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Connections: San Diego is SoCal at its Finest

By Jennifer Ward, 05/04/23, 10:45AM EDT


Upgrade your weekend in the birthplace of California with our neighborhood-based guide to this original Rock ‘n’ Roll event.


This article is presented by United Airlines

What comes to mind when you think about San Diego? If you said surfing, authentic Mexican food, and perfect weather, you wouldn’t be wrong. But as the home of the very first Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon, America’s Finest City is also a town with running in its very DNA.  

Jump off your United flight and straight into a weekend jam-packed with activities at the Rock 'n' Roll Running Series San Diego, which offers a 5K on Saturday and a Marathon and Half Marathon on Sunday. And the same goes for filling your pre- and post-race hours—this sunny city has more to do than you can shake a beach towel at. 

Toni Reaves, sportscaster and running analyst, calls the inaugural Rock ’n’ Roll San Diego Marathon in 1998 one of the three most important marathons ever run—on par with the1896 inaugural Olympic marathon in Athens, Greece and the first five-borough New York City Marathon in 1976. “It was a game-changer in the sport,” he says.  

“This race opened the sport of running to the activity of running,” says Reaves. "People were intimidated by putting a number on, but once they got the idea there was going to be music out there, and it was going to be supportive of everyone, the intimidation factor for the first time was erased.”   

Everybody’s marathon 

As the first race to put bands on the course and highlight the fun aspect of running, Rock ’n’ Roll San Diego quickly became known as “everybody’s marathon.”   

“This was now the moms, people who used to do sports—people coming off the couch,” says Paul Greer, head coach for the San Diego Track Club and who has coached over 10,000 runners to the Rock ’n’ Roll San Diego finish line. “Rock ’n’ Roll San Diego offered the opportunity to run a race and become one of the top one percent of the world.” 

The inaugural race was an important milestone in two other areas: It was also the first to have 55 percent women participate and raised 15 million dollars for cancer research—making it the largest one-day fundraiser of any sport to date. 

The ground-breaking inclusivity that this race embodies isn’t the only reason runners love it, however.  


The start of the Rock 'n' Roll Running Series San Diego Marathon.


Runners run through North Park.

Urban charm at every turn 

Leave the beaches to your post-race recovery time, because the real charm of this race can be found along the route itself. The marathon and half marathon courses traverse many of the colorful neighborhoods that make up San Diego's urban core, making for one of the liveliest routes in the Rock ’n’ Roll series.  

As Axl said it best, let this race take you down to Paradise City where you’ll groove through many different ‘hoods. Read on for some of the highlights you’ll see on race day, as well as our picks for where to go and what to do in each of these areas when the running shoes come off. 

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Casa Del Prado in Balboa Park | San Diego Tourism

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The San Diego Zoo is world-famous | San Diego Tourism

Balboa Park (Half Marathon and Marathon) 

The 1,200-acre natural enclave in the heart of the city that is Balboa Park offers outdoor activities like tennis, running trails, and a stunning succulent garden. It also hosts the start line on Quince and 6th St. Home to the world famous San Diego Zoo and many free museums, you could spend hours here playing, relaxing, and exploring.  

A medley of museums: The Park houses numerous museums, cultural centers, and gardens to explore for visitors with a penchant for everything from automotives to railways to puppets to gems and minerals. Snag an all-access Explorer Pass, or choose from the following attractions to plan your visit. 

Eat and drink: A wide variety of options make Balboa Park equal parts foodie destination as a history lover’s hotspot. Full service restaurants like The Prado in the House of Hospitality and Artifact at the Mingei International Museum offer idyllic spots to nosh on regional and international cuisine.  

For a quicker meal, visit The Flying Squirrel Café in the San Diego Natural History Museum. From salads to sandwiches, soup, paninis, baked goods, and even breakfast options, try Café in the Park. For a drink or meal before taking in one of the Globe’s performances, head to Lady Carolyn’s Pub at the Old Globe. World Beat Café in the WorldBeat Center offers a unique vegan/vegetarian menu. 


Grab lunch at City Tacos | San Diego Tourism


Go mural hunting in North Park's winding streets | San Diego Tourism

North Park (Half Marathon and Marathon) 

This neighborhood borders Balboa Park and has seen significant gentrification over the past decade. It still retains many of its original charms, however, including many 1920’s Craftsman homes. North Park has appeared on Forbes magazine’s list of hippest hipster neighborhoods, described by the magazine as a “bastion of creativity.” Here, hipsters, young professionals, families and students hang out in breweries and vegan doughnut shops, and browse pop-up boutiques and art galleries along University Avenue.  and nightlife often revolves around the  

Walking tour: Scope out architecture at Dryden Historic District, a cluster of pitched-roof homes with wide eaves designed by the local son David Owen Dryden, sits along 28th and Pershing Streets. Shop for used books, clothes, and treasures to take home at Verbatim Books, which offers a curated selection of used and rare books, as well as new titles from local authors. Go mural hunting among the neighborhood’s winding streets or catch a show at the Observatory North Park, a 1929 theater that hosts rap, rock and electronica. The North Park Thursday Market also features live music.   

Eat and drink: The restaurant scene here is heavy on brunch spots, upscale pubs, taquerias and sushi lounges. For a delicious breakfast, try Breakfast Republic for its Jurassic Pork eggs benny; for lunch, City Tacos is a solid bet; check out The Friendly for an indulgent post-race burger, and Hammond’s Gourmet Ice Cream for their flight of mini cones. 

Breweries are the name of the game here in North Park, and some of our favorites include Mike Hess Brewing, a warm, welcoming space with a variety of beer; Belching Beaver with its cheekily named brews; and Modern Times with its wacky “Flavordome” tasting room, complete with upside-down lampshades decorating the ceiling. If beer’s not your thing, then this is not your city! Jokes aside, Polite Provisions is a retro cocktail bar with an impressive menu. 

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Hillcrest is a colorful, dynamic neighborhood | San Diego Tourism

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Craft beer is a staple of San Diego culture | San Diego Tourism

Hillcrest (Half Marathon and Marathon) 

Stylish Hillcrest is the center of San Diego’s LGBT scene, with buzzing gay bars and the city’s massive annual Pride parade. University Avenue is lined with restaurants serving global cuisines like Vietnamese, Himalayan and Thai, while the mix of cafes, brunch spots and second-hand clothes shops on Fifth Avenue make it a popular weekend destination. The weekly Hillcrest Farmers Market sells produce, flowers and cooked food.  

Shop and explore: Every Sunday from 9-2, the Hillcrest Farmer’s Market is held on Normal Street where local artisans set up their booths to offer their grown and crafted items. This is San Diego’s original and largest market filled with over 175 vendors and 10,000-plus visitors each week. 

The 7 Bridges Hike is a 5.5-mile loop that is considered an “urban hiking trail” that runs through Hillcrest, North Park, Balboa Park, Banker’s Hill and more. This walk is easily accessible for wheelchairs, bikes, and strollers. If you want to take a break at all there are plenty of rest stops throughout the hike like coffee shops and other eateries. 

Eat and drink: Visit Barrel and Board for chef-inspired sharable boards & hand-crafted cocktails. Dumplings n More for authentic Chinese food, Baja Betty’s for Mexican, and Extraordinary Desserts for a memorable treat. 

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It's always festive in Old Town | San Diego Tourism

Old Town (Marathon only) 

Full marathoners will run through Presidio Park, skirting a zone known for its history as the first settlement in California. Here you’ll find kitschy souvenir shops and authentic Mexican food served in open-air plazas. Often called the Birthplace of California, Old Town boasts lush gardens and plazas and speciality stores featuring treasures from around the world. As a family-friendly zone, you can indulge in authentic cuisine, dance to strolling mariachis and baile folklórico, and engage with history at museums, historic sites, and cultural events. Here, you can board a Trolley Tour for a tour of the city.

Visit the African Diaspora Museum, Junipero Serra Museum, or take in a play at the Cygnet Theater. Take your pick from one of the area’s 15-plus Mexican restaurants (try Casa Guadalajara or Flor’s Farm to Table). If you’ve had enough of tacos at this point in your visit, head to Harney Sushi or Trattoria Don Pietro for Italian specialties. 

Mission Bay (Marathon only) 

This meandering bay tucked just in from the ocean serves up water sports galore like stand-up paddle boarding, jet skiing and boating. Enjoy a bonfire on the beach, and run, walk, or cycle around one of the many parks. Take the kids to Belmont Park amusement park or pack a picnic and your sunhat and you’ll be set for a relaxing afternoon. 

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Visit the USS Midway Museum in the Embarcadero


Stroll Seaport Village at sunset to cap off a fun-filled day.

Embarcadero (Half Marathon and Marathon) 

The Finish Line Festival is hosted in Waterfront Park in the stately Embarcadero district—a busy cruise-ship hub, known for seafood and souvenir shops at Seaport Village.  

Stroll along the sea: The Headquarters, an old police command post, is now home to chic eateries and boutiques. Nearby, flight simulators, restored planes and life-at-sea exhibits are the draws at the USS Midway Museum, a former naval aircraft carrier. Waterfront Park and the two Embarcadero Marina parks boast grassy lawns and ocean views. 

Eat and drink: The Edgewater Grill at Seaport Village boasts one of the finest waterfront views in San Diego. Spanning the length of the restaurant are outdoor patios where guests can enjoy an unobstructed view of Coronado Bridge and Coronado Island. Strap on a bib, order your favorite bucket of crab and dance the day away at Joe's Crab Shack. The Fish Market Seafood Restaurant is recognized as the premier destination for seafood and San Diego bay views. 

Where else can you get a fully supported, music-fueled tour of a city this much fun? Join us in San Diego for a classic—and unforgettable—Rock ’n’ Roll experience.   

United Airlines is the Official Airline of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Running Series. Let United join you on your journey toward the finish line and check out the Rock 'n' Roll Running Series website to find out how you can receive exclusive flight discounts.  

Keep an eye on the Rock 'n' Roll San Diego event page for other local discounts in our Runner Perks section. 

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