The Taubman Museum of Art is in Roanoke, Va.
The Taubman Museum of Art is in Roanoke, Va. ROANOKE, Va. -- It was 1949 when the star was born, high atop Mill Mountain on the outskirts of the city. Conceived by local merchants as a Christmas shopping stunt, the 88-foot-high neon and steel structure was -- and still is -- the largest man-made, freestanding, illuminated star in the world.

But nowadays the giant, glowing star -- which can be seen at night from more than 50 miles away -- stands as the symbol of this western Virginia city, which has adopted the nickname of "Star City of the South."

Formerly called Big Lick, the town, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, eventually was renamed Roanoke after the river that bisected it. With the arrival of the railroads in the late 1800s, the city and region became a manufacturing and transportation hub and was a gateway to the American West. Today Roanoke is the largest metro area in western Virginia and is a regional center for health services and transportation-related manufacturing. It's about an 8 1/2-hour drive from Toledo. (Round-trip airfare from Toledo starts at about $475, and from Detroit at about $430.)

It's also becoming something of a tourist destination. For potential visitors, here are 9 Things to Know about Roanoke:

1. If you're a bit rusty on your history, this Roanoke is NOT the one that was known as "The Lost Colony." That's an island off the coast of North Carolina.

2. The city pays tribute to its railroading history at the Virginia Transportation Museum, which features the biggest collection of steam and diesel locomotives in the country, many of which you can climb aboard. Among the coolest is the Norfolk & Western J-611, a black behemoth that could, in its heyday, hit speeds of 110 mph -- while pulling a train.

The largest collection of steam and diesel locomotives in the country is on display in Roanoke.
The largest collection of steam and diesel locomotives in the country is on display in Roanoke. 3. Roanoke has become an arts center in recent years, and its crown jewel is the three-year-old Taubman Museum of Art, a stunning structure of metal and glass meant to mirror the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains. Permanent collections include regional, American, and Florentine art, and upcoming exhibits will feature Civil War-era drawings and a whimsical collection of "Soundsuits" from dancer and visual artist Nick Cave.

4. The Roanoke Valley isn't well-known for its wineries, but maybe it should be. Several of them produce award-winning cabernets and chardonnays, and for the adventurous, there are quirky choices such as apple-tomato, blackberry cobbler, and "Kiss the Devil" chili pepper wines.

And speaking of imbibing, nearby Franklin County celebrates itself as the "Moonshine Capital of the World." Souvenirs and T-shirts can be purchased throughout the county, and if you ask around, you might be able to buy a jar of genuine bootleg booze.

5. The Natural Bridge, north of Roanoke, is a sprawling, 200-foot-high limestone arch carved out by the creek that runs beneath it. George Washington once surveyed the bridge and carved his initials at one end, and Thomas Jefferson owned the arch for a time. At night there's a bizarre light-and-sound show under the bridge called "The Drama of Creation."

6. Outside of town is the Booker T. Washington National Monument, built on the site of the tobacco farm where the famous black educator was born a slave in 1856. A written inventory lists the value of little Booker at $400 (about $9,000 in today's dollars), and reconstructed buildings, exhibits, and demonstrations of farm life in Civil War Virginia bring history to life. "This is a beautiful park," said a park ranger, "but it has some horrific stories to tell."

The Roanoke Star, also known as the Mill Mountain Star, is the world's largest freestanding illuminated man-made star, constructed in 1949 at the top of Mill Mountain.
The Roanoke Star, also known as the Mill Mountain Star, is the world's largest freestanding illuminated man-made star, constructed in 1949 at the top of Mill Mountain.
7. Another must-see is Black Dog Salvage, a 40,000-square-foot public warehouse packed with architectural antiques, reclaimed fixtures, and an astonishing assortment of "stuff." My wife picked up a beautiful leaded-glass panel here, while I was lucky enough to find a bacon wallet. Custom-designed items are also available. "The only things that restrict what we can do," said a clerk, "are physics and your credit card."

8. There are plenty of lodging options in the city, from modern hotels and motels to cozy B&Bs. Among the cooler choices is the historic Hotel Roanoke, a Tudor-style beauty built in 1882. Its classy dining room serves an upscale menu, but its signature dish is a down-home specialty you're not likely to find elsewhere: peanut soup with spoon bread.

Roanoke also has its share of eateries, from stylish, white-table establishments to sub shops. One unique spot is the Texas Tavern, a 24-hour diner that specializes in something called a "Cheesy Western" -- a cheeseburger topped with a fried egg and served with a bowl of chili.

9. If you go up to the observation platform atop Mill Mountain on a Sunday morning, you'll not only get a close-up look at the Roanoke star and a panoramic view of the city below, but you're liable to bump into the mayor, as we did.

Mayor David Bowers, an avid hiker, told us he takes his mother to church nearly every Sunday, then treks up the mountain with his friend, Margarita, and his dog, Catcher. Unlike longtime regional tourist magnets like Asheville, N.C., Roanoke grew up as an industrial and railroad center, Bowers said, but that's slowly changing: "Promoting Roanoke as a destination site is kind of new for us," he said, "but we're really getting into it."

MORE INFORMATION: Roanoke Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau, or 540-342-6025.

Mike Kelly is a retired Blade travel writer. Contact him at: