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California is an amazing state. There are so many things to see, ecosystems to explore, mountains to climb, and roads to travel that it’s hard to know where to even start. Well, I lived in the state for over 10 years, and I made the absolute best of my time there. Here are the best things to do in California, from someone who made it a point to see it all!
This list travels the entire state, so whether you plan to catch some sun in San Diego, stalk Celebrities in Los Angeles, or visiting the Golden Gate Bridge, there’s something on this list for you.
The Best Things to Do in California
There are so many things to do in California. This is a giant list. I did my best to group it from South to North, but many things can be done throughout the state. Here’s a table of contents so you can skip to the things you are most interested in.
Wine Tasting Temecula
Northern California is renowned for its wine (more on that later), but did you know that the Southern part of the state has amazing wine as well?
Temecula is a gorgeous little town just to the East of San Diego. It’s got an old western feel to it, but it’s definitely a tourist town. Temecula revolves around the SoCal wine industry, and the town is nestled in between a ton of local wineries.
To get the most of your Temecula wine tasting experience, go with a group and hire a limo or small bus. This way, you can hop from winery to winery, and everyone will be able to taste all the offerings. Be sure to add Wilson Creek to the list and try some of their iconic almond champagne. It’s one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted.
San Diego Zoo
In “Friends,” Ross is trying to get his monkey Marcel accepted into a zoo, and he dreams of being accepted into San Diego, as it’s the zoo of all zoos. The show wasn’t exaggerating. San Diego Zoo is a marvel of animal welfare and conservation. It’s one of the best zoos in the country.
The zoo is located in Balboa Park and is approximately 100 acres. It’s home to nearly four thousand animals representing over 600 species from across the globe. It also has a lush botanical garden housing over 7000 plant species. A fun bonus of the zoo is the sky tram, a unique way to transverse the park. See the grounds from above as you travel from one end of the park to another via sky tram!
San Diego Safari Park
The sister to the magnificent zoo is the iconic San Diego Safari Park. Often referred to as the wild animal park, this 1800-acre park is the best way to see wild animals in their natural environments. Most of this park’s residents are in huge enclosures that have everything they need. They are allowed to roam freely with other species, as they would in their native habitats.
The predators are kept in separate enclosures to prevent any mishaps, but they have huge territories to explore and engage with.
Although you can’t drive a personal vehicle through the park, you can upgrade from a walking tour (don’t worry – all enclosures are fenced in!) to a guided safari tour, which brings you as close as safely possible to the animals. If you’re lucky, you can even hand-feed a giraffe!
San Diego Brewery Hopping
Small microbrews are all the rage, and you wouldn’t think that San Diego is at the leading edge of that trend, but it is. Breweries hailing from San Diego have received tons of national and even international prestige.
There are close to 100 breweries in the San Diego area, and it’s nearly impossible to visit them all. To get the most of your time, choose your top five and hire a party bus to transport you across the city to each location. Make sure you plan meal times into your day as well, as not all of the breweries serve food.
See the Metal Sculptures at Anza Borrego
There are so many wonders in California that people often miss Anza Borrego, and that’s a mistake. It’s a totally different experience. This desert state park is one of the best places to visit in Southern California.
The desert landscape is just one small part of the appeal. This park is home to giant metal sculptures of dragons, scorpions, bugs, and dinosaurs. The sculptures were created by artist Ricardo Breceda and represent the largest collection of his famous metalworks.
The best time to visit Anza Borrego is during the spring when the desert wildflowers are in bloom. During this time of year, the normally barren desert landscape explodes with an abundance of color, and the hills are covered with a variety of flowers as far as the eye can see. Super bloom seasons are the best years to see the flowers, but every year is a spectacular show.
If you’re going to be visiting Anza Borrego, you should definitely drive the extra few miles and check out the Salton Sea. The sea lies to the east of the park, on the other side of HWY 86.
You don’t really visit this saltwater lake for a good time. Unfortunately, this area is renowned as one of California’s biggest environmental disasters. The lake was polluted to the point of no return due to farm runoff, and the resulting evaporation created huge dust storms. It’s not exactly a pretty picture, but it’s a great example of what changing climates coupled with human pollution can do to an area and an excellent learning opportunity.
Ride the Waves
The Salton Sea is not the ideal place for surfing, but if you travel back west to the Pacific coast, you will find tons of suitable surfing beaches. Huntington Beach, in Orange County (located between San Diego and Los Angeles, but closer to LA), is known as surf city USA. The huge beach offers tons of opportunities for water sports.
I definitely recommend taking surf lessons if you’ve never tried it before. I made the mistake of thinking it was easy, and during my three hours of “surfing,” I didn’t manage to stand up on the surfboard a single time.
If surfing is too difficult, you can always try body boarding or good old-fashioned swimming. The water is colder than you’d expect, though – as the currents come down to California from Alaska. It’s great for getting a reprieve from the hot California sun in the summer, but it’s too cold to swim without a wetsuit in the winter.
Dive Bar Hopping in Long Beach
Long Beach is one of my favorite cities in California. It’s not overall touristy but still has a ton of charm. One of my favorite things about Long Beach is all the dive bars scattered along Broadway and second street in the Belmont Heights and Bluff Heights area.
If you want a more lively crowd, you simply need to travel a little to the East for the famed second street bars of Belmont shores or a little to the West to head into Downtown Long Beach for the fantastic nightlife.
Long Beach’s most prestigious attraction is the Queen Mary. Sister ship of the titanic, the Queen Mary, began her illustrious career in 1937 with a maiden voyage from Southampton, England, across the Atlantic. She sailed for thirty glorious years before retiring to a life of luxury in the docks of Long Beach.
She still captures the imagination of millions of tourists, acting as a hotel and events center. Many people come from far and wide to tour her now dated cabins and engine rooms, marveling at the masterpiece of engineering. She is also rumored to be haunted, and her grounds are turned into spooky haunts for the festive Halloween season.
Whether you’re into history or ghosts, the Queen Mary is a perfect place to explore.
Choose Your Beach
With over 800 miles of Coastline, there’s bound to be a beach that fits your fancy. From the sunny sandy beaches of SoCal to the rocky northern coast, there’s a beach for everyone.
If you’re looking for a nice beach, check out Laguna in Orange County. If you want to surf, head to Huntington Beach. People looking for a trendy hip community should check out Hermosa Beach, and celebrity hunters should head up to Malibu.
Ventura beach in the central part of the state is a lot less crowded but just as beautiful. When you head further North up the coast (take Pacific Coast Hwy for an epic drive!), you will see rockier beaches. The Northern beaches aren’t the best for swimming as the water tends to be much colder, but they tend to be very scenic.
Venice Beach is one of the most iconic beaches of the state, so I’d be remiss if it didn’t get its own small paragraph. This is the beach that’s known as muscle beach. It’s where all the bodybuilders of the eighties would hang out and show off their strength. The beach still has some workout equipment for people to test out and try to compete with, but the bodybuilding scene isn’t as strong as it once was.
It’s been replaced with a flourishing art community and an enormous skate park. Local aspiring artists can show up and claim a space on the beach walk for free, as long as they are selling art and not a crafted good. It’s a great place to sample the flavors of the new and upcoming artists of the area.
The skate park is a great place for kids to hang out and show off their skateboarding skills. It’s fun to watch the good ones practice their tricks!
Santa Monica Pier
Santa Monica is directly to the North of Venice Beach, and you can walk or bike between them on the beach trail. The beach is pretty typical of California beaches, but they excelled at making it the hot place to be by creating a fantastic pier community.
The Santa Monica Pier has rides, games, and restaurants. It’s like a mini-fair atop a pier sitting next to the ocean. My favorite ride is the Ferris Wheel, known as the Pacific Wheel. You can see a good portion of the city from atop the wheel and get wonderful views of the coastline. Hanging out on the pier is definitely a great place to spend the day.
The Last Bookstore
If you love books, then you need to visit The Last Bookstore in downtown LA. This is the absolute best bookstore I’ve ever been to in my life. It’s two stories filled to the brim with old books, and it even has a separate room for rare and unique volumes.
When you go up the stairs at the last bookstore, you are met with what’s known as the tunnel of books. It’s literally a tunnel made of books that you have to walk through to browse the selections upstairs. There’s also a wonderful cut circle of books that you can use to take a photo of yourself surrounding by books. Yes, the ambiance is part of the reason that it’s so much fun, but there’s also something to be said about getting lost in an old book shop.
Eat at the Grand Central Market
While you’re in downtown LA, you need to stop at the Grand Central Market for a bit. However, be aware that you will have a huge problem when you get there – deciding which of the amazing foods to sample.
Grand Central Market is a mall food court combined with good restaurants. Imagine going to a mall, and instead of seeing the same old Subways and Burger Kings, you have French bakeries, eggaries, ramen shops, currywurst stands, specialty PB&J stands, and over 15 other small, local, delicious eateries to chose from. Every meal I’ve had at the Grand Central Market has been spectacular, and it’s definitely worth checking.
Berth 55 in San Pedro
Do you want a tray piled to the moon with fresh seafood? Then you need to visit Berth 55 in San Pedro. Located just to the south of Los Angeles, Berth 55 isn’t a typical tourist attraction. No one plans their trip around it. But, if you’re in the area and want to get a sample of the local flavor, Berth 55 is definitely the place to go.
It’s a fish market and restaurant all in one. People go to buy fresh cuts of fish for later and sample the various vendors’ takes on seafood. You can get a tray piled high with fries, fish, and chicken for ridiculously low prices. It’s a great value, and it’s delicious.
The Oldest Street in Los Angeles
Olvera Street in downtown LA is considered the oldest street in the city. Dating back to the time when LA was part of Mexico, the street honors its Mexican heritage. The pedestrian-only street is filled with vendors and restaurants celebrating Mexican culture.
The street is also home to several historic buildings built in the Spanish style. These include treasures such as the Sepulveda house and the Pico house, and a few old Spanish churches.
All the Art Museums
California is the place to visit if you’re into fine art. Sure, New York has the MET, but Los Angeles has the LACMA complex, the Getty Center, and the Broad, while San Francisco is home to the Legion of Honor and a Cartoon Art Museum.
LACMA is my favorite of the bunch, only because it’s so vast. You can start your day at the iconic light display in front of the building and stroll around various museums, including a Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), an Asian Art museum, a botanical garden, and of course, the main LACMA building, which houses European arts throughout the ages. The Getty Center is located to the North of Los Angeles, near Beverly Hills. It has an amazing collection as well, but even if you aren’t into art, it’s worth checking out due to the fantastic view of the city from the top of the villa.
Visit the Tar Pits
Speaking of art museums, LACMA is located right next to the iconic La Brea Tar Pits. These pits are thousand-year-old tar pits, where you can see preserved remnants of the last glacier period. The tar pits swallowed up mammoths, dire wolves, and other species that roamed the Earth during the great ice age, and a walk through the grounds of the pits is like being transported back to a wilder time.
Of course, the pits themselves are no longer a threat(and parts that might be are fenced off!), but it’s interesting to see the fossils that the paleontologists have uncovered and get a taste of that time right in the center of Los Angeles.
Art Walk – Galleries in LA
If you’re more interested in modern art and lesser-known artists, you should check out the various art walks that take place throughout the city. The most well-known is the Second Thursday art walk in downtown Los Angeles.
Every second Thursday of the month, the LA galleries open up to the general public and entice visitors with wines, cheeses, and spectacular artistic showcases. This is the opportunity for people to get a peek into the thriving arts culture of the city. Located in the gallery row area of downtown LA, the art walk is self-guided so that spectators can visit the various galleries at their leisure.
There are a ton of other art walks in the greater LA area. Laguna Beach in Orange County has its First Thursday. Long Beach has Second Saturdays. Venice Beach is always open for artists displaying their wares. If you’re into art, the LA area is definitely a great place to visit.
One unique thing to do in California is to visit Catalina Island, a small island located a few miles off the Southern Coast. You can take a ferry to the island and spend the day at a beach bar, zip-lining through the forest, or on an undersea adventure.
Catalina is a different vibe from the rest of the state. Though a bustling tourist community in the day, the town basically closes down in the evening and seems to be a retirement community. Only the grocery store is open past 8 PM, and it seems as though the locals all go to sleep as soon as the last ferry leaves.
It’s still a fun place to visit and a tourist’s paradise during the day. It’s definitely worth checking out if you have a free day in your itinerary.
Central Coast Beach Cities
Most people think of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego when they think of California, but there are plenty of amazing cities in between. There are central valley wine cities like Santa Barbara and San Louis Obispo, scenic beach towns like Morro Bay and Monterey Bay, and even fun and interesting suburbs like Pasadena just outside of Los Angeles and Santa Rosa to the North of San Francisco.
Each of these cities (and so many more!) have their own local flavor that is quite different than the big cities, and definitely worth checking out for their own merit.
Wine Hop Santa Barbara
California’s central valley isn’t renowned for its wine, but it should be. I already mentioned Santa Barbara as one of the coastal cities you should visit – but that was more for the picturesque beach scenes. Santa Barbara is also one of the best places to go for wine tasting.
Most of the area wineries have small tasting rooms within the city center. This makes walking from one tasting room to the next a breeze. You don’t have to worry about how you will get from one winery to the next when you visit Santa Barbara! It also has a ton of cute local restaurants, so be sure to keep your belly full while you’re tasting the fruits of the valley, so you don’t overdo it!
The United States isn’t known for its castles, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have any. One of the most iconic castles in the nation is Hearst Castle, in central California. Built in the early 20th century by William Randolph Hearst, a media mogul who started the now world-renowned Hearst Magazines (Cosmo and Country living) are Hearst brands with many others).
With over 68000 square feet of living space, 38 bedrooms, 42 bedrooms, and 14 bathrooms, the main castle of the complex is a shining example of early 20th-century luxury. There are three other buildings on the complex as well.
There are numerous types of tours you can take through the castle, including an art tour, a tour of the kitchens and cottages (where the servants would have lived and worked), and tours highlighting the architecture of the masterpiece. If you are looking for something different to do in California, a castle tour is just the ticket.
Monterey Bay Aquarium
Speaking of Monterey Bay, it’s home to one of the most iconic aquariums in the country. Built right on the rocky coast of the bay, this aquarium offers a close look at the ecosystem of the surrounding ocean. It features a kelp forest exhibit, tide pools, and everyone’s favorite, the lovable and playful sea otters.
Monterey Bay is located about 120 miles to the South of San Francisco and is a perfect destination for a day trip from the city.
The Valley of Giants
California is home to some of the largest living creatures on Earth. Of course, I’m talking about the giant sequoias in California’s Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks.
The General Sherman Tree holds the record for the largest tree on the planet based on mass. Comprised of over 52000 cubic feet of wood, he’s a wonder to behold. It’s impossible not to feel insignificant when standing next to such a giant. The knowledge that his roots go as deep into the Earth as he is tall, thus doubling his size, makes his enormity even more impressive.
General Sherman isn’t the only giant in these two parks. This area of California is the only place in the world where these sequoias grow, and the parks have a great deal of them within their boundaries. In fact, three of the five largest trees in the world live in these two parks, and there are quite a few trees that aren’t far behind.
We are heading away from lush forests and into scorching deserts for the next place on our list. Death Valley, California, is a desert landscape typically considered the hottest place in the US. It’s also the driest place in the US and the lowest point in the US.
You wouldn’t think that visiting a place known as the hottest and driest would be fun. However, it’s an amazing place to view iconic desert landscapes. Although it does boost the lowest point, the park is filled with hills, rocks, and mountains. There are numerous viewing points scattered throughout the park where you can stop and see the breathtaking landscapes. Although hot and dry, there are also numerous hiking trails and paths. I wouldn’t recommend hiking in the summer, and also, please be sure to bring plenty of water. It gets hot out there!
Yosemite National Park is one of the most iconic parks in the state. Featuring magnificent cliffs, gorgeous valleys, and an abundance of wildlife, it’s definitely one that nature lovers need to see.
There are two iconic cliffs in Yosemite, the Half Dome, and El Capitan. You can drive up to scenic overlays to see both of them from a distance, but the hiking trails and paths are also a good time. Be wary, though – hiking down is far easier than hiking back up, as I learned on my first visit to the park.
Big Sur is a coastal community between Los Angeles and San Francisco, but closer to San Francisco. Visiting this area isn’t about the city though, it’s about the gorgeous rocky cliffs you can find throughout the general area.
If you want to see one of the most beautiful cliff faces in the world, head to Big Sur in the springtime. The cliffs leading up to the ocean are dotted with blooming wildflowers, the tide pools below are full of algae growth, and the crashing waves give the entire scene a serenity that is almost impossible to describe.
One of the most iconic things to do in California is visiting the famous Alcatraz prison. Although renowned for being a prison, it was only functional as one for about thirty years, from 1934-1936. It spent the majority of its time as a military base, operating as such as early as the 1850s.
After the prison closed, the island was occupied by Native Americans, who were protesting the unfair treatment of Native tribes in the states. That occupation lasted approximately 19 months, from 1969-1971.
In 1973, Alcatraz was opened as a National Park. Tourists come from worldwide to learn of its sordid history and get a glimpse of what life would have been like for those imprisoned on the island.
Eat Through San Francisco
San Francisco is a foodie’s paradise. With their eclectic mix of ethnic cuisines, modern gastropubs, and bread bowls, San Francisco has something for everyone.
The city is known for having one of the best Chinatowns in the nation (though I’m partial to Chicago’s – the Moon Palace restaurant there is one of my top five favorite restaurants in the world) so start there with some amazing authentic dumplings. Then, head down to the Fisherman’s Wharf area to scope out the best bread bowls in the nation. San Francisco is the birthplace of sourdough – and they are sure to have the best.
There are restaurants, gastropubs, and food stands that are sure to please even the most sensitive palates. Be sure to bring your appetite when you visit this iconic city.
Lake Tahoe is a gorgeous mountain town in Northern California, just on the California side of the border with Nevada. The lake that supplies its name is one of the clearest, most pristine lakes you will ever see.
It is known as a skiing town, but it has a ton of charm outside of that. Many folks stay near Lake Tahoe when they visit Reno, as it’s a gorgeous locale fairly close to Nevada’s second-tier gambling spot. Lake Tahoe is great for all of your outdoor adventures. It boasts amazing views, great hiking, and also a ton of modern amenities. It’s the perfect place for a getaway.
If you’re looking for a spooky adventure, look no further than the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose. The house was a simple 8 room farmhouse when it was purchased by Sara Winchester (heiress to the Winchester Arms fortune) near the end of the 19th century.
Sara began what is now considered one of the longest periods of construction on any building. From the time she bought the small home until she died in 1922, construction never ceased on the home. The 8 room farmhouse morphed into a gigantic mansion, boasting 160 rooms with 10000 windows and 2000 doors.
Sara was thought to be crazy. Legend has it that she thought some great tragedy would befall her if she ever stopped construction on the home. There are numerous stairways and doorways to nowhere, random hallways and windows, and corridors that make no sense throughout the 24000 square foot masterpiece, which led some to believe that she was attempting to confuse the ghosts haunting her.
No one really knows her true motivation for building such a maze of a mansion, but it is indeed a fascinating place to visit.
California is the only state where you can ski and surf on the same day. Big Bear Mountain is just an hour’s drive from Los Angeles and a well-known get-away for the folks who live there. However, for the best winter sports experience, you’ll want to head into the Sierra Nevada mountains.
There are magnificent ski and snowboard resorts scattered throughout the state, but most are in the central region near the Nevada border. Head to June Mountain for a laid-back, family-friendly atmosphere, or Mt. Rose for a more competitive winter sports vibe.
Visit a Lesser-Known Park
California is home to a plethora of State and National parks. Although most aren’t as iconic as Yosemite or Sequoia, they are all amazing in their own right and deserve some attention.
I’ve already mentioned quite a few of the National Parks in the post, but there are plenty more that you need to check out. Of course, there is Joshua Tree in the Mojave Desert. It’s another desert park, but iconic for the amazing desert flora you can see there (specifically the Joshua tree).
There are plenty of other state parks located in all the different ecosystems that California has to offer. There are beach state parks, desert state parks, parks nestled in the Sierra Nevada mountains, parks located next to lakes. Whichever adventure you are looking for, California has a state park to meet it.
All the Mountain Towns
If you’re heading to California to escape the hustle and bustle of a big city, you may want to skip Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego. There are tons of things to do in California outside of these three cities.
One of those things is escaping to a small mountain town. The Sierra Nevada mountain range cuts through half the state, so no matter which city you are near, you can find a quaint little mountain town near you. Some of my favorites are Mammoth Lakes, to the South of Yosemite, and Lake Arrowhead, in the mountains to the East of LA.
Ask any California native, though, and they are bound to have their own favorites. These little mountain towns are usually close to the national parks and have antique shops, local diners, and cozy bed and breakfasts. They are the perfect retreat from busy city life.
Old Town Sacramento
Did you want to see an old Western town on your visit to California? Then you should check out Old Town Sacramento! Not many Sacramento attractions have made this list of things to do in California because, let’s face it; there isn’t much to do in Sacramento. The biggest claim to fame this city has is being the State Capital.
However, if you find yourself in the city, you need to check out Old Town Sacramento. Dedicated to the Western Frontier, the old town transports you back in time to the California gold rush. Most of the buildings to date to the 1800s and have been renovated just enough to give them a theme park vibe. Some folks think it’s a cheesy tourist trap, but I think it’s cute and fun.
Although I already mentioned two amazing places to have a wine tasting adventure, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include visiting Napa Valley on a list of the best things to do in California. It’s the quintessential location for indulging in California wine.
Located about two hours north of San Francisco, Napa Valley is home to over 400 wineries. There are also fantastic resorts, fine dining experiences, and opportunities for epic adventures (like hot balloon rides!). It’s the posh locale for wine tasting and the most iconic.
California has some of the best theme parks in the country, and I’d argue that it rivals even Florida as the best place to go for a theme park adventure. The original Disneyland sits in Orange County, just south of Los Angeles. It’s smaller than Orlando’s Disney World but just as iconic.
It’s not all about Disney, though. The original Universal Studios is in Hollywood, and I’d argue this park is better than its Orlando counterpart. During Halloween Horror Nights, you can even gain access to some of the back lots to see the Norman Bates house from Psycho and the clock tower from Back to the Future.
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One of the best things to do in California is head out into the middle of the sea and be one with nature – catching yourself dinner for the next few days. Of course, I’m talking about the deep sea fishing tours you can take all along the coast.
These chartered trips take you out to the best fishing locations off the California coast. Here you can catch a variety of fish and take them home to eat. One great thing about these tours (for me at least) is that the deckhands will help you with any part of the fishing that you aren’t comfortable with. You can even pay them to gut and filet your fresh catches so that you bring home only the edible parts!
Sea Life Tours
If you want to be one with the sea without partaking of its bounty, you can go out on any number of sea life tours. These include whale watching tours and glass-bottom boat tours. It can be tough to spot the whales, even on a self-proclaimed whale-watching trip, but you will almost always see dolphins and California sea lions, which are just as much fun, especially to those who don’t have sea life around them regularly.
Fresno is never going to make any list of places to visit in California. It’s not a nice city, and there isn’t really much to do there. However, it is right off Route 99 and is a gateway to some of the gorgeous parks we talked about above. If you’re driving by Fresno and you get hungry, you need to stop at the Dog House Grill for the absolute best BBQ brisket sandwich you will ever have in your life. After lunch, get out of Fresno. There’s nothing else worth seeing there.
Things to Skip in California
You may have noticed that Hollywood is not on this list. Although everyone thinks of Hollywood as one of the top things to do in California, it’s a dud. Unless you are obsessed with celebrities and movie life, it’s not worth your time.
Hollywood Boulevard, where the Walk of Fame is located, is dirty and filled with folks poorly dressed as superheroes trying to sucker tourists into paying for photos. The stars in the pavement aren’t very special. Stores and restaurants are overpriced, and it doesn’t even have a lot of silly hokey tourist shops to make it entertaining.
You can see the Hollywood sign from many places in Northern Los Angeles, even just driving down the 101 freeway. So skip Hollywood and see the good things on this list.
Things to Do in California
There are so many things to do in California; it’s impossible to fit them all into one list. It’s a huge state rich in culture and with a variety of different ecosystems and environments. There is something for everyone to enjoy in the vast expanse of land that makes up the state.
If your favorite California activity didn’t make the list – tell us about it in the comments!
Melanie launched Partners in Fire in 2017 to document her quest for financial independence with a mix of finance, fun, and solving the world’s problems. She’s self educated in personal finance and passionate about fighting systematic problems that prevent others from achieving their own financial goals. She also loves travel, anthropology, gaming and her cats.