Completing any marathon is a fantastic achievement that you’ll rightly look back on with no small amount of pride. However, there are undoubtedly some marathons that are more memorable than others.
Sometimes this is simply because you smashed your PB or had an absolute blast with a group of friends. Other times, however, it’s because a marathon is just, well, better than others.
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This could be for any number of reasons, and it will be largely down to personal preference. Perhaps it boasts the best atmosphere, or has one of the flattest, fastest courses in the world. Maybe it’s just absolutely massive, with tens of thousands of runners joining you as you pound your way through 42.2km. Or it could be a particularly scenic or historic event.
The point is that some marathons have an X factor, and while we’re not in the business of doing any marathon down, we are very much in the business of building some up. Below you’ll find a detailed rundown of the nine finest road marathons in the world, which goes into glorious depth about what makes each and every one of them special.
The full list of best marathons
Best all-round marathons: London Marathon | New York City Marathon | Rock'n'Roll Madrid Marathon
Fastest marathons: Berlin Marathon | Valencia Marathon | Frankfurt Marathon
Most scenic marathons: Loch Ness Marathon | Patagonia International Marathon | Midnight Sun Marathon | San Sebastián Marathon | Big Sur International Marathon | Banff Marathon
Historic marathons: Athens Marathon | Boston Marathon
Best all-round marathons
London Marathon (UK)
Next event: 26 April 2020
The brilliance of the London Marathon is highlighted by just how ludicrously hard it is to get a spot in the race through the public ballot. Every year the number of entrants goes up, with a record 457,861 people having applied for a spot in the 2020 race, of which you can expect around 17,500 to actually end up on the start line via the ballot.
If you are one of the 40,000-plus runners lucky enough to get a place in the event, either through the ballot, a charity or a speedy qualifying time, you get to run what we reckon is the best all-round marathon in the world. The streets are thronged with spectators all the way around the course, with the crowd being three or four deep at popular spots like the Cutty Sark and Tower Bridge.
- Essential reading: Read our expert guide to the London Marathon
The course is also fast enough for PB hunters, and that means you get the very best runners in the world lining up on the start line, with world record holder Eliud Kipchoge having won the London Marathon in four of the past five years.
Most of the landmarks on the course are crammed into the final couple of kilometres when you hit the very centre of London – so it can’t be described as an especially scenic course – but you’ll be so overwhelmed by the barrage of noise coming from the spectators that won’t bother you.
London has one other factor going for it – it’s very cheap to enter. If you get in through the ballot it will only cost you £39, though charity runners are asked to raise a lot of cash to earn their spot.
New York City Marathon (USA)
Next event: 1 November 2020
The biggest marathon in the world, with over 50,000 runners taking to the streets of New York’s five boroughs every year to power through 42.2km. Those runners are watched by millions of spectators, creating a sensational atmosphere that can’t be matched at any other marathon.
Runners face an early alarm to get out to Staten Island, but that will quickly be forgotten once you get going, crossing the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge into Brooklyn as part of the massive crowd of participants. From there you run north through Brooklyn and Queens before entering Manhattan, where much of the second half of the race takes place on just two roads – First Avenue up to The Bronx and Fifth Avenue back down to the finish in Central Park.
- Essential reading: Read our expert guide to the New York Marathon
It’s not a particularly speedy course, and if you’re struggling then the long straight sections in Manhattan can feel almost endless, but there is always a huge amount of people cheering you on, and plenty of other runners to gee you up as well.
Rock'n'Roll Madrid Marathon (Spain)
Next event: 26 April 2020
When you think of bucket list European marathons Madrid is rarely a location that springs to mind. We're not entirely sure why that's the case as it's by far one of the most beautiful and impressive locations for a marathon that we've ever taken part in.
Taking place in Spain at the end of April does, of course, mean that you can expect the temperature to be fairly toasty and we'd be lying if we said that the elevation wasn't one of the toughest we've ever seen in a marathon. Over the 26.2 miles you can expect 221m of elevation gain with the last 5km of the marathon all uphill – so not the best race if you're looking for a PB.
On the flipside, that elevation does mean you end up climbing to 737m where you'll be treated with some of the most impressive views you're likely to find in a road marathon. As for post-race celebrating, let's just say that Madrid's nightlife doesn't close because it's a Sunday.
Best marathons for a PB
Berlin Marathon (Germany)
Next event: 27 September 2020
The official world record for the marathon has been broken seven times in the past 16 years, and on every single occasion the new leading time has been run at the Berlin Marathon. Unless your name is Eliud Kipchoge, it’s unlikely you’ll be going to Berlin to try and claim the world record, but it’s definitely the best pick for any runner trying to record their own personal best over 42.2km.
It’s not all about fast times either. Like the London and New York City marathons, Berlin is an epic event and one of the six World Marathon Majors, and it has a similarly massive field of runners with over 40,000 crossing the finish line at the 2018 race.
The long straights and wide roads of the course mean that even with so many participants you’ll always have room to run. That’s especially important at the start of the event where so many races get incredibly crowded. The Berlin Marathon starts on Straße des 17. Juni, a long, wide and straight road that runs through Tiergarten, and with no turns in the first two kilometres of the race runners have the perfect chance to settle into their pace and avoid coming a cropper in the crowds.
You finish on the same road just after the Brandenburg Gate – note the “just after” part of that, there’s a little bit to go so don’t sprint to the famous landmark thinking you’re done. After that it’s time to party, and you’re in the perfect city to celebrate a new PB.
Valencia Marathon (Spain)
Next event: 6 December 2020
With a flat course and a large field full of runners of all paces, the Valencia Marathon is another strong option for anyone trying to record a new PB. Unlike Berlin, London and New York, you also avoid the lottery of ballot entry with Valencia – just sign up on the website for a guaranteed spot.
There are two main factors which make Valencia a particularly good option for PB-seekers. The first and most important one is the course. There are no hills and the route is almost entirely made up of wide, straight roads so there’s no risk of having to slow down for a bottleneck, especially as only 20,000 runners take part in the event.
The second factor is the weather. While spring and autumn races like London and Berlin have thrown runners plenty of curveballs when it comes to the weather in recent years, early December in Valencia is almost always perfect for running, with temperatures in the low teens and little chance of rain.
That early December race date also means you can train for the event through autumn if you’re a northern hemisphere runner, which is the perfect season for a long training schedule. And once you have nailed your PB in Valencia, you can enjoy the Christmas period without having to think about any training requirements at all.
Frankfurt Marathon (Germany)
Next event: 25 October 2020
With around 10,000 runners in 2018, Frankfurt Marathon isn't one of the biggest races on the list in terms of participants. The crowd, however, is one of the most supportive you're going to find with most people taking part in the race counting it as one of the best race atmospheres around.
In addition to that, Frankfurt also has one of the flattest, fastest courses of a marathon of this scale - a perfect option if you had your sights set on Berlin and/or New York but didn't get through the ballots.
Previous runners often remark about how well the race is organised, waxing lyrical about everything from the impressive marathon expo to the grandiose finish line. A spectacle that sees participants heading down a red carpet in the famous Festhalle to a crowd of 7,000 spectators as giant video screens supply information on those crossing the line.
Most scenic marathons
Loch Ness Marathon (Scotland)
Next event: 4 October 2020
There are many marathons with great atmospheres, and plenty that offer the chance to run a PB, but there’s only one that provides the chance to spot the Loch Ness Monster while running. Admittedly it’s not a very high chance, but fortunately even if Nessie doesn’t make an appearance there’s a lot of other things to look at while running the marathon.
The point-to-point course follows the south side of the Loch through magnificent Highland scenery and finishes in Inverness, where a crowd will be waiting to cheer you through the final few kilometres. It’s also a fairly small event with around 3000 runners, so the epic views you enjoy en route won’t be ruined by a crowd.
Given its Highland setting you might assume that you’re facing a tough day out on the hills with the Loch Ness Marathon, but the course is actually designed so you spend more time going downhill than up, though there is a testing climb between 27 and 32km.
Patagonia International Marathon (Chile)
Next event: 5 September 2020
Set in the Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia, this event has a strong claim for being the most beautiful road marathon on the planet. In fact, given how often the view will take your breath away, it might be tricky to keep running at times.
The route winds its way around several lakes, keeping the snowy peaks of distant mountains in sight throughout. This is a hilly one, with 700m of climbing to be done over the course of 42.2km, but every bit of uphill work is rewarded with an even better view of the stunning surrounding landscape, so it’s well worth it.
This is not a big city race where you can expect fully-stocked aid stations at every kilometre and a pristine asphalt racing surface, so you will need to be a little more prepared than with your other road marathons. However, if you’re searching for a different marathon experience than the normal city centre route, the Patagonia International Marathon is as good as it gets.
Midnight Sun Marathon (Norway)
Next event: 20 June 2020
This unique event takes place in Tromsø, Norway, which is in the Arctic Circle. That means that the sun doesn’t go down during the summer months, so even though the race starts at 8pm, you will be finishing in the light.
That might sound like a bit of a gimmick that’s quickly forgotten once you actually start running, but the surreal feeling of running a marathon at midnight doesn’t go away, especially as the temperature starts to go down during the night even if the sun itself doesn’t.
The slightly eerie atmosphere is accentuated by the long stretches along the coast where there are few spectators, although when in the centre of Tromsø itself, the support does turn up in boisterous fashion – most people don’t go out on the town on a Saturday night to run a marathon, after all.
San Sebastián Marathon (Spain)
Next event: November 2020
Spanish races have seen an enormous rise in popularity in recent years and it's really not hard to see why. Like Valencia, the Basque Country region of Spain offers an alternative marathon location for those living in more Northern parts of the world. Unlike Valencia, however, you're unlikely to see summer-like temperatures as you cross the finish line.
Still, not everyone likes to run in the warm and despite the unknown weather conditions that might occur San Sebastien is an excellent destination for a winter marathon. Despite the mountains and hillsides that form a scenic backdrop to the race, the course itself is extremely flat and the fact that there are only around 7,000 runners means that there's a lot of open space throughout the route.
Once you've crossed the finish line you'll find yourself in one of Spain's most treasured towns, with some of the best restaurants, bars and beaches the country has to offer. A nice option if you fancy a pre-festive season break.
Big Sur International Marathon (USA)
Next event: April 26 2020
Nestled amongst the mountains, coast and forests of the Californian wilderness, Big Sur is one of the most impressive marathons you'll find around the world. That scenic joy doesn't come without a price though and any participant taking part in the race can expect miles upon miles of tough, relentless ascents.
Taking place on the famous Highway 1 that stretches along the Californian coast, the 26.2 miles of road follows the coastline from Big Sur to Carmel and winds through redwoods, alongside ranches, and offers stunning views of the Pacific Ocean.
With a cut-off time of 6 hours, it's far from the easiest marathon to take part in, so you won't be able to rock up with no training. As well as being a Boston qualifier race you can also expect a man at the side of the road playing a grand piano – which we're fairly certain is a marathon first.
Banff Marathon (Canada)
Next event: 21 June 2020
If you were to pick a handful of locations around the world that were likely to play host to one of the most scenic marathons, Banff would be on it.
A favorite amongst outdoor-lovers across the globe, from hikers and climbers to skiers and white water rafters, the Canadian resort town offers one of the most incredible settings for a marathon. There's wide open landscapes, wildlife, natural wonders like the Vermilion Lakes and a chance to see Banff's famous bridges. It's a race that has an awful lot going for it.
The event, that also includes 10k and half marathon distances, starts in the beautiful village of Banff before following the Bow Valley out and back; finishing to cheering crowds in the downtown Central Park area. Although it's inevitably a hilly route (it is in the Rockies), the fact that it follows the river means that there's no major elevation to contend with, so for the most part you can settle in and enjoy the ride.
Must-do historic marathons
Athens Marathon (Greece)
Next event: 8 November 2020
If history and hills are your thing, then you’ve got to go back to where the marathon began, which is a little town called Marathon. Makes sense. If you’re not au fait with the (much-disputed) history of the marathon it all started with a messenger called Pheidippides, who ran from Marathon to Athens to bring news of a military victory. He then died, but to be fair to Pheidippides he had also just run from Athens to Sparta and back, which is about 240km each way, not just the 40km-ish stretch from Marathon to Athens.
The Athens Marathon commemorates Pheidippides’s story by sending runners along a route from Marathon to Athens, where they finish in the sensational surroundings of the original Olympic stadium. It doesn’t get any better than that for running history buffs, right?
Be warned, however, it’s a tough route. Really tough, in fact – you spend most of the time from 10km to 31km going uphill. But you do then get a nice downhill stretch to the finish from there. You’re still thinking about the 21km of uphill, aren’t you?
Boston Marathon (USA)
Next event: 20 April 2020
The world’s oldest annual marathon, having first been held way back in 1897, when only 15 people participated. The Boston Marathon is a little bigger these days, with over 30,000 people taking to the point-to-point route that runs from the town of Hopkinton, Massachusetts to Copley Square in Boston.
Boston is the only major marathon that requires runners to log a qualifying time to enter the race, and those times are pretty sharp too. Men and women under the age of 34 have to run a sub-three or sub-3:30 marathon respectively to be considered for Boston, which adds a level of prestige to taking part in the race.
The course is tough, with notorious landmarks like Heartbreak Hill often putting the brakes on anyone bidding for a PB at Boston. The weather is unpredictable too, with hellish storms as likely as scorching sunshine. However, since it is a point-to-point course that travels in one direction almost the entire way, if you’re lucky enough to have the wind behind you on the day you’ll enjoy that boost for the whole race.
Main image credit: New York Road Runners