A numerical study to investigate the steady laminar natural convection flow in a square cavity with uniformly and non-uniformly heated bottom wall, and adiabatic top wall maintaining constant temperature of cold vertical walls has been performed. A penalty finite element method with bi-quadratic rectangular elements has been used to solve the governing mass, momentum and energy equations. The numerical procedure adopted in the present study yields consistent performance over a wide range of parameters (Rayleigh number Ra, 103 ≤ Ra ≤ 105 and Prandtl number Pr, 0.7 ≤ Pr ≤ 10) with respect to continuous and discontinuous Dirichlet boundary conditions. Non-uniform heating of the bottom wall produces greater heat transfer rates at the center of the bottom wall than the uniform heating case for all Rayleigh numbers; however, average Nusselt numbers show overall lower heat transfer rates for the non-uniform heating case. Critical Rayleigh numbers for conduction dominant heat transfer cases have been obtained and for convection dominated regimes, power law correlations between average Nusselt number and Rayleigh numbers are presented. © 2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.