Hordes of Twin Cities shoppers, clutching Christmas lists, are descending on Rosedale, Mall of America, Southdale and Maplewood, a few of the busiest malls during the holidays. But what attracts some shoppers makes others steer clear.

"I can't stand the Rosedale parking lot," said Amanda Kohuth of St. Paul. "Sometimes I turn in the wrong direction and then I don't know how to get out." She prefers smaller, less crowded malls such as HarMar, where she can easily drive in and out.

Some aging second- or third-tier centers seem as inviting as a 1960s-era strip mall (because they are), but they offer several advantages besides a break from bedlam. Big-box stores such as Target or Marshalls are less likely to be sold out of popular items at their less well-traveled stores. And second-tier centers are more likely to offer an uncommon assortment of tenants, from Cub Foods and Michaels arts and crafts to services such as nail salons and alterations shops.

At Knollwood in St. Louis Park, for example, you can shop T.J. Maxx, Bath & Body Works and Kohl's and then stroll down the avenue for swimming lessons, a manicure and a nosh.

The following five retail areas provide plenty of good holiday shopping, even if the decor is as dated as a '50s rambler, a few too many storefronts remain empty and most rest in the shadow of a brighter, shinier relative.

HarMar (2100 Snelling Av. N., Roseville, 651-631-0340, www.harmarmall.com)

For a mall that is what it is without putting on airs, try HarMar, where the theme is "shopping for real life." It's been around since the 1960s. Despite more than a few vacant stores, the remaining 40-plus retailers are a practical mix of standouts, including Barnes & Noble, Marshalls, HomeGoods, Lands' End Not Quite Perfect store (the only one in Minnesota), Michaels and Hallmark.

Cub Foods, a pet store, a nail salon and many sit-down and fast food restaurants complete the retail package. "It's one of the few malls that feels like a neighborhood," said Mary Winter of Lilydale, a weekly HarMar shopper. One nit: the "neighborhood" might want to spring for new Christmas decorations. Even Scrooge would grouse about the single strands of unlit lights hanging from the ceiling.

Knollwood (8332 Hwy. 7, St. Louis Park, 952-933-8041, www.knollwoodmall.com)

HarMar's customers rave about the selection at Marshalls, but Knollwood's shoppers praise their T.J. Maxx. It's one of only a few locations with Runway, a separate women's department with contemporary couture fashions. "They have better stuff here. It's not as picked over," said Maria Gottwalt of Plymouth.

DSW Shoes, Old Navy, The Avenue and Cub are also on site but must be entered outside the mall. Specialty retailers include Keith's Furniture Outlet, Transtech (lift chairs and travel scooters) and Lyndale House Antiques.

Southtown (southeast corner of I-494 and Penn Av. S., Bloomington, 952-881-8166, www.southtownbloomington.com)

More than a strip mall and less than a lifestyle center, Southtown has been Southdale's neighbor since the 1960s. A few stores have a mall entrance, including T.J. Maxx and Schuler Shoes, but most stores have separate entrances, including Herberger's, Kohl's, and Bed, Bath & Beyond as well as smaller stores such as Carter's Kids, and Party City. The entrance on American Boulevard is less busy than on Penn Avenue, but parking is ample. Now that a new Herberger's has opened in Southdale, parking has eased a bit.

Downtown Minneapolis (www.startribune.com/a843)

Mall shoppers don't pay to park, and downtown suffers by making people pay. But many parking meters are free after 6 p.m. and on weekends. Macy's offers free parking with a $20 purchase after 4 p.m. weekdays and anytime on weekends. Target (enter on LaSalle Avenue) offers an hour of free underground, heated parking weekdays with a $20 purchase and two hours of free parking on weekends with a $20 purchase. Downtown's reputation as a no man's land for budget shoppers is no longer true. The two-story Target on Nicollet Mall changed that, but there's still an exclusive string of pearls along the Mall (Saks Off Fifth outlet, Neiman Marcus, Hubert White men's store and J.B. Hudson Jewelers). Come for the light parade and stay to shop (Holidazzle.com).

Downtown White Bear Lake (www.downtownwhitebear lake.com)

For a dose of nostalgia without sadness, White Bear Lake is arguably the best example of downtown survival. A few vacant storefronts mar the otherwise festive spirit, but its "dine, shop, relax" philosophy weaves a holiday spell.

While it's a true working downtown with attorneys, body shops, bakeries and banks, locally owned retail gems are sprinkled in every block, including Lake Country Booksellers, Bear Patch Quilting Co., Goodthings and The Nest gift shops, Heritage II Scandinavian shop, and the new Lulu & Luigi pet shop. Another highlight: beauty and salon services, said Goodthings co-owner Tyler Conrad. Upcoming event: Winter Fest from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday with live reindeer, a giant slide, bounce house and carolers.

John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633 or jewoldt@startribune.com. If you spot a deal, share it at www.startribune.com/dealspotter.