54 miles SW of Lexington; 74 miles NE of Wytheville; 193 miles SW of Richmond; 251 miles SW of Washington, D.C.

Sprawling across the floor of the Roanoke Valley and surrounded by mountains, Virginia's largest metropolitan area west of Richmond likes to call itself the "Capital of the Blue Ridge." It's also known as "Star City," for the huge lighted star overlooking the city from Mill Mountain, which stands between it and the Blue Ridge Parkway.

There was no star on the mountain when Colonial explorers followed the Roanoke River gorge through the Blue Ridge Mountains in the 18th century. They established several settlements in the Roanoke Valley, including one named Big Lick. When the Norfolk and Western Railroad arrived in the 1880s and laid out a town for future development, it decided that Roanoke -- a Native American word for "shell money" -- was a more prosperous-sounding name for the new city.

Roanoke is still a major railroad junction, as the busy tracks cutting through downtown will attest. It honors this iron-horse heritage at two excellent museums, one full of extraordinary photographs capturing the last days of the steam locomotive, the other displaying steam engines, cabooses, and other railway cars from that bygone era. An informative "Railwalk" follows the tracks between the two museums. I haven't been to all railroad museums in this country, but when seen together, surely these two are among the very best.

Nearby is the ultra-modern Taubman Museum of Art, the newest addition to a downtown which launched itself on a renaissance long before Norfolk and other Virginia cities undertook to reclaim their central areas. Notable to visitors is the restored Market Square, where farmers still sell fresh produce -- and everyone else comes to wine and dine.