Montréal is a city that seems to have it all. It’s among the world’s top culinary and cultural capitals, it’s home to chic hotels, and last year the city marked its 375th anniversary with yearlong celebrations. For LGBT travelers, the Québec metropolis also is one of the top global destinations.
Yet, Montréal was missing something that’s now been made clear: A tour company that even locals can appreciate. Since 2014, Spade & Palacio (www.spadeandpalacio.com) has been introducing visitors to its guides’ home neighborhoods, and business is booming.
Behind Spade & Palacio are founders Anne-Marie Pellerin and Danny Pavlopoulos, each in their early 30s and already successful entrepreneurs. The duo launched their tour company in 2014 with a singular mission: to offer “non-touristy tours.” They started by keeping it personal, showcasing Montréal’s less-traveled residential neighborhoods in the area of Le Plateau–Mont-Royal, like Mile End, Mile X, and Little Italy.
In Montréal’s beautiful summer season, Spade & Palacio offers four types of tours seven days a week, led by Pellerin, Pavlopoulos, and three other professional guides either on foot or by bike. (They limit the number of winter tours due to weather.) And since the start, the popularity of their less-traveled walkabouts has surprised even the founders.
The story behind S&P is as sweetly simple as they come. Pellerin, a native of Chile who grew up in the Québec’s Laurentians region, met Montréaler Pavlopoulos while they attended school for tourism and hospitality management. They were instant friends, learning that they lived on the same corner for years. Both quickly dove in as guides for different companies, and while they were building experience in the field, not everything was clicking for them.
“At some point we realized we loved a lot of the same things about guiding,” says Pellerin. “And there were also things guides were doing that we weren’t pleased by. A lot of companies were focusing on the touristy things—things that you can find on your own that you don’t need a guide for. They were hosting bigger groups. But we were not interested in that, or bus [tours] either. So we decided to take the next step and do it ourselves, our way. We wanted to show Montréal like we live Montréal.”
Their first tour concept was born over drinks at one of their favorite Mile X spots, Brasserie Harricana (95 rue Jean-Talon Ouest. Tel: 514-303-3039. www.brasserieharricana.com), an inviting restaurant and craft brewery. They’d been mulling ideas and settled on a walking food tour called “Beyond the Market.” The stops would explore locally run, independent businesses surrounding Jean-Talon Market (7070 Henri Julien Ave. Tel: 514-937-7754. www.marchespublics-mtl.com), and be kept to smaller groups of around ten people or less.
Pellerin says that they’d both learned from leading tours that many visitors dwelled in the market for a nice introduction to locally owned businesses and a place to taste-test some of the city’s amazing culinary diversity. But the tours often overlooked surrounding areas and notable independent businesses. So Pellerin and Pavlopoulos planned their “Beyond the Market” tour to hit places that they as locals frequent, with whom they’d developed bonds, and to share spots that offered something new in these booming Le Plateau enclaves.
“Our guests want to see the real deal, and they want to eat where locals eat,” Pellerin says. “So the tour is not fancy, but it’s well attended, and we share stories of the locals. It’s just a really fun, popular tour.”
That includes the casual eatery Los Planes (531 Belanger E. Tel: 514-4198789), a woman-owned Salvadorian pupuseria that’s served tasty Latin fare and addictive horchata for more than 20 years. Of course, Pellerin and Pavlopoulos’s own go-to hangout Brasserie Harricana is included; along with the newer Dispatch Coffee (267 rue Saint Zotique Ouest. Tel: 514-504-2351. www.dispatchcoffee.ca), home to an on-site roastery. The tour makes stops inside Jean-Talon Market too, and ends with a picnic in a nearby park over savory comfort food from Dinette Triple Crown (6704 Clark St. Tel: 514-272-2617. www.dinettetriplecrown.com).
“We want to offer an authentic experience, embedded in local culture,” says Pellerin. “We talk about these local businesses because we love it, we like what they’re doing, we like their products and we’ve developed a unique bond with the entrepreneurs and their staffs.”
The pair’s first tour found steady success, gaining the support of the Montréal Tourism Board thanks to its distinct takes on burgeoning neighborhoods. Their next step was to introduce their favorite mode of transportation in one of North America’s best bike cities, with the “Beyond the Bike Lanes” tour.
On board their two-wheelers, S&P guides introduce lots of their own favorite points of interest. It starts by showcasing some of Montréal’s amazing street art and murals, along with a few beautified, foliage-covered “green alleys” that are part of a citywide environmental program. The bike tour also passes through Montréal’s Gay Village, expansive Mount Royal Park, and pretty residential streets. Because, as their website reads, “to understand Montréal is to understand our neighborhoods with a local.”
A bike tour was always part of the plan, and early on Pellerin and Pavlopoulos rented bikes for their guests, expecting that they could buy their own fleet by year five. They grew so fast, however, Spade & Palacio was able to purchase the fleet within three years. Better still, the company was able to support a friend and fellow entrepreneur who launched Rebicycle, which recycles and rebuilds bikes. (It’s open by appointment only: www.lightspeedhq.com/customers/rebicycle.)
“One of the things we love about Montréal is that there are so many young entrepreneurs who are doing a great job in so many different fields,” she says, noting that Rebicycle customized their fleet to be all pink. Because, she asks, “Who wouldn’t want to ride on a hot pink bike around Montréal on a nice summer day?”
In a way, the pink bikes underscore Pellerin and Pavlopoulos’s LGBT pride. They also provide a bit of irony, because those flashy bikes have branded the company and made them catch attention all over town.
But before they launched their company, the duo kept low profiles. Originally the names Palacio (her favorite soccer player) and Spade were aliases that Pellerin and Pavlopoulos created for themselves, unbeknownst to each other, mainly for online profiles. But the nicknames eventually seemed like an obvious choice for their new tour company. So what were once pseudonyms meant to keep them anonymous now serve as a well-branded tour-company moniker, sporting eye-catching wheels all over Montréal.
High tourist season in Montréal brings terrific demand for Spade & Palacio tours, including their walking tour dedicated to street art created by local artists. They also offer a year-round “Montréal 101” tour called “Beyond the Basilica,” starting from the city’s prime tourist area of Old Montréal. The company couldn’t resist leading a tailored tour through such a beautiful, historic area, but it only originates there, covering its architectural gems and pockets of history. Then, true to the company’s mission, guests get to explore areas from the underground city and Chinatown to Montréal’s former red-light district that’s now its entertainment quarter. Private and custom tours are on the menu as well.
Midsummer also brings the specialty LGBT tour, timed around Montréal Pride (www.fiertemontrealpride.com) in midAugust. Right on theme, it’s called “Beyond the Village,” and explores the cultural history of the Gay Village and its main drag, Ste-Catherine Street East, along with interesting neighborhood nooks. Among the stops is Cabaret Mado (1115 Ste-Catherine Est. Tel: 514-525-7566. www.mado.qc.ca), owned by Montréal’s famous drag queen, who lets guests tour her flashy dressing room. It’s just one of the ways Spade & Palacio keeps the focus on the lesser-known neighborhood niches and rarely accessed sights that unpack Montréal’s rich culture and community.
While they can’t be sure what the future holds, Pellerin says that expansion to other cities is something they’ve discussed. Both she and Pavlopoulos are well traveled in South Asia, and could potentially launch Spade & Palacio tours in Bangkok, Saigon, or other sub-tropical destinations—a notion they find doubly appealing during the blustery Canadian winters. Any tours they produce will likely be led by local guides with unique perspectives, just as they are in Montréal.
After all, the pair believes that guiding visitors around their city should impart not just information but stoke each guest’s curiosity.
“What makes a good tour is a whole balance of things,” says Pellerin. “It’s not a history lesson. Some tour guides just list historical facts one after another, but we want to share what we do in our city and our personal experiences. When I show up in front of a group, I want to make sure that I offer a tour that I would want to follow, and it’s the same for any of our guides. If I were to follow my tour and find it boring, I’m doing something wrong. It’s our job to keep people interested, we want to keep it real and keep it fun.”