In the Fon language, the word 'cotonou' means "the mouth of the river of death". The area was settled as a fishing village during the time of the Dahomey Kingdom. The French were given permission to build a trading post, until they were given the region altogether in 1868. The city was used to defend against the British in their conquests.
Cotonou grew to become the largest city in the country, right up to independence. Although the capital is located at Porto-Novo, Cotonou is still the nation's economic and population centre. It also attracts many government institutions and embassies, regardless of Porto-Novo's status, leading to the city being referred as Benin's de-facto capital.
Cadjehoun Airport is located just west of city centre, and is the primary airport serving the city and the country. It has scheduled services from most African capitals, along with connections to Brussels and Paris. Short-haul flights from nearby Lagos are a popular way of reaching Benin.
There are bus services from Cotonou to every city in the country.
There is a train route that goes halfway up the country, from Cotonou to Parakou, run by L’Organisation Commune Benin-Niger des Chemins de Fer et Transports (2132 2206). While the train takes longer than a bush taxi, it's a much more relaxing way of traveling. First class tickets are only slightly more expensive than second class ones and are worth the extra expenditure. The train leaves Cotonou three times a week (Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday) at 8AM precisely, arriving at Parakou about 6:30PM, and returns the next day, leaving at 8AM from the Parakou train station, arriving 6:30PM in Cotonou. First class costs CFA 5600, while second costs CFA 4000.
The trains on these schedules will usually stop at Bohicon, which is 4 hours from Cotonou. The fare costs CFA 1400 for first class, and CFA 1100 for second.
A tour company also hires out 1920s colonial-period trains for multiple-day touring trips at expensive, but good value prices (CFA 50,000+). The service is called Train d'Ebene and is operated by Voyageur SARL .
(As of May 2014 the train to Parakou wasn't running, "because we are too poor")
The best way to get around is by taxi, although you have to go to a main gare (Etoile Rouge, Dantokpa, etc.) to find them. A cheaper alternative is by 'moto', locally called zemidjans which means "get me there fast" in Fon. They are simply moped taxis which are very popular. Fares are negotiable, and there are no meters. The minimum fare is CFA 100 but the fair price is at most half of what the zem originally quotes--negotiate!
The West African CFA Franc has a fixed exchange rate to the euro. 655.957 (or in street trade often 650) F CFA is equal to €1, and roughly 500 F CFA is equal to 1 US dollar. There are banks in all the major cities, and most of the banks have cash machines. As in all the CFA Franc economies, Visa is much more popular than Master Card. For Master Card and Maestro withdrawals, try Banque International du Bénin (blue star), with SGBB (red and black square logo) being quite reliable with Visa and Visa Electron. Keep in mind that many businesses and offices, including banks, close for several hours in the middle of the day.
Prices for goods purchased in a store, restaurant, hotel, bus tickets, etc. are non-negotiable, but almost everything else is. Depending on the item, it's not uncommon for foreigners to be quoted a price that is double the final purchase price.
If you have been on the road a long time and are looking for a nice, cool and well stocked shop, try Erevan hypermarket very close to Cotonou Airport. It is reputed to be the biggest hypermarket in all of West Africa, selling all the nicest imported French goodies, as well as having a nice hardware department.
For the tourist wanting to experience the local spread, Dantokpa Market in Cotonou is the biggest local market in West Africa.