Located on the Golden Circle route, Thingvellir (Þingvellir) National Park is one of the most frequently visited attractions in Iceland. This area contains interesting landscapes and has an outstanding significance both historically and geologically. Read our complete guide to learn more about its exciting history and features as well as to get tips on what to do and see in Thingvellir National Park!
The Historical Significance of Thingvellir
Thingvellir has strong roots in the minds of the Icelandic nation as well as in the history of the country itself. Shortly after the year 900, inhabitants started to think about founding a general assembly for the new settlers of Iceland. The foundation of the Icelandic parliament is said to be the founding of the nation of Iceland. The first parliamentary proceedings in the summer of 930 laid ground for a common cultural heritage and national identity.
The Althing (the Icelandic parliament) was assembled for the first time in a valley at Thingvellir, a place which happens to be the same valley where the Eurasian and the American tectonic plates drift apart.
Lögberg (Law Rock) was the focal point of the Althing and a natural platform for holding speeches. Every summer, well over 5,000 people from all over the country ventured to Thingvellir to join the assembly which would last two weeks. Rulings made by the Law Council were announced, the calendar was confirmed, legal actions were brought, and other announcements made which concerned the entire nation. Anyone attending the assembly was entitled to present their case at the Lögberg on important issues.
The Althing was Iceland's legislative and chief judicial authority until the end of the Commonwealth in 1262. The final decades of the Commonwealth were characterized by clashes between the chieftain families which resulted in Iceland becoming part of the Kingdom of Norway. Executive power was strengthened under this new order while legislative and judicial authority remained in the hands of the Althing. This power was gradually transferred to the Norwegian and later Danish rulers until the King of Denmark became the absolute monarch of Iceland in 1662.
The Cultural Significance of Thingvellir
Thingvellir was the center of Icelandic culture. Every year during the Commonwealth period, people, numbering in the thousands, would flock to Thingvellir from all over the country. They set up dwellings with walls of turf and rock and temporary roofing, staying in them for the two weeks of the assembly.
Even though the duties of the assembly were the real reason for going there, ordinary people gathered at Thingvellir for a wide variety of reasons. Merchants, sword sharpeners, and tanners would sell their goods and services, clowns would perform, and ale-makers would brew drinks for the guests of the assembly.
The news was shared from distant parts. Games and feasts were held. Young people met to make their plans, no less so than did the leading national figures and experts in law. Itinerant farmhands looked for work and vagrants begged. Thingvellir was the meeting place for everyone in Iceland, laying the foundation for the language and literature that have been a prominent part of its people's lives up to the present day.
Thingvellir was an important symbol of national unity in Iceland’s process towards independence in the 19th and 20th centuries. The last Althing was held at Thingvellir in the summer of 1798. After the assembly was suspended, Thingvellir became a quiet place for a long period of time.
Thingvellir as a Symbol of Independence
When the European movement for independence reached Iceland at the beginning of the 19th century, the sagas and landscape of Thingvellir were revitalized. Thingvellir then played a dominant role in Icelandic society as a symbol of its independence.
The reawakening of nationalism resulted in many discussions about the location of the new Althing. There were many differences of opinion as to where the Althing should be located, but Thingvellir was an immediate suggestion.
Because of the Thingvellir meetings and the movement for independence, Thingvellir re-established itself as the main meeting place for Icelanders, where they could meet and celebrate the biggest and most important events in the history of their nation.
In 1874, a national festival was held at Thingvellir to celebrate the 1,000-year anniversary of the settlement of Iceland. On this occasion, King Kristian IX presented Icelanders with their first constitution, according to which the Althing was granted limited legislative and financial powers. Many Icelanders went to Thingvellir to witness this event which marked a watershed in their campaign for independence.
In the summer of 1930, a large festival was held at Thingvellir to celebrate the Millennium of the Althing itself. The Althing festival was the first general celebration of Icelanders where a substantial proportion of the nation was present, about 30,000 to 40,000 people. The foundation of the Republic of Iceland took place at Thingvellir on June 17, 1944, which is also the birthday of one of its national heroes, Jon Sigurdsson.
The first presidential election took place at Lögberg and state leader Sveinn Bjornsson became the country's first president. At the end of the program at Lögberg, the first cabinet meeting of the Republic of Iceland took place at which the president confirmed the law regarding the national flag and the coat of arms.
In 1974, Icelanders celebrated the 1,100th anniversary of the settlement. On June 17, 1994, a celebration was held at Thingvellir to mark the 50-year anniversary of the foundation of the Republic of Iceland.
In 1999, a festival to celebrate the Millennium of Christianity was set in motion. This included a series of events all over the country. The celebrations culminated in a two-day festival at Thingvellir in early June of the year 2000.
Iceland’s First National Park and World Heritage Site
Thingvellir was declared a national park in 1930. A law was passed designating Thingvellir 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.”
Thingvellir was nominated to become part the World Heritage List on July 2, 2004. The nomination stated that the site is of outstanding universal value and should be preserved both as a cultural site and for its natural environment.
The Geological History of the Area
The whole area lies on top of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, an enormous fissure which stretches between the Eurasian and the North American continental plates, extending over 16,000 kilometers (9,950 miles). As a result of the movement of the plates, Iceland experiences increased seismic and volcanic activity.
About 10,000 years ago, after the Langjökull glacier had retreated and reached its current position, a shield volcanic eruption started in the Thingvellir area. This resulted in the formation of some of the most beautiful Icelandic shield volcanoes which today decorate the landscape around the national park. This eruption lasted for decades, maybe even up to a century.
About 3,000 years ago, an 8-kilometer (4.7 mile) long eruptive fissure opened in Thingvellir valley and multiple eruptions followed one after another. The last eruption in the area occurred around 2,000 years ago when an ash crater arose from the bottom of Lake Thingvallavatn. Volcanic activity in the area has been dormant since then, but the question remains not whether but when it will start up again.
The Geology in Thingvellir Today
In the summer of 2000, two severe earthquakes occurred in South Iceland. Even though their source was 40-50 kilometers (24-31 miles) southeast of Thingvellir, stones fell from the ravine walls and water splashed up from the rifts. The earthquakes were a result of movement in the Eurasian and North American plate boundaries that run through Iceland.
In the south, the plates inch past each other while at Thingvellir, they break apart and the land between them subsides. Away from the plate boundaries, the activity is fairly constant at about two centimeters (0.78 inches) per year. But, in the rift zones themselves, tensional stress accumulates during a long period which is then released in a burst of activity when fracture boundaries are reached.
The Unique Vegetation of Lake Thingvallavatn
Lake Thingvallavatn is particularly fertile and rich in vegetation despite the very cold temperatures. A third of the bottom area is covered by vegetation and there is a large amount of algae. Low-growing vegetation extends out to a depth of 10 meters (32.8 feet) while higher-growing vegetation forms a large growing belt from 10-30 meters (32.8-98.4 feet) deep. From the shore to the center of the lake, a total of 150 types of plants have been found as well as 50 kinds of invertebrates.
In Lake Thingvallavatn can be found three of the five species of freshwater fish found in Iceland: brown trout, Arctic char, and the three-spined stickleback. It is said that these fish became isolated in the lake in the wake of the last ice age when the terrain rose at the south end of Thingvallavatn.
Silfra: The Rift Between the Tectonic Plates
Following one of the major earthquakes, a large rift opened overnight next to the Lake Thingvallavatn. The fissure - called Silfra - was not eruptive but soon began to fill with meltwater from Langjökull glacier, which lies about 50 kilometers (31 miles) away.
As the water travels through a dense lava field, it gets purified by the finest natural filtration on the planet. Lava rock has an extremely very fine texture. It takes the glacial water about 30 to 100 years to reach its final destination in the Silfra fissure.
The result is that when the water finally arrives in Silfra, it is so clear that you can see all the way along the fissure. This is the clearest fresh water in the world with a mind-blowing length of underwater visibility that exceeds 100 meters (328 feet).
As the water from the glacier never stops flowing, the natural spring creates a gentle current that keeps the 2-4°C (35-39°F) water moving constantly, ensuring it never becomes dirty and that bacteria cannot thrive.
Thanks to the easy accessibility and the extraordinary location, Silfra is on every diver and snorkeler’s bucket list. You are, however, not allowed to swim or snorkel at Silfra without a safe drysuit or a trained local guide.
As Thingvellir is a highly protected national park, only a few companies have the right to take visitors to Silfra. Booking a tour with us is the best way to explore this extraordinary site!