination in mind; it’s fun just strolling through, “window shopping” and “people watching” and sometimes finding unexpected treasures. When I need creative inspiration, I often find the fabrics, home decor items, jewelry, and other items at the mall to be a great source of new ideas.
Growing up in the Bay Area in the ’90s, I took it for granted that the question was only ever “Which mall?” and not whether or not to make the trek out to “the mall.” (When I got to college and met people from other parts of California, I realized how blessed we are here.) It’s true that online shopping has shifted the nature of most malls to include more restaurants, movie theaters, and interactive experiences than in the past, but anyone who tells you that malls are a “dying breed” has clearly not tried to park at one on a Saturday afternoon recently. Trust me, there are plenty of people still going to malls, and we will always be among them.
Silicon Valley is still home to many malls (although sightly fewer than twenty years ago, it’s true), most of which are listed on our Ideas page. We’ve sorted them by indoor/enclosed malls vs. outdoor/open-air centers so you can choose based on the weather or your personal preferences. We’ve been to almost every mall on that list, many multiple times. We have a few favorites but enjoy almost all of them for different reasons. Each has different stores, of course, but also different types of restaurants, different sensory levels, and different overall vibes.
Today we chose the Great Mall in Milpitas because we hadn’t been there in a while and because it had a couple stores we wanted to browse for specific items. As always, we enjoyed this mall’s variety and lively atmosphere.
In a Nutshell
This is a relatively large mall laid out in a big oval shape. It’s divided into what they call “neighborhoods,” which are just segments of the loop like slices of a pie. It’s a way to help you navigate and know where you are.
The mall has a combination of bigger anchor stores and smaller stores. Many are high-end outlets or big-name stores and some are unique local spots. It’s a Simon mall (meaning the parent company who runs it is Simon) so it has a wider variety of stores than most Westfield malls do. The exact mix of stores changes on a regular basis, so check the mall’s website for a current list if there’s something specific you want to see.
In addition to stores, the mall has a Century movie theater, a Dave & Buster’s entertainment space, changing activities inside (such as jumpers, 3D simulator seats, or a small train for little kids to ride), and of course multiple restaurants and a food court.
One of the things I enjoy most about this mall is its diversity. It really feels like a miniature version of the entire Bay Area inside. We see families and individuals of all ages and cultures there, but have never once felt a problem in it. (Having grown up in San Jose, then gone to college in a town that was over 80% white and 50% twenty-somethings, this diversity is one of the things I missed most about home and still consciously enjoy now that I’m back.) I love listening to the plethora of languages being spoken all in one place. Call me philosophical, but I find it beautiful to see such diverse people just enjoying their afternoon and sharing this space so peacefully. The world could take a lesson here.
The Great Mall is in Milpitas, just pass the San Jose border, about halfway between I-880 and I-680, near Montague Expressway. See their website for driving directions if you don’t have GPS.
The mall’s address is 447 Great Mall Dr, Milpitas, CA 95035-8041.
The mall is surrounded by a large parking lot on all sides. There’s also a small parking garage on one side near the Bed Bath & Beyond (Neighborhood 5) entrance. For some reason, we’ve found the most disabled parking spaces to be available in this area, but of course there are blue slots all around the mall if you need them.
There’s also a big public transit hub at the edge of the parking lot. The Light Rail, ten VTA bus lines, and one AC Transit bus all meet here, so it’s possible to get to the mall via public transit from most of the Bay Area.
This is an indoor mall, so it’s great in any weather. In case it’s pouring cats-and-dogs in the winter, do be aware that the parking garage is close to the entrance but does not have a covered walkway, so you may have to walk (or roll) in the rain for a short stretch. In the summer, we have sometimes found it to get pretty crowded by mid/late afternoon on exceptionally hot days when many people (including us) come in search of air conditioning. Other than those two extremes, the weather really doesn’t factor in here.
Length of Time
This is a medium-large mall, so you can choose whether to spend a couple hours or most of the day here. It depends on whether you’re just wandering and browsing in a few stores or whether you want to go in more stores, try on more clothes, eat in a sit-down restaurant, see a movie, etc.
Unless it’s one of those exceptionally crowded afternoons, this mall is usually nicely wheelchair-friendly. They’ve recently completed a renovation that included new flooring, which makes for even less friction/drag on the wheelchair tires and therefore less draw on the battery. Some stores are laid out with wider or narrower aisles than others, of course, but that’s true everywhere. We’ve had no trouble navigating most of the stores here.
Note: a few big stores and most restaurants have restrooms inside, but the majority of the mall’s public restrooms are located down hallways between stores. They’re clearly marked on the map and with signs. There is at least one wheelchair-accessible stall in each one, but do keep in mind that some of the hallways are fairly long and sometimes you find a long line for the women’s room at the end. Don’t wait until it’s super urgent…
Vision & Hearing
Overall, the Great Mall is similar to other malls in terms of visual or auditory access. The background noise level is usually not super loud (i.e. it’s easy to follow a conversation while wearing hearing aids). One thing to note for someone with low vision: for some reason, this mall has never established a consistent traffic flow pattern. In most malls, I’ve seen that people tend to walk on the right, so most of the people around you are flowing the same direction you are. In this mall, people tend to walk both ways on both sides, so you do have to be a little more alert than usual to cross-traffic or to people walking toward you. If you have very limited vision, it may help to have a companion in this setting.
I’d rate this mall as a “medium” on the sensory scale. It’s not as mellow as Hillsdale or Stoneridge, but it’s also not as in-your-face as some I’ve encountered. I don’t usually wear my earplugs here. There is some background music, mostly from the stores, but it’s not overwhelming. In this mall, you will find ample skylights, high ceilings, and mostly neutral-colored flooring and walls in the main walkways, especially since the renovation. (The flooring does have some print to it, but it’s a neutral tone-on-tone pattern, nothing like the bright geometric carpet patterns I see elsewhere.) The signs are color-coded by Neighborhood to help you orient yourself. The food smells are mostly contained to food areas and the strongly-scented stores don’t leak into the common spaces much at all. As long as it’s not too crowded, I usually find this mall to be busy/alive-feeling but quite nice.
The Great Mall has a food court with an ever-changing assortment of choices, plus multiple sit-down restaurants. Some of these, such as Red Robin, are in the mall and some, such as Olive Garden, are freestanding buildings in the parking lot. Check out the “food” tab on their website for a current list of offerings.
On this trip, we were delighted to find that they now have Loving Hut in the food court! This is one of our favorite vegan restaurants. At this location, it’s a self-serve hot bar with lots of choices and you simply pay based on the weight at the end.
We also noticed a new Jamba Juice on this trip, which opens up even more vegan and allergy-friendly choices. Of course you can also always bring your own food to eat in the food court or on any bench/seating area around the mall.
Would we go back?
Of course! We’ve been here countless times before and will continue to visit in the future. We sometimes go for something specific (such as luggage, purses, Pyrex, shoes, fancy dresses, or other things for which they have an uncommonly large number of choices) and sometimes just for the fun of walking around the mall. Whether you’re doing some holiday shopping or just enjoying a day out, the Great Mall in Milpitas will make you smile!