Centennial Olympic Park, one of the most enduring legacies of the 1996 Olympic Games, is a living monument to the city's memories -- both good and bad -- of that seminal event. Conceived as a town square, it represents the heart of the Olympic effort, the site where everyone flocked to celebrate the games. And when the games resumed after the bombing in the park that claimed one life, it was where people gathered to try to revive the Olympic spirit. Ongoing upgrades keep the park in tiptop shape for the more than three million visitors who come here each year.
A 21-acre swath of green space and bricks, the park was carved out of a blighted downtown area. It's an oasis of rolling lawns crisscrossed by brick pathways and punctuated by artwork, rock gardens, pools, and fountains. There are usually a few free events each month -- festivals, artists' markets, concerts, and other performances, some private, some open to the public. The park is home to a number of concert series, a huge Fourth of July celebration, and the Holiday in Lights, including an ice skating rink. Call for a complete listing of happenings or visit their website.
If you're visiting the park on your own, and not coming for a specific event, your first stop should be the Visitor Center on Andrew Young International Boulevard, in the southwest corner of the park, across from the CNN Center. This is where you'll find information about the park. If you bought a $35 commemorative brick in 1996, someone will help you locate it among more than 500,000 engraved bricks that were used to pave the plaza and walkways. Even if you didn't buy a brick, it's fun to wander around and read the names and messages (some pretty intriguing) engraved on them.
The best part of the park is the Fountain of Rings and its 251 water jets in the shape of the five interlocking Olympic rings. It's the focus of a vast paved plaza bordered by 23 flags honoring the host countries of the summer games from 1996 and earlier. If you're here in summer, you and the kids can frolic in the Fountain of Rings (wear shoes, please, and bring a bathing suit), a good way to cool off in the sizzling southern heat. Don't be shy -- just about everybody in Atlanta has done this at one time or another. If getting drenched is not your thing, you can still enjoy one of the "concerts" put on by the fountain -- choreographed water-and-light displays, during which the water jets, which normally shoot 12 feet into the air, can reach 35 feet during special effects.
Located along the east border are the Quilt Plazas, five plazas of contrasting bricks that tell the story of the Centennial Olympic Games. The best "quilt" is also the most moving. Titled the Quilt of Remembrance, it pays respect to the bombing victims and contains colored marble from five continents. Be sure to read the inscriptions on its borders.
Pricey Parkland -- If you really, really, really had a good time at Centennial Olympic Park, you can have it all to yourself for a small fee. Though it's a public park, it's also a moneymaker managed by the Georgia World Congress Center Authority, and parts of the park are sometimes rented for various business functions, parties, and other celebrations. There have even been a few weddings. You can rent the entire park for, um, $15,000. If you're short on cash, you can always buy the park for $1 million in Monopoly money, as it's a featured Atlanta location in the Monopoly Here and Now board game. Call tel. 404/222-7275 for facility rental details.