The Nelson region has a rich cultural history. Maori tribes or iwi date back to the 12th Century. The region covering the top of the South Island was known collectively by Māori as Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka a Maui which means "The Prow of the Canoe of Maui". Iwi who have been associated with the region include Ngati Apa ki te Ra To, Rangitane, Ngati Tama, Te Atiawa, Ngati Koata, Ngati Kuia, Ngati Toa and Ngati Rarua.

In 1642 the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman sailed into Golden Bay. He never set foot on land after a skirmish with local Maori left four crew dead, however the region and a national park bear his name. European settlement occured with the English immigrants arriving in 1840s . The town of Nelson (establised in 1841) was named for the Englishman Lord Nelson who defeated Napolean in the Battle of Trafalger in 1805. Nelson is the oldest city in the South Island and the second oldest city in New Zealand.

With more than 300 active artists, the Nelson Tasman Region is often seen as the creative arts centre of New Zealand. Each year the Nelson Arts Festival attracts large crowds as do the annual fringe, buskers and comedy festivals. The World of Wearable Arts annual festival originated in Nelson.