The Mission Bay district has been described as "a popular residential suburb and seaside resort ... about in area. Three-quarters of this area forms an amphitheatre of low hills which almost encircles the remaining portion, a low-lying region of about 70 acres which slopes down gently towards the north to terminate in a picturesque shelly beach about a quarter of a mile long".
Present-day Mission Bay is built upon three parcels of land comprising part of the Kohimarama block that were bought from the Crown in the early 1840s. Most of the land subsequently passed into the hands of the Melanesian Mission, who sub-divided and sold it for building in the 1920s, at about which time the name 'Mission Bay' became commonly-used to describe the area. Before this the district was referred to by a number of names, most commonly 'Kohimarama', but also, later, as 'Flying School Bay'.
Mission Bay takes its name from the Melanesian Mission, which was based in the bay. Some of the mission school buildings still stand in the reserve, an area of parkland adjacent to the beach. The buildings, designed by Reader Wood, date from 1858 and are built of scoria rock quarried on the volcanic island of Rangitoto. The Melanesian Mission School, also known as St Andrew's College, was founded by Bishop George Augustus Selwyn for the education of Melanesian children.
Mission Bay Reserve also has a link to the history of early aviation in New Zealand. Just after the First World War the Walsh Brothers (Austin Leonard Walsh 1881 - 1951 and Vivian Claude Walsh 1887 - 1950) located their flying school here, and for many years they used the bay as a landing area for their sea-planes.
The centre piece of the Mission Bay Reserve is the Trevor Moss Davis Memorial Fountain, constructed of Sicilian marble fluted to catch the light and ornamented by three bronze sea monsters gushing water. It plays regularly, sending dancing jets of water as high as 12 m (40 ft) in the air and at night it features a spectacular light show. The fountain was given to the citizens of Auckland by Mr and Mrs E.R. Davis in memory of their son. During the summer it is used as a swimming pool for young children.
The suburb and its neighbour, Orakei, achieved national attention in 1977 when Māori protestors occupied vacant land at Bastion Point. Land which had formerly belonged to the Ngāti Whātua iwi had been acquired cheaply for public works many decades before, and members of the tribe occupied the land demanding its return. The site was largely returned to the iwi after a long and not entirely bloodless occupation.
Bastion Point is also the location of the Tomb and Memorial Garden for Michael Joseph Savage, one of New Zealand's most popular Prime Ministers. This Art Deco ensemble by Tibor Donner and Anthony Bartlett was officially opened in March 1943.