Thingvellir National Park in Iceland is a UNESCO World Heritage site where the Mid-Atlantic Rift is visible above sea level, and fissures of pure water present magical underworlds for divers and snorkelers. Althingi, the longest-standing parliament in the world, was founded in Thingvellir, which shaped the park’s history.
There are many aspects to Thingvellir National Park that offer outstanding tourist attractions with beautiful places to see and incredible things to do. Some of these include:
- Diving in the Silfra Fissure
- Hiking from one side of the Mid-Atlantic Rift to the other in Almannagjá gorge
- Fissuring on Lake Thingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland
- Viewing ancient historical booths from the Althingi
- Taking in the Northern Lights
The history, geology, and the beauty of Thingvellir, or Þingvellir in Icelandic, wraps up all of the significant cultural changes and beautiful places in its stony, rugged grip. Visiting here is like a portal to the past and a trip to the moon for the modern-day traveler.
Find out how to optimize your time here by reading further and discover all the Park has to offer.
How to Plan a Trip to Thingvellir
If anyone is interested in planning a trip to Thingvellir (Þingvellir), it is surprisingly easy to do so. It is only 45 minutes from Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, and is one of the first stops on the famous Golden Circle route around Iceland.
To get there from Reykjavik, take Route 1 north to the point where you hit Route 36, which is in Mosfellsbær. It is a well-maintained route and doesn’t require the use of a 4×4, like other popular tourist destinations in Iceland.
During the summer season, which lasts from May through September, a scenic route is open and laid out for visitors who would like to see a volcano and stunning views of Lake Thingvallavatn before reaching the park. Find this by visiting the Thingvellir website.
It is possible to make a day trip to the Park. There is a wide array of tours that take tourists to the Park for one or two days. It is also easy to rent a car in Iceland, and if the weather is good, it takes less than an hour to get there. There are parking lots around the visitor center and close to the old site of the Althingi.
There are two access points to the Park, close to Almannagjá or farther down. The lower entrance is near to one campsite. Camping is open all year round, and reservations are not necessary. A visitor will need a permit to camp, though, and to fish if that is on their itinerary.
The entrance to the Park itself is free. However, if you drive in, it is necessary to pay for parking. The Park is a popular tourist site no matter what time of year you visit. It is best to visit early in the day or late in the afternoon to avoid large crowds.
Be Safe in the Park
It is crucial to stay on paths or designated areas of the Park. Volcanic activity over the centuries has created hundreds of deep rifts and ravines in the ground all over the Park. So, for your safety: stick to the paths.
Before you visit, it is interesting to recognize the story that the geology in Thingvellir tells about it. Then, you can understand all of its wonders.
Have you ever wondered why Iceland had received its nickname “The Land of Fire and Ice”? We are happy to supply you with the answer, and it all has to do with geology.
The Mid-Atlantic Rift
Iceland lies on top of the meeting point of two tectonic plates; the North American and the Eurasian plates. What’s more, it rests over a “hot spot.” It is the only place in the world where the split between the two plates can be seen above water, ever so displayed in Thingvellir National Park.
This convergence has resulted in the creation of many different volcanoes over the entire island.
Although only a small island compared to other countries, it has 30 active volcano systems along this border.
Thirteen of these have erupted since Iceland was settled. Ash layers from the volcanic outbursts are what have enabled historians to so accurately date back the activity of the settlements since their beginning.
This tectonic plate boundary, also known as the Mid-Atlantic Rift, gives it some of the most alluring scenery in the world. It has created mountains and fissures from a rift valley where the tectonic plates have been slowly pulling the country apart, 2.5 centimeters each year.
The results of this movement are what has supplied it with so many of its incredible features and sites.
What to See in Thingvellir National Park
If you are planning a trip to Iceland or are merely interested in investigating further the results of its location along the Rift, its unique geographic features will keep you engaged for a long time. The best areas to engage with the land of Thingvellir include:
- Silfra Fissure
- Almannagjá gorge
- Öxarárfoss waterfall
- Flosagjá and Nikulásargjá
- Lake Thingvallavatn
- Viking Church
- Historical Booths
- Northern Lights
Silfra fissure has to be at the top of our list when considering the incredible areas and things to do in Thingvellir National Park. The crack is one of many rifts and ravines that have been formed by the tectonic plates pulling apart.
Amazingly, the fissure is not filled by the waters of Lake Thingvallavatn. It is fed into from the looming Langjökull glacier. The freezing glacial meltwaters transition underground for many miles before reaching Silfra.
Through this move, they filter through many layers of underground pumice and come out pristine and clear. This water, as purely reflective as a mirror, is what gave the fissure its name, Silfra, which means silvery.
Silfra fissure is often named among the top five areas in the world to go snorkeling. Divers can push into the depths of the clear water to view unusual rock formations and have a front-row swim to see the forces that dictate the world’s geography.
Photo by Ex nihil
If you prefer to do your Rift-seeing over the water, it is worth checking out Almannagjá gorge. It was formed by an earthquake that released the tension between the two plates. It is possible to see the walls of each tectonic plate inside the gorge.
There is a great deal of history here due to the Althingi meeting at the Law Rock, or Lögberg. When they would create new laws, or desire to go over old ones, the Law Speaker would read them outstanding on a high rock above the gorge where thousands would be listening below where his voice would echo in the cliffs.
Numerous hikes go along the end and into the gorge, giving you an up-close-and-personal view of geological history.
Situated along this gorge is the waterfall, Öxarárfoss. It is fed by the river Öxará and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Park. During the summer, it is dense with those wanting to take in its double-dive down the cliffs of Almmanagjá.
Although this isn’t the largest waterfall in Iceland, being 13 meters high, it is still stunning. It is also used for the winter sport of ice climbing. Although this can be a dangerous endeavor, experts have climbed the waterfall in the dead of winter when it becomes entirely frozen.
Flosagjá and Nikulásargjá
One of the fissures in Thingvellir created by the rift is Flosagjá. It is filled with clear water, fed by glaciers. It gets up to 25 meters deep in some areas and is a popular site for scuba divers and snorkelers.
The fissure forms a fork with a western and an eastern branch. The branch to the east is called Nikulásargjá, and the one to the west is called Flosagjá. In 1907, the distance between the two was bridged. Over the years, people crossing the bridge made a habit of throwing coins in the fissure to exemplify the clarity of the water, causing it to get the nickname Peningagjá, which means Money Fault.
Do note that, although seemingly a fun and harmless activity, the metals in the coins that people have thrown in have damaged the integrity of the water. Don’t allow the temptation to throw yours in to succeed above the welfare of the preserved natural areas.
Lake Thingvallavatn is the largest natural lake in Iceland, taking up approximately 20,757 acres (84 km²), the northern tip of which is located in Thingvellir. It is this lake that Silfra extends into, and it is almost entirely fed by natural springs steaming to it from around the southwestern part of the country.
The lake has an average depth of 112 feet (34 m), but it can reach up to 374 feet deep (114 m).
There is a hydroelectric dam at one end in the lake, where it outflows into the Sog River, although this is outside of Thingvellir National Park’s borders.
The lake is full of trout fish. Fishers can come during the season and fish for 12 hours on the North American side and then move over after lunch to visit Eurasia. Fishing in two worlds!
Drekkingarhylur is known in English as the “Drowning Pool.” Once upon a time, Iceland was settled by Vikings from Norway. It happened during the 9th century, and in the beginning, there were no punishments for any crime worse than exile.
During the Middle Ages, all of this changed, and executions became more and more common. For men, it was common to be decapitated for their offensives. Women were not treated to such a quick death. Instead, theirs was to be drowning, serving as execution, and a lesson to other women in their community.
Sexual immorality was looked upon as an ultimate disgrace. Women accused of sex-related crimes, such as incest, adultery, or pregnancy outside of marriage, were made to face Drekkingarhylur. The women were placed in a bag and then pushed into a pool where they slowly drowned. Historians have found that at least 18 Icelandic women were executed in the ill-fated pool.
Shockingly, this practice continued for hundreds of years across Iceland, with the last execution taking place in 1830. One hundred years later, in 1928, the death penalty was entirely abolished and discarded from Icelandic law ever since. The waters, however, still hold their memories.
Thingvellir shouldn’t disappoint visiting history buffs as there is still evidence of the Vikings scattered throughout the Park.
One of these places is the Thingvellir church. The original church built around 1015 would have stood somewhere closeby, commissioned by the Norweigan King, Olaf the Holy. Since then, it has been rebuilt many times. The current church was built in 1859.
A belltower was added to the structure in 1907 that presently holds three bells. One of them is thought to be ancient, being currently without a date. The next was one given to the church from a bishop, Jón Vídalín. The third is called “Iceland’s bell.” It was set up in the tower the year that Iceland became a republic, 1944.
During the ancient Althingi meetings, the plains of Thingvellir would explode with activity. By the end of the 11th century, as recorded by Bishop Gissur Ísleifsson, the farmers alone numbered 4,000 since one in every nine farmers had to accompany the chieftain during the two-week meeting of the summer.
During this short period, the Althingi became a hub for the entire country. If you had wares to sell, beer to brew, or services to sell, you would be there. Booths would be erected out of turfgrass and boulders, typically established on top of those from the years before.
Relics, mostly covered by grass and vegetation, are the only remnants showing the geological evidence of almost 900 years of annual Althing meetings.
Exploring these is a definite possibility for those interested in seeing the ancient sites. There are hiking paths that can take you close to some of these old relics. They also do reenactments throughout the tourist season of some of the areas commonly believed to be part of the Althingi meeting area.
The Aurora Borealis, or the lights of the north, can be seen on particularly clear nights from Thingvellir National Park. They are unpredictable due to the unreliable weather patterns in Iceland.
To aid those that dream of experiencing the spectacular natural show, the Icelandic Met Office has put up an Aurora forecast on their website. The forecast helps predict the best places in the area to enjoy the Northern Lights each night, particularly in the autumn or winter when it will be colder.
Wildlife in Thingvellir National Park
Painting the Icelandic geography as filled with rocky outcroppings and crystalline pools might make it sound devoid of life. However, this is not the reality at all, especially if you know what to keep your eyes open for. There are fish, birds, foxes, and more that make their home in Thingvellir National Park.
There is not a wide diversity of mammals that have made their home on Iceland’s rocky landings. The most common animals you can expect to see are the:
- Arctic fox
- Icelandic horses
The Arctic fox is the only native land mammal to Iceland that is still around today. They are elusive, though, with coat colors that change to help them blend in no matter the season.
Walruses used to be the other native mammal, frequent to the shores of Iceland. However, they disappeared from the area shortly after human settlement. Although no one knows why for sure, there are theories of overhunting the animal or that climate change made the land no longer viable for their needs.
Mink has also since become a much more common sight across Iceland after escaping cages when they were brought from Europe. They were brought for their furs, but the idea was originally to keep them enclosed. Because they don’t have natural predators on the island, their populations have exploded.
Finally, there are the reindeer and Icelandic horses. The reindeer were brought to Iceland in the 18th century because of a royal decree. The King believed that the reindeer would thrive in Iceland and would provide more food resources. Shortly after this, the Icelandic farmers were taught to be reindeer herders. Hunting them in the Eastfjords is popular to this day.
It would be impossible not to highlight the fish populations in the Park since it contains the largest natural lake in Iceland and is known for incredible fishing. Along with every other part of the Park, it is tied into history from ages gone by. Some of the most common fish in the lakes of the Park include:
- Brown Trout
- Arctic Char
- Three-spined Stickleback
Fly fishing is legal for most of the year, 24 hours a day. Some of these fish have been a part of Icelandic wildlife since the last Ice Age. Just as you sit on the side of a river or lake, you can imagine the Norsemen sitting in the same spot, catching the same kind of fish to enjoy that evening.
The bird population on Iceland is quite diverse since many birds migrate in and through Iceland during different seasons of the year. Many of these birds can be seen around Lake Mývatn and feature common species like the:
- Greylag Goose
- Short-Eared Owl
- Meadow Pipit
- Arctic Tern
A total of 52 species make the lake and surrounding area in the Park their home. Thirty other breeds fly through the area from North America, including the stunning Harlequin Duck and the Barrow’s Goldeneye.
White-tailed eagles are the largest bird of prey that lives in Iceland. They are a massive bird, with a wingspan of 2 to 2.5 meters. They used to be much more common but were hunted almost to extinction in all but the western region. They are now well-protected, and their numbers are slowly climbing. Viewing one of these Icelandic birds is truly a treat.
Flora of Thingvellir National Park
Thingvellir hosts examples of 40% of all of the Icelandic flora. Approximately 172 species of higher plants can be found in the region. These include the Bláskógar or Blue Woods in English. This forest is made up of birch trees of several different varieties and has incredible fall color, blazing across the hills and crests of Iceland.
Historical Significance of Thingvellir
Although Thingvellir was only designated a national park in 1928 by the Icelandic government, its history started long before that.
Iceland was discovered accidentally by Norsemen that had been blown off track at some point in the 9th century. One commented that it looked good since it was “wooded from the mountains down to the sea.”
The Settlement Period
The first known settlers to Iceland were the Norse, starting with Ingólfur Arnarson in the year 874. The following 56 years are what is known as “The Settlement Period” in Iceland.
The catalyst that began the movement to Iceland’s shores was the recent unity of Norway under King Harald Fairhair. His was a reign of increasing tyranny in a land that prized distinguishing free men from slaves. Settlements began to form up and down the Icelandic coastline.
There were a number of issues going forward from this time since each group had their forms of government, laws, and customs, even though they shared a common language and religion.
Since Iceland is not a land filled with easily-accessed resources to make life easier, the clans fought between each other. It was as early as all of this that the focus of power began to form around Reykjavík, the current capital of Iceland.
To stop the clan’s growing violence, Grímur Geitskör was appointed to find representatives from each clan and a meeting location for assemblies. A sheltered piece of land that could be accessed from all areas of Iceland was found, and the man who owned it was “unfortunately” accused of murder. The land became public and is now known as Thingvellir National Park.
Thingvellir was the site of the first assembly, called Alþingi, in 930 AD. It created the first stepping stones for a representative parliament in response to the tyranny of the Norwegian King. Hence the name of the Park as Thingvellir translates to “the fields of parliament.”
The reason that Iceland is now known as a Christian nation is mainly due to the Althingi since it was here that they decided to convert to Christianity. During increasing stresses between Iceland and the Old Country, Norway, they decided to convert and the current Law Speaker of the time, Thorgeir Thorkelsson threw his pagan statues over Godafoss waterfall.
Although the site of the Althingi has been moved to Reykjavík, Thingvellir is still lauded in the hearts of Icelanders as the site of the world’s longest-running parliament.
This long-standing history is why the government declared it one of its few national parks as “a protected national shrine for all Icelanders, the perpetual property of the Icelandic nation under the preservation of parliament, never to be sold or mortgaged.”
Cultural Importance of Thingvellir
Thingvellir National Park represents unity, freedom, and independence. From the beginning of its known history, it was the site of major cultural changes and decisions, from young to old. People of all different sectors and economic standings came together when they would never have crossed paths before.
The start of the Althingi united the settlements of Iceland, significantly reducing the amount of violence between clans. This united front became vastly important when they were attacked and affronted throughout the centuries.
After they did fall during the time of the Dutch invasion, Thingvellir became a symbol of independence during the 19th and 20th centuries when they finally broke away from their rule. Thingvellir was witness to the foundation of the Republic of Iceland when the change took place away from the monarchy in June of 1944.
Thingvellir is a UNESCO World Heritage Site
In 2004, Iceland’s Thingvellir National Park became one of the 1,121 World Heritage Sites spread throughout the globe. It is the only UNESCO World Heritage site in Iceland. It earned its place among these incredible locations worldwide due to its long and impactful cultural and geological history.
For an area to be a World Heritage site, it has to be shown that it is of Outstanding Universal Value. It has to “transcend national boundaries and be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity.”
Thingvellir has indeed transcended cultural boundaries to become important to nations and people around the world. This recognition has aided in the country’s conservation and rehabilitation efforts inside the Park.
Thingvellir National Park is one of the most popular tourist sites in all of Iceland, and for good reason as you have read. This incredible site has been recognized globally for the cultural and historic impact it has had, much less the effect on all Icelander’s hearts.
Tourism has been damaging to the Park, which is why there are ever-increasing regulations and park ranger patrols. As always, with any area of natural beauty and cultural significance, take care when enjoying the treasure that you are taking in; because Thingvellir National Park is just that, a treasure of Iceland.