Lynn originated as a settlement on a constricted site to the south of where the River Great Ouse exits to the Wash. Development began in the early 10th century, but the place was not recorded until the early 11th century. Until the early 13th century, the Great Ouse emptied via the Wellstream at Wisbech. After the redirection of the Great Ouse in the 13th century, Lynn and its port became significant and prosperous. In 1101, Bishop Herbert de Losinga of Thetford began to construct the first mediaeval town between two rivers, the Purfleet to the north and Mill Fleet to the south. He commissioned St Margaret's Church and authorised a market. In the same year, the bishop granted the people of Lynn the right to hold a market on Saturday. Trade built up along the waterways that stretched inland and the town expanded between the two rivers.
The town has several public parks, the largest one being the Walks, a historic 17 hectare urban park in the centre of King's Lynn. The Walks is the only surviving town walk in Norfolk from the 18th century. The Heritage Lottery Fund donated 4.3 million towards restoration on the park, including the addition of modern amenities. The Walks is also the location of the Red Mount, a Grade II-listed 15th century chapel. In 1998, the Walks was designated by English Heritage as a Grade II National historic park. The Walks as a whole had a different and earlier origin, in that it was at first conceived not as a municipal park, as one understands the term today, but as a single promenade for the citizens away from the smell, grime and bustle of the town centre. Harding's Pits is another public park and lies to the south of the town. It is an attractive informal area of open space with large public sculptures erected to reflect the history of the town. Harding's Pits is managed by local volunteers under a management company and has so far successfully fought off the Borough Council's attempts to turn it into an attenuation drain.
King's Lynn is the primary retail centre in West Norfolk, as well as being the principal centre for people living outside the border of West Norfolk. The town centre is dominated by budget shops reflecting the spending power of much of the population. The town centre fulfils a leisure role with entertainment centres, bars and restaurants, and has a range of service functions. There are around 5,300 retailing jobs. The town centre has 73,000 sq.m. of retail floor space in 347 shops, which is greater than the comparable centres of Bury St Edmunds and Boston. However, whilst the percentage of floor space in comparison shopping and that occupied by multiple retailers is above the national average, King's Lynn offers limited range of choice.