Thingvellir is a favorite stop among travelers along the Golden Circle route. It has been a National Park in Iceland since 1930 and became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004. When Viking settlers arrived in the 10th century, it was their chosen site for Althingi, the world’s oldest Parliament.
Thingvellir’s unique geology created a natural amphitheater perfect for public speaking, including the high rock wall of Logberg (Law Rock). During annual Althingi meetings, an elected Law Speaker would recite the laws of the land from memory. The parliament’s members, godar, discussed and decided new laws and passed judgements.
In addition to its historic interest, Thingvellir holds a special appeal for geology buffs. It is the visible site of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. The plates are pulling apart at a rate of 2 centimeters (nearly an inch) per year, creating the Thingvellir Rift Valley.
In winter it also offers a great view, especially after dark when the northern lights reign supreme. When snow covers the lave field and the days are short, the landscape becomes almost surreal. A visit to the national park offers great photo opportunities. 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 belongs to the Icelandic nation and is under the Althing’s protection. The Althing marked its thousand-year anniversary by declaring Thingvellir as a National Park. In 2004, UNESCO named Thingvellir a World Heritage Site.
Althing in Thingvellir
Only a few years after the Norse settlers settled in Iceland, the first Thing (tribal meeting, or þing) took place. Things had been a part of Germanic tribes for centuries, and Icelanders continued the tradition. Thing meetings allowed members of tribes to discuss common rules and laws and to solve disputes in a non-violent way.
According to the Book of Settlements, Thorsteinn, the son of Ingolfur Arnarson (the founder of Reykjavik and Iceland’s first permanent settler), organized Iceland’s first Thing. It took place in Thingnes by Ellidavatn lake, close to Reykjavik.
Later, in 930 AD, the Althing was held for the first time. The Althing was a national meeting of clans and tribes across Iceland, a type of national parliament. The Althing took place in Blaskogar, west of Lake Thingvallavatn. That land was owned by Thorir Kroppinskeggi, but he was found guilty for murdering a freed slave. The land was taken from him and given to the Althing.
Historians believe there are two reasons why the settlers chose Thingvellir for the Althing. First of all, Thingvellir is central and accessible from all corners of Iceland. Secondly, it has a water source and the perfect natural terrain for holding a meeting.
What was the Althing like?
During the age of the Icelandic Commonwealth, Iceland was divided into counties, called godord. A chieftain, or godi, would rule each godord. Before Christianity, these chieftains probably also served as priests. Every farmer had to swear allegiance to a godi, but he could freely choose which godi to follow. 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 the Althing. The role of the Speaker was to recite the laws at the Althing and govern meetings in the Logretta, which was the highest institute of Althing. Each godi had a seat in Logretta and each could appoint two advisers. The Logretta appointed men to judge in the country’s five courts. One court was in each corner of Iceland (east, north, west, south), and there was also a high court similar to today’s Supreme Court.
The Althing took place in the 9th week of summer each year before Christianity, and in the 10th week after the year 1000. Along with the godis and their advisors, many other people came to the annual Althing. The Althing was a great place for people to do business, arrange marriages, and settle disputes. Additionally, people came to socialize, gossip and have fun.
Thingvellir’s tectonic plates
Thingvellir is notable for its unusual tectonic and volcanic environment in a rift valley. You can clearly see the continental drift in the cracks or faults which traverse the region.
At Almannagja fault 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. You can literally walk between two continents when you are in Thingvellir. You can learn much more about Thingvellir’s geology at the national park’s visitor center.
South of Thingvellir, you can see Thingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland. Lava fields stretch into the lake from the north, and there are many fissures in the lava. Water from the lake has made its way into these fissures, along with large trout and arctic char. The most famous of these fissues is Silfra Groge, where visitors can snorkel in the clear water.
What to see in Thingvellir?
There is much to explore in the park, such as the 20 meter (66 ft) Oxara waterfall. The Oxararfoss Waterfall is a beautiful waterfall. However, the pool under it has a darker story. During the the Middle Ages, men and women who were sentenced to death were drowned there.
Nikulasargja Gorge is also popular. Icelanders call it Peningagja (Money Gorge) because it is customary to toss coins into the icy-cold water and make a wish.
The view from the top of Almannagja, where the visitor center is located, is stunning. Don’t forget your camera..
How to get to Thingvellir National Park?
Thingvellir is located about 45 km northeast of Reykjavik. You first take the Ring Road north out of Reykjavik and pass the town Mosfellsbaer. Then 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, but if you travel by car you must pay a parking fee. The ticket is valid for the whole day and at all parking lots. The money is used for maintaining the park’s infrastructure and visitor facilities.
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 visit the Golden Circle, and we fully recommend it.