Domus Aurea was my favorite archeological site in Rome, and that says a lot since the city is loaded with ruins and history. Archeologists work at the site on weekdays, so this place is only open to tourists on weekends. Advance reservations are mandatory.
Inside Nero’s former pleasure palace
The “Golden Palace” or “Golden House” is the former pleasure palace of Emperor Nero. It has hundreds of rooms and was set on expansive grounds. Nero had it built after the Roman fires of 64 AD. The palace was abandoned in 69 AD after Nero’s suicide. Stripped of valuable materials for other Roman construction, the palace was then filled in with earth, new buildings were built on top of it, and it sat buried for years. This is why some paintings survived centuries – they weren’t exposed to air and moisture.
The palace was discovered by accident when someone fell into a strange cave-like opening with paintings back in the 15th century. Soon after, Italian artists from the Renaissance period lowered themselves into some rooms through ceiling holes. These artists admired the paintings – Michelangelo and Raphael included. They got inspiration from Nero’s palace, and they signed their names on the walls after their visits, like graffiti tags today.
The modern tour is with an archeologist who explains the subjects in the paintings, the architectural achievements of the palace, and a bit about the general history of the site. If you know stories from Homer, you might appreciate the art a bit more. (My iPhone 6 photos do not do any justice to reality. The light underground is low, and no flashes are allowed. I have boosted all light on these pictures to try and help you see them better.)
The tour is enhanced with a virtual reality show that used the Oculus Rift headset. It is thrilling! The show transforms the present cave-like space into its former Roman glory. It’s really indescribable.
Don’t forget to swivel your body around the square seat to enjoy the 360 view. (And if you wear eyeglasses, put the mask over your glasses and support it with your hand if the mask pushes down on your glasses too much.)
The discoveries about this time period, and about Nero, are vast from this site. He had several architectural advances in addition to fine art: his architects used bricks as a base because it was cheaper and faster to construct the building; they used shiny mosaics on walls and ceilings to reflect more light onto the jewels, pearls, and slabs of marble that were once embedded into the walls.
And, a few years ago, archeologists also discovered what they believe are the remains of the famous circular room Nero had built to impress guests. They believe the room rotated day and night to imitate Earth’s movement. Now that was an incredible feat for nearly two thousand years ago – like a Las Vegas restaurant today. You do not see this particular room on the tour, but you can imagine it based on the ruined opulence you do see.
Our guide (an Italian archeologist) couldn’t direct me to any books in English about the site. The only author she could think of is a scholar whose text books are for study. I’d like to read one of those, but they aren’t offered in an electronic version. I may pick something up related to Nero in the future – because this site moved me. To tears. Yea, at two different points on this tour I became emotional at the beauty of the history before me. This is a really special place. The vibe was intense.
Finding this ‘secret’ site
The entrance is difficult to find. Tedly read on Trip Advisor some people missed their reservations because they never found it! Those poor fools. Based on their difficulties, we checked out the site the day before our visit. Google maps puts the “Domus Aurea” marker in the middle of the site, which is far from the entrance. That initially threw us off, like everyone else, but we eventually found entrance.
Note the blue dot, that’s us near the actual entrance, and note where Google marks the site, which is on the Baths of Trajan — different ruins atop part of the Domus Aurea site:
The name of the street you want is Via della Domus Aurea, which runs near Via Labicana. Via della Domus Aurea begins with two pillars you can’t miss. A few steps up that road, you will see a driveway to the left and the entrance is at the end of that driveway.
Our tour cost about $20 USD each. We booked it about two weeks in advance, at the suggestion of our Italian friend, Vittorio. (Thanks, Vittorio!)
The official website to make your advance reservations for Domus Aurea is here. I urge you to check the site well in advance of your trip to Rome, because the current schedule might change as work continues.
We saw several people turned away on the day of our visit because they had not booked online in advance, and there is limited space, and it’s open only on Saturdays and Sundays.
There were only about 20 people in our group. The other groups before and after ours looked to be about the same size. This was a far different experience from the sites with thousands of people jostling and positioning around you for selfie shots.
The adjacent park
After the tour, we walked around on our own in the adjacent park, Parco del Colle Oppio. It’s clear where the Italian government has blocked off areas to help preserve the incredible history of Domus Aurea below while the expensive and delicate excavation, reinforcement, and restoration project continues.
Most of the public park is still used by locals. We saw kids playing, adults having lunch, and we even saw some migrants under trees for the shade. You’ll find a beautiful rose garden, several benches, and open walkways.
Based on the virtual reality show on the tour, it would seem this park area was the front grounds to Nero’s palace. Just imagine what’s left to discover… the tour only shows you less than one percent of the former complex!
Some areas of the park give great views of the Colosseum, in case you’re looking for a relatively quiet place in Rome with a view for a picnic lunch.
Extra tip: bring a sweater or extra layer to the Domus Aurea tour, because it can get chilly underground – even in hot weather.