Full Guide to Iceland's Thingvellir National Park

From tectonic plates and volcanic activity to an ancient viking parliament, Thingvellir National Park is pretty much the birthplace of a nation!

Thingvellir National Park

blog authorBy Anna Hart shield verificationVerified Expert

As Iceland’s first National Park, Thingvellir has held a special place in this unique country’s heart long before it was first established in 1928. Thingvellir National Park has been a registered UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2004. That's due to its powerful historical and geological significance.

Located in a volcanic rift valley, Thingvellir National Park is truly a magical site to behold. From Iceland’s largest lake, to a world-famous diving spot and incredible hikes, Thingvellir has it all. Let’s explore the cultural heritage and distinctive geology of Thingvellir National Park. We'll include how you can walk between two tectonic plates and experience this continental divide in Iceland for yourself.

History of Thingvellir National Park 

Iceland’s parliament, known as Alþingi, was founded at Thingvellir way back in 930 AD, making it the oldest operating parliament in the world. It was the place to discuss all the most important matters of the day. Thingvellir was home to countless significant historical events, which is why it’s often referred to as the birthplace of modern Iceland.

Thingvellir was the place where Iceland’s laws were first discussed. It was a type of commonwealth established to promote peace among the different groups of Norse settlers on the island. Thingvellir has seen many nation-shaping events over the millennia. It was at this site where the decision to adopt Christianity in favor of the Old Norse pagan belief system in 1000 was made. And in more recent times, the declaration of independence from Denmark in 1944.

Only in 1798 did Iceland’s parliament relocate to its current home in Reykjavík. Thingvellir then served as the country’s decision-making center for over 850 years. As the annual meetings at Thingvellir only took place when needed, temporary shelters were often built for the occasion. This means that, apart from some old foundations, it’s difficult to spot the parliament meeting places for yourself.

Thingvellir National Park

Geology of Iceland: Tectonic Plates at Thingvellir

Thingvellir National Park itself is located in the rift valley between two tectonic plates. It is then the best place in Iceland to see the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the meeting point of both the North American plate and Eurasian plate. Iceland is the only place in the world where this rift is visible above sea-level.

Approaching from Reykjavík, you will descend a steep cliff into the sinking valley of Thingvellir. This cliff is the edge of the North American tectonic plate. On the other side of Thingvellir National Park is a cliff marking the edge of Eurasia – pretty amazing!

The awe-inspiring landscapes at Thingvellir National Park are caused by the continental drift. That is the slow movement of these tectonic plates away from each other. Tectonic forces have torn apart Thingvellir’s lava fields. They created impressive gorges and fissures. You'll get to see all of them sitting in the Park among striking basalt rock formations and powerful waterfalls.

Interesting Geological Features of Thingvellir

This National Park is home to Iceland’s largest natural lake, Thingvallavatn. Here you can also find Oxararfoss and Thorufoss waterfalls. Believe us, this magical natural landscape is truly a spectacle to behold. Part of Thingvellir’s rift valley is filled with groundwater and some fissures are submerged. Among all of them is the famous Silfra fissure. It was named one of the top diving sites in the world due to its crystal-clear waters.

Our favorite route to explore in Thingvellir National Park is along the beautiful Almannagjá gorge. Right between an old collapsed part of the wall and the edge of the North American plate.
Iceland tectonic plates

Where is Thingvellir National Park?

Thingvellir National Park is around a 50-minute drive from the capital. Located around 40 kilometers northeast of Reykjavík. One of three stops on the famous Golden Circle route in Iceland, Thingvellir is the perfect stop along your Iceland road trip. Easy to find when driving in Iceland, the road conditions to get to Thingvellir National Park are usually excellent. They are plowed almost every day of the year. 

Þingvellir, Pingvellir or Thingvellir?

You may see Thingvellir spelt as Þingvellir, which is the Icelandic spelling dating back to the Viking alphabet and Old Norse. Thingvellir, on the other hand, is simply the anglicized version.

Þingvellir uses the Icelandic letter thorn (Þ), which looks like a ‘p’. For this reason, you may see it written as a Pingvellir. The letter ‘Þ’ actually sounds like ‘th’, such as in the English word ‘think’. The Park is most commonly referred to as Thingvellir in tourist literature.

Thingvellir National Park Visitor Center

Thingvellir National Park is open 24/7 and is free to enter; however, there is a small charge for parking. Take a trip to Thingvellir National Park Visitor Center to see a fascinating exhibition called ‘Heart of Iceland’. You will learn all about the Park’s history and natural landscapes. You’ll also find a souvenir and gift shop at the National Park Visitor Center, as well as a coffee shop. This way, you can enjoy a light refreshment during your exploration of Thingvellir.

national park visitor center

Camping at Thingvellir National Park

If you’re planning to camp during your trip to Iceland, you’ll be pleased to know that there are several campgrounds at Thingvellir National Park. All of them are within walking distance of the National Park Visitor Center. No reservations are required (or allowed!) at these campgrounds – simply turn up on the day. During summer, rangers look after the camping areas each day and also during the nights on weekends.

Ten Interesting Facts About Thingvellir National Park

  1. Over 1 million people visit Thingvellir National Park each year.
  2. The beautiful wooden Thingvellir Church, which dates back to 1859, can be found at Thingvellir National Park. A church has stood on this site for over 1000 years.
  3. Due to its location right on the North American plate and Eurasian plate, Thingvellir National Park is home to many volcanoes. The last volcanic eruption happened 2000 years ago. Since two millennia of dormancy have passed, the question now is when the next eruption will be.
  4. The first indication of Lake Thingvallavatn, one of the most stunning lakes in Iceland, appeared 12,000 years ago. That's when the Langjökull glacier began to melt.
  5. Thingvellir National Park is home to diverse animal life. You will find fish, birds, Icelandic horses, Mink Reindeer and the only land mammal native to Iceland: the Arctic fox.
  6. Big fish called Arctic char can be found in Lake Thingvallavatn, which is one of five species of freshwater fish found in Iceland. Two other of these species are found in the Lake: brown trout and three-spine stickleback.

Thingvellir tectonic plate

7. Thingvellir National Park is around 240 square kilometers in size.

8. The Money Rift, Peningjagjá, is a water-filled rift in Thingvellir National Park. Here, visitors traditionally throw in coins for good luck. Dating back to 1907 when the Danish King threw a small coin there when visiting Thingvellir, this custom still survives today. It’s forbidden to throw coins in any other of Thingvellir’s rifts, so make sure you only get your cash out at Peningjagjá.

9. Near the Thingvellir Church is a national burial ground, where the poets Einar Benediktsson and Jónas Hallgrímsson are buried. These famous Icelandic poets influenced Iceland’s political life, which was becoming more autonomous during the 19th and 20th centuries.

10. The Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, are often visible at Thingvellir National Park on clear, dark nights.

Pingvellir, Iceland

Ready For the Trip of a Lifetime to Visit Thingvellir?

Take a trip through time at Thingvellir as you discover this Park’s incredible history, geology and cultural significance.

Experience otherworldly landscapes as you travel through the lava fields, rift valleys and ravines of Thingvellir. Dare to discover epic fissures and viewing dramatic waterfalls. Enjoy the famous Thingvellir tectonic plate walk for yourself, as you witness the breathtaking continental divide in Iceland.

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