Thingvellir is a favourite stop among travellers along the Golden Circle route. It has been a National Park in Iceland since 1930 and was named a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 2004. When Viking settlers arrived in the 10th century it was the site they chose as the meeting place of Althingi, the world’s oldest parliament.
The location may seem a bit out of the way, but the unique geology created a natural amphitheater perfect for public speaking including the high rock wall of Logberg (Law Rock). Here the laws of the land would be recited from memory. The parliament’s members, godar, discussed and decided new laws and passed on judgments in Althing.
Aside from its historic interest, Thingvellir holds a special appeal for nature lovers. It is the visible site of the mid-Atlantic Ridge where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. The plates are being pulled apart at a rate of 2 centimetres (nearly an inch) per year, creating the Thingvellir Rift Valley. The geology here is not only interesting to learn about but also spectacular to behold.
In winter it also offers a great view, especially after dark when the Northern Lights reign supreme on the sky. When snow covers the lave field and the days are short, the landscape becomes almost surreal. A visit to the national park offers some great photo opportunities in the winter. Thingvellir has been a favorite spot among professional and amateur photographers for years, and for a good reason.
According to a law, passed in 1928, Thingvellir shall always be the property of the Icelandic nation, under the preservation of the Alþing. The National Park was formerly founded in 1930, marking the thousand-year anniversary of the Alþing. Later the park was expanded to protect the incredible and diverse nature of the park. It was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2004.
Althing in Thingvellir
Only a few years after the Norse settlers settled in Iceland, the first thing was held. According to the Book of Settlement, it was Thorsteinn, the son of Ingolfr Arnarson who settled in Reykjavik and is believed to be the first permanent settler, who called for the thing in Kjalarnes. It was held in Thingnes by Ellidavatn lake, close to Reykjavik. The settlers knew and were familiar with things, since germanic cultures had been holding things for ages before Iceland was settled. There was also need for common rules and laws, not to mention some way for the settlers to solve disputes in a non-violent manner.
The Kjalarnes thing was the first step. Few decades later, in 930 AD, Althing was held for the first time. As a preparation for the Althing a man, Ulfljotr, was sent to Norway to studdy their laws. Initially it was held in the land of Blaskogar, west of Lake Thingvallavatn. That land was owned by Thorir kroppinskeggi, but he was found guilty for murdering a freed slave and the land was taken from him and given to the thing. The first law that were recited in Althing were called Ulfljotslog or the Law of Ulfljotr.
The reason for choosing Thingvellir for Althing believed to be twofold. First of all, Thingvellir is central and accessible from all corners of Iceland. It has water and the setting suits the thing perfectly. But it is also believed, that the family of Ingolfr Arnarson had a hand in choosing the place for the Althing. They had initiated the thing in Kjalarnes and still held some political power.
What was the Althing like?
During the age of the Icelandic Commonwealth the land was divided into counties, called godord. In each godord was one chieftain or Godi. Every farm was supposed to swear allegiance to a Godi, but could freely choose whom to follow. The chieftains were the leaders of the country and before Christianity they probably were also responsible for religious services. Initially there were 36 godords but 3 more were added few years after the first Althing.
The Speaker of the Laws or Logsogumadr, was the most powerful person in Althing. The role of the Speaker was to recite the laws at the Althing and govern meetings in Logretta, which was the highest institute of Althing. All godis had a seat in Logretta and each could appoint two advisers. Logretta appointed men to judge in the five courts, there were courts for every part of Iceland (east, north, west, south) and a high court, which had the same role as Supreme Court does today.
The Althing was held in the 9th week of summer each year before Christianity but in the 10th week after the year 1000. Usually there were many more people there than just the Godis and their advisers. This was so much more than just a judicial gathering, for people all over Iceland came and did business, arranged marriages and settled disputes, not to mention socializing, gossiping and having fun.
Thingvellir tectonic plates
Thingvellir is notable for its unusual tectonic and volcanic environment in a rift valley. The continental drift can clearly be seen in the cracks or faults which traverse the region. At the park center you can learn more about Thingvellir’s geology.
At Almannagja, one of these faults on the west side of the plain, you can see the easternmost edge of the North American tectonic plate. It is normally submerged in the Atlantic Ocean. On the east side at the Heidargja Gorge, you are at the westernmost edge of the Eurasian plate.
South of Thingvellir you can see lake Thingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland. Lava fields stretches into the lake from the north and there are many fissuers in the lava. There you’ll find that water from the lake has found its way along with large trouts and arctic chars. Many tourist either go snorkeling in the lake and the many fissures, most notable Silfra Gorge (see below) or go fishing in the lake.
What to see in Thingvellir?
There is much to explore in the park including the 20 meter (66 ft) Oxara waterfall, and the Nikulasargja Gorge, better known as Peningagja (Money Gorge) because it is customary to toss coins (and sometimes credit cards!) into the icy-cold water and make a wish.
The Oxararfoss Waterfall is a beautiful waterfall, though the pool under it has a darker story, for men and women were drowned there, after being sentenced to death in the Middle Ages.
The view from the top of Almannagja, where the visitor center is located, is stunning. Don’t forget your camera.
Snorkeling in Thingvellir
Thingvellir is also home to Lake Thingvallavatn known best for Silfra Gorge, an extraordinary dive site where you are literally swimming between continents in clear, glacial water. If you like snorkeling, this is something you need to try out.
How to get to Thingvellir National Park?
Thingvellir is located about 45km northeast of Reykjavik. If you drive the ring road north out of Reykjavik and pass the town Mosfellsbaer, you take the first exit to the right at a roundabout onto road 36, which leads you to Thingvellir.
Is there an entrance fee?
Thingvellir does not have entrance fee as such, but if you travel by car you will have to pay a parking fee of 500 ISK. The ticket is valid for the whole day and at all parking lots.
The Golden Circle
Thingvellir National Park is a part of the famous Golden Circle, along with Geysir and Gullfoss Waterfall. It takes about a day to go the Golden Circle, which we fully recommend.
Check out our complete guide to the Golden Circle and West Iceland.