Thingvellir National Park, measuring roughly 91 square kilometres (35 square miles), is not only home to mountains, volcanoes and the country’s largest lake, it is also considered the birthplace of Iceland’s democracy. Plus, this UNESCO World Heritage Site lies within a rift valley that marks the joining of two continents, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet.
There are plenty of reasons to visit Thingvellir. Find out how best to explore it below.
Silfra and Davíðsgjá are two submerged rifts within Thingvellir National Park, and both offer fantastic snorkelling and diving spots thanks to the clear waters that fill them. This clarity allows divers to see the the rifts within the lakes, and to swim close to them before they deepen and widen out. These are lakes that have literally been ripped open as a result of volcanic eruptions throughout history, with glacial water falling from above and filling the holes left behind.
Anyone wishing to dive must have a dry-suit certificate, and diving or entering the caves alone is strictly prohibited. For those seeking a totally unique experience, visit during June or July, that way you’ll be able to dive in the late evening, when the light is at its most beautiful.
OK, so Iceland’s parliament, or Althingi, may actually be in Reykjavík today, but it started out in Thingvellir and remains the oldest-running parliament in the world. Established over 1,000 years ago, in 930, Althingi was an outdoor assembly where the country’s leaders would gather to decide on legislation. Even when Iceland was under Norwegian rule, in the early 20th century, laws brought in by the Norwegians still had to be approved by Althingi. The name Thingvellir literally translates as “Parliament Plains”, and this area continued to be used as the country’s political epicentre until 1798. While Iceland’s elders may no longer meet in Thingvellir, it’s still possible to visit the sites where rules were made and laws were passed.
Within the park is Thingvallavatn Lake, the largest lake in Iceland. It is home to many varieties of arctic char and sticklebacks, as well brown trout, renowned for their large size (with some as big as 25 lbs). The best spots for trout are by the river Öxará and Efra-Sog, where a mixture of strong currents and healthy food supplies has resulted in huge fish populations. The rifts, lava and land subsistence of the area have all created a habitat that is diverse and fertile, rich in minerals and vegetation, despite the chilly temperatures.
Anyone wanting to fish within Thingvellir can go during the angling season, which starts at the beginning of May and runs up until the middle of September.
Icelandic horses are medium sized, but incredibly strong, able to withstand the harsh conditions due to their fur, are and one of the few breeds of horse in the world that has five gaits. In addition to the standard varieties – walk, trot, cant and gallop – Icelandic horses can also tölt. This is a quick but smooth gait that, according to Siggi Anton, a local guide and photographer who takes groups through Thingvellir, can be tested “by riding along with a full pint of beer and finishing without spilling a drop.”
Within Thingvellir, there are a number of different routes for horse riding, as well as specific horse trails, each offering a fantastic way to see the terrain. Be warned, though: riding through the assembly site is prohibited.
There are any number of hiking trails that are worth taking throughout the park. Many are connected to former farms, where you can still see the remains of what was there, or to the assembly site. If you hike along the Öxarárfoss Waterfall Trail you’ll be able to walk through the crater where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, which is a once-in-a-lifetime type of experience. For something a little gentler, the Almannagjá gorge is very easy to get to, being more a walk than a hike, but moving through the two huge rock faces is still spectacular, and the top of the canyon offers incredible views of Thingvallavatn lake.