The most important historic site in Iceland, an unparalleled natural landscape, and numerous opportunities for hiking. You can spot water birds, walk through a gigantic chasm, and climb up to a waterfall. And it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. So many reasons to visit Thingvellir National Park!
Why Is Thingvellir A World Heritage Site?
There are two separate strands to the UNESCO inscription. The first is historical. Since the 10th century Thingvellir was the meeting place of the Althing, the Icelandic Parliament, and as such it has a particular significance within medieval Nordic culture. It is also closely associated with the 12th century Icelandic sagas and, more recently, with the quest for national independence.
The second reason relates to the natural landscape. The national park is situated in an active volcanic area, which has created a dramatic and distinctive scenery. For many centuries the land was farmed, and the abandoned farms, fields and tracks are a record of the lives of ordinary Icelandic people.
History Of Thingvellir And The Althing
Although Iceland was controlled by Denmark, it needed an assembly for the agreement of laws, administration of justice, and dispute resolution. The Althing was established in 930 CE, and it is regarded as the oldest national parliament in Europe.
Thingvellir (more accurately spelt Þingvellir) means “assembly fields”. Every chieftain was required to travel to the assembly, which lasted for two weeks each year. Many ordinary Icelanders also attended for the social aspects – it was particularly popular with those in search of a life partner!
This site was chosen because it was a large open space, where people could set up camp and graze their horses. The “Law Rock”, where speeches were given, was at the top of a tall slope, its acoustics allowing the speaker’s voice to carry to the crowd below. And the area was relatively accessible from most parts of the island.
The Althing In Recent Times
By the 18th century attendance at the Althing was in decline as the site had been damaged by earthquakes and flooding. In 1798 the parliament was moved to Reykjavik, which by now was the most important town in the country.
However, Thingvellir continued to be a significant place for Icelanders. It was here that independence from Denmark was declared on 17 June 1944, and it has been the scene of more recent events and celebrations. The president of Iceland still has a summer residence here (beside the 19th century church).
It has to be said that, apart from the actual site, there is not a vast amount of the historic meeting ground to be seen today. However, there are explanatory notice boards, and a flagpole marks the Law Rock. Nearby are some grass-covered mounds which are the remains of shelters where people would have stayed during the assemblies. If you feel so inclined you could also walk to the spots where executions (mercifully rare) were carried out.
A Unique Landscape
Thingvellir sits in a rift valley between two continental plates, at the northern end of Þingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland. This is a landscape of lakes and rivers, gorges and fissures. Historically it was also a rich agricultural area and, although it is no longer farmed, scattered evidence of old farmsteads remains.
One of the most remarkable sights is Almannagjá, a massive gorge at the edge of the North American tectonic plate – you can walk through the gorge on your way up to the Law Rock. Or walk in the opposite direction and you come to the dramatic Öxarárfoss waterfall.
The unique ecosystem of the lake allows it to host four different types of Arctic char. And, as you walk along the riverbanks, you will spot several different water birds.
What To See And Do At Thingvellir National Park
Many of the factors that made it suitable for the Althing also mean that Thingvellir National Park is a great tourist attraction. You could easily spend a whole day here, exploring the history and following the hiking trails.
As a minimum, you will want to walk up to the Law Rock for the history and the views. You could then go into the excellent Visitor Centre, which has comprehensive information about the history of Iceland and its government, and about the geology and natural history of the national park.
Other activities in the park include horse riding, angling and scuba diving. The Visitor Centre has a café and souvenir shop.
How to visit Thingvellir National Park
- Thingvellir National Park is around 45 km from Reykjavik. It is located on the so-called Golden Circle, a popular tourist route taking in some of the country’s foremost natural and historic attractions.
- If you have a hire car Thingvellir is an easy drive from Reykjavik (look out for the Icelandic spelling Þingvellir on road signs). There are several car parks at different parts of the park: one ticket covers all car parks for the whole day. It is easy to pay for parking by phone or credit card; cash is not necessary.
- Tours of the Golden Circle (including Thingvellir) are available from Reykjavik.
- Apart from car parking, there is no charge to visit the national park. However you will pay to go into the Visitor Centre exhibition.
- By Icelandic standards, Thingvellir can be crowded, catering for many coachloads of visitors. However, when I was there the tourist rush had died down by early afternoon.