What is the Capital of Canada?

Ottawa is the capital of Canada and the fourth-largest in the country.

Located in the Ottawa Valley, the city is at the southeastern tip of the state of Ontario and is on the border of the province of Québec.

A North America map highlighting Canada, faintly outlining US states, and marking Ottawa with a red circle.
The Capital of Canada, Ottawa, is located in the Southeastern part of the country.

Ottawa is also the largest city in Canada with two official languages (English and French). English and French languages are legally equal and must be used together in all official documents and public spaces.

History of Ottawa

The Ottawa River at sunset.
The Ottawa River at sunset.

The Ottawa Valley became habitable around ten thousand years ago, when the Champlain Sea drained from the region. This made the region a viable location for harvesting wild edible foods, hunting, fishing, agriculture, trade, and travel. People used this area for these activities for over 6,500 years. 

The land of present-day Ottawa is the traditional land of the indigenous Algonquin people. “Ottawa,” the Canada capital city name, comes from the Algonquin language. It comes from the word for “trade” in the Algonquin language, which was the name given to the Ottawa River. Trade and travel have been important parts of life in the Ottawa Valley for thousands of years, and evidence of this is found in several archeological sites in the area with arrow heads, pottery, and other artifacts.

Before it was named Ottawa, the city was known as Bytown, named after John By, the engineer responsible for the Rideau Waterway Project, now known as the Rideau Canal. This canal connects Ottawa to Lake Ontario and was constructed in 1832 as a precaution in case of war with the United States. 

In 1855, the city was officially renamed Ottawa and given city status. Two years later, in 1857, Queen Victoria was asked to choose a capital city of Canada. This request was a symbolic gesture intended to demonstrate respect for the Queen, and Canadian Prime Minister John A. Macdonald had actually assigned the responsibility to the government’s Executive Branch. However, the Queen made a decision fairly quickly and named Ottawa as Canada’s capital city. Reasoning for her decision included the facts that the city was midway between Toronto and Montreal, two of the country’s largest cities, it was easily defensible, and its small size made it less susceptible to political mobs.

By the time Ottawa was chosen as Canada’s capital, it was already becoming an important center for timber trade. Sawmills were established in the Ottawa River Valley and timber was transported by water to Montreal, which boosted the city’s economy and provided employment for residents.

Features of Ottawa

Aerial view of a cityscape with historic buildings, green spaces, and a clear blue sky.

Geography and Climate

Ottawa lies on the south bank of the Ottawa River, in the Ottawa Valley, and has a surface area of 2,778 square kilometers. The mouths of the Rideau River and the Rideau Canal are both in the city along the Ottawa River and continue to the south. The Gatineau River is another major river that joins the Ottawa River within city limits, coming from the north.

The closest major city to Ottawa is Gatineau, which lies just across the Ottawa River in the province of Quebec. These two cities, although in different provinces, together make up Canada’s National Capital Region. It is considered a single metropolitan area and is surrounded by a substantial greenbelt.

Ottawa is considered to have a humid continental climate. This means its climate is characterized by four distinct seasons, with significant temperature differences between winter and summer months.  The average high temperature during July is 26C (79F), and the average low temperature during January is -14C (7F). 

The drastic differences in temperature year round can have a great impact on the experience of the city. The months from late June to early September are considered the best times for tourists to visit the city if they are interested in warm weather activities. The winter months see regular snow and ice accumulation, and Ottawa is the seventh-coldest capital city in the world.

One benefit to the cold winters in Ottawa is that the Rideau Canal regularly freezes over. Given the central location of the canal in the city, this creates the world’s largest ice skating rink. It’s 7.8 km (4.8 miles) long and covers the same area as 90 Olympic sized skating rinks.


Although the economy of Ottawa was largely connected to the timber industry in the earlier days of its history, the industries generating the most money in the capital city are now the high-tech sector and governmental jobs. The largest employer in the city is the federal government, which employs more than 100,000 people in the region. This is in part because many federal departments have their headquarters in Ottawa. The Canadian Armed Forces, for example, have their base of operations in Ottawa. 

There are also many technology-focused businesses in Ottawa, so many that the city has been referred to by some as “Silicon Valley North.” The tech industry employs more than 60,000 people at over 1,700 businesses in Ottawa. These companies cover a diverse range of focuses, like telecommunication, software development, and environmental technology.

Other major industries that employ many residents of Ottawa are the healthcare field — there are four general hospitals and several specialized hospitals in the wider Ottawa area — the finance sector, and tourism. About ten percent of Ottawa’s GDP is generated from finance-related activity, and tourism has become an increasingly important part of the economy.

The fact that the nation’s capital is in Ottawa attracts tourists to the city, as do its high quality accommodations and various festivals and family attractions. There are about 11 million tourists that visit the region each year, which generates over 3 billion dollars in total revenue. The industry also provides more than 40,000 jobs.

Among Canada’s major cities, Ottawa has the largest rural economy. This sector is supported by activities like agriculture, forestry, mining, construction, and other ventures. Over $1 billion is contributed to GDP from rural economic activity in Ottawa alone.

Architecture and City Design

As Canada’s capital city, Ottawa is home to many government buildings, some of which appear to have been built with functionality as a guiding principle rather than aesthetic beauty. Others showcase interesting styles; the Parliament Buildings, for example, utilize a Gothic Revival architectural style.

A photo of the Canadian Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, with a clear blue sky, green lawn in the foreground, and people walking on the pathways.
A view of the Peace Tower on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill on a sunny day.

Despite its status as a capital city and its fairly large size, Ottawa maintains a relatively low skyline. One of the reasons for this is that there are a multitude of laws protecting view planes within the city. This is to ensure that Parliament Hill is visible from many parts of the city.

Until 1965, buildings were not permitted to exceed 45.5 m (ca. 149 ft) in height so that the Peace Tower would remain the tallest building in the city. This restriction is no longer in effect, and there are now several buildings that are taller than 90 m (ca. 295 ft).

The design of the city includes a number of green spaces, which improves the liveability of the city significantly. The Ottawa Greenbelt is an example of how the government has prioritized green space in this area of the country.

The greenbelt borders the city of Ottawa, covering an area of more than 200 square kilometers (77 square miles) and is home to a variety of wildlife. This green space was created with the intention of limiting the expansion of the city and preventing an urban sprawl in the area. However, the best use of this land is currently being debated.

Ottawa also has numerous parks and city gardens. The city gardens are shared spaces where residents can use the land to grow food. There are around 4,300 hectares of parkland that are maintained by the city of Ottawa, and these include dog parks and play structures for children. 

There are over 80 neighborhoods within Ottawa city limits, and they each have features that make them stand out from other areas of the city. Some are full of businesses, some have universities, others are mostly residential, and there are even some rural areas on the city’s outskirts.


There are many different cultural events and landmarks in the city of Ottawa. Some notable museums in the city are the National Gallery of Canada and the Canadian War Museum, though there are many others. The Canadian Museum of History, which is the most visited museum in Canada, is located just across the Ottawa River in Gatineau.

An aerial view of the Canadian Museum of History from across the Ottawa River.
An aerial view of the Canadian Museum of History from across the Ottawa River.

In addition to its museums, Ottawa has several theaters that host plays and musical performances. The Ottawa Symphony Orchestra and the Great Canadian Theater Company are both based in Ottawa. One notable theater located in the city is the Ottawa Little Theater, one of the oldest theaters in North America and Canada’s longest-running theater.

Ottawa is also the location of Winterlude, Canada’s largest festival. The festival is centered around the Rideau Canal Skateway, and there are many other attractions, such as a snow park with ice sculptures, special exhibits at museums, and music performances by DJs. Other notable festivals in the city include the Canadian Tulip Festival, the Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival, and Canada Day celebrations on Parliament Hill.

Sports are another part of Ottawa culture, and there are various teams that call the city home. The Senators are a professional ice hockey team that competes in the National Hockey League (NHL), the Ottawa Redblacks are a professional Canadian Football team that plays in the Canadian Football League, and Atlético Ottawa is a professional Canadian soccer team that plays in the Canadian Premier League.

Of the twenty UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Canada, one is in Ottawa: the Rideau Canal. It has heritage status because it is the oldest continuously operated canal system in North America.

People of Ottawa

The Ottawa-Gatineau population is almost 1.5 million people, and there are just over 1 million people in the city of Ottawa alone. This makes Ottawa-Gatineau the fourth-largest city in Canada by population. It is also one of Canada’s fastest growing regions in terms of population and one of the world’s leading cities in terms of quality of life.

The religion with the largest representation in the city is Christianity, though many religions are represented in the city. There are places of worship for residents of Christian, Buddhist, Islamic, Jewish, Hindu, and Sikh faith throughout the city.

The largest ethnic group in Ottawa is European, making up about 70% of the population. Almost a quarter of the population is considered to be immigrants, and there are many different minority groups in the city. Almost 5% of residents are aboriginal.

Ottawa-Gatineau is the largest Canadian city that has two official languages: English and French. This bilingualism became part of an official business policy in the city in 2002, and much of the population can communicate in both languages. Multilingualism is common in this city, as there is also approximately 20% of the population that lists a language other than French or English as their mother tongue.

More than half of the Ottawa population has graduated from a college or university, giving it the reputation of being one of Canada’s most educated cities. It has the highest concentration of engineers and scientists per capita out of all of Canada’s cities, and there is a large population of resident PhD students. The two primary public universities in Ottawa are Carleton University and the University of Ottawa, which is the largest English-French bilingual university in the world.


As the capital of Canada, the government of Ottawa is greatly important. The city makes up a single-tier municipality, which essentially means that it does not belong to any larger regional or county government. Instead, it is responsible for all of its own municipal services.

The politics of the residents in the capital city are diverse and vary by neighborhood. Historically, the majority of the city has supported the Liberal Party, which is the longest-serving and oldest political party in Canada — it has dominated most of Canada’s politics since the country’s inception. Generally speaking, political and social views become more conservative toward the outer, more rural areas of Ottawa.