Like many Suffolk coastal towns it was of some importance as a port and fishing village in the Middle Ages. It still has a fine mediaeval castle, built to dominate the River Ore.
The main geographical feature of the area is Orford Ness, a long, wide shinglespit at the mouth of the Ore. Orford Ness has in the past been used as an airstrip testing facility and in the early 1970s it was the site of a powerful radar station as part of the Cold War defences against low flying attacking aircraft; today it is a nature reserve run by the National Trust.
Orford quay viewed from the Orford Ness ferry dock.
Orford provides the only point of access to the nature reserves of Orford Ness and Havergate Island. Both sites can only be accessed via ferry boat from Orford quay. The Orford Ness ferry runs on selected days between April and October and the Havergate Island ferry on selected Saturdays.
Orford now mainly exists on tourism and as a weekend and holiday home. It has grown significantly in the last 20 years with an increasing new build to accommodate second home-owners; its population greatly increases during the summer months due to its flourishing sailing club. As well as the Castle, Orford's attractions include river cruises, a number of pubs and hotels, a traditional post office which sells fresh bread, a smokehouse, and two restaurants; the Butley-Orford Oysterage and the Crown and Castle Hotel, owned by food writer TV personality Ruth Watson.