Unique as a North American capital, the city is bilingual. English is the first language of a majority of the population, but French is the first language of a significant number. Staff in most stores and restaurants speak both well and, in general, bilingualism is common.
Ottawa started as a humble lumber town, then called Bytown, named after Colonel John By. Colonel By oversaw the construction of the Rideau Canal, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, much of which was done by hand, between 1826 and 1832. Lumber mills were built along the Ottawa River in the mid-nineteenth century and those brought employment and wealth to the growing population. The centre of action then, as now, was the ByWard Market. While it's still the centre of the city's nightlife, it has changed appreciably from the rough and tumble early days of brothels and taverns. In 1857, Queen Victoria chose Ottawa as the capital of Canada. The choice was controversial, partly because it sidestepped the rivalry between Toronto and Montreal (then, as now, Canada's largest cities), and partly because the new capital was still a tiny outpost in the middle of nothing much — an American newspaper famously commented that it was impregnable, as any invaders would get lost in the woods looking for it.