London is the most verdant city of its size in the world. Green spaces cover nearly 40% of Greater London: parks, squares, public gardens and cemeteries – in all, some 173 sq km.

But these aren’t pristine plots to be protected from the masses – 'Keep off the grass' signs be damned: Londoners just love feeling grass beneath their feet. To discover another side to the city’s citizens – not resolutely ignoring each other on the Tube, but laughing, frolicking and romancing – just head to the nearest park.

Parks’ pasts

For most of London’s largest parks we have, somewhat surprisingly, King Henry VIII to thank. But he never meant these vast chases to be open to the hoi polloi; when he grabbed the land – mostly from the church, after the 1530s Reformation - it was for private deerhunting. St James’s, Hyde, Regent’s, Green, Greenwich and vast Richmond Park all saw royals galloping in pursuit of deer.

Today they’re among the 8 Royal Parks totalling over 20 sq km. That’s a lot of prime London real estate populated by some very privileged trees and flowers – and, in the case of Richmond, red and fallow deer still.

Stumbling across a herd, proud antlers aloft, is a wild encounter you’d never expect in a city of millions. They’re joined by distinctly non-native green parrots: one legend claims they’re descended from renegade extras escaped from the nearby set of 1951 Bogart movie The African Queen.

Other parks have more prosaic or serendipitous origins. Battersea Park evolved from marshy Battersea Fields where, in 1829, Waterloo hero the Duke of Wellington fought a duel (a popular pastime in London’s parks), and is where Britain’s first asparagus was grown. Coram’s Fields was part of an 18th-century foundling hospital, while Tooting Bec Common was reputedly a transit camp for soldiers heading off to the Napoleonic Wars.

Hilltop Crystal Palace Park was created to display Joseph Paxton’s behemoth glass-and-iron structure, relocated from Hyde Park after the Great Exhibition of 1851. Though the palace itself burned down in 1936, you can wander among surviving sphinxes and Victorian dinosaurs – the world’s first Jurassic park?

Playing in the parks

Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens – one expansive rectangle divided by the Serpentine Lake – host a range of activities. Rollerbladers and hockey players whizz about the southern edge; swimmers and rowers paddle in the Serpentine; highbrow types browse contemporary art at the Serpentine Gallery; and each Sunday at Speakers’ Corner activists and evangelists get it all off their chests.

Genteelly landscaped Regent’s Park is home to London Zoo and a wonderful open-air theatre. The lake in St James’s Park is the place for watching waterfowl including swans, pelicans, herons and ducks. Adjacent Green Park is a central hotspot for joggers.

Further out, Hampstead Heath has the wind and the vistas – kite-flyers flock to Parliament Hill, from where all London spreads out beneath. Hampstead’s Kenwood House displays fine art, including a Rembrandt self-portrait, and hosts summer picnic concerts. Hardy souls brave nearby Highgate Bathing Ponds for a chilly dip, while fungi forays and bat walks reveal natural treasures.

Battersea Park has a children’s zoo, and is a hub for fit clubs and fat clubs: football, rugby and hockey pitches, runners, and military fitness trainers yelling and sweating.

Clapham Common’s long been the place for musical treats; it boasts London’s largest bandstand, built in 1890, and today hosts regular music festivals. Like the capital’s other green spaces, the common and its locals are very much in tune.

Looking for more London inspiration? How about tracking the River Thames from its source to London?

This article was updated in November 2012.

 See more
 London with the Lonely Planet Encounter guide.

Explore related stories