Even after 2,000 years, there’s still ‘new’ stuff to discover in Rome, Italy. It was during my 4th visit to the capital of Italy, that I learned about the Domus Aurea, or Nero’s Golden Palace. Hidden in almost plain sight, this underground excavation is now open for visitors. If you’re looking for a unique travel experience in Rome and want some off the beaten path tour, read more about the Golden Palace of Nero and how to get Domus Aurea tickets.
After my Caravaggio Art Tour with Roma Experience, they asked me to join them for a tour of the Domus Aurea. As I never heard of it before, I was super curious and accepted. They arranged the tickets for me, but I paid for them myself.
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What is the Domus Aurea?
Domus Aurea is an excavation site in Rome. It is also referred to as Nero’s Golden House or the Golden Palace. The Palace of Nero consisted of almost a quarter of ancient Rome and had amazing halls and gardens.
An artificial lake was made as well as extensive gardens. Nero’s Palace was a lush quiet retreat for the emperor, built with all the extravagant luxury you’d expect from the ruler of Rome.
Where to find the Domus Aurea in Rome?
The Domus Aurea is almost hidden in plain sight. You probably have passed it several times when you visit Rome and yet, you didn’t know it was there. Not many people know it even exists. As a matter of fact, Nero’s Golden Palace was hidden for almost 2,000 years! Only recently, a full excavation of the sight has taken place, opening it up to the public.
So where is it then? Do you know that big colossal building in Rome? Unique and iconic of the city of Rome, the Colosseum is a must see in Rome. If you leave the metro station with the same name, and walk past the Colosseum on the Via Nicola Salvi, you’ll see a green park. Just on the left you’ll find the entrance to the Domus Aurea.
A ticket for the Domus Aurea gives you entrance to the underground part on the Caelian Hill, but Nero’s Golden House stretched across the Palatine, Esquiline and Oppian hills too. The Baths of Trajan were built on top of it, confusing many archaeologists in the pasts.
Who was Nero and why did we forget about him?
Nero became emperor of Rome when he was only 16 years old. He reigned the empire from 54 till 68 CE and died when he was only 30 years’ old. During his reign, the empire suffered from deflation and Nero spent enormous sums of money on public works and private works, like the Domus Aurea.
In 64 CE, a great fire burned half of Rome down to the ground. Nero seized the opportunity (or did he maybe start the fire?) and began building his Golden Palace on the ashes of Rome. The Golden House of Nero was intended to entertain his guests. You’ll not find any sleeping quarters or latrines, giving the impression the palace stood empty most of the time.
The Palace consisted of 300 entertainment room, lush gardens, an artificial lake with next to it a colossal statue of Nero of 30m tall: The Colossus Neronis.
It took 4 years to complete the Golden House. When you do the math you’ll see work on the Golden House stopped with the death of Nero himself. This means he didn’t enjoy the Golden Palace for long.
When Nero died, his enemies were embarrassed by all the enormous structures Nero left behind. He was declared enemy of the state and they stripped the Golden House of its marble, took all the decoration and drained the artificial lake.
Later Emperor Vespasian built the Flavian Amphitheater on the grounds of the drained lake, next to the Colossus Neronis. Over time, the statue disappeared, but the name survived and transferred to the Amphitheater besides it: The Colosseum.
As the successors of Nero tried to erase his name from history, they destroyed his works, erased his name from public works and documents. They filled his Domus Aurea with dirt to lay a foundation for the new baths of Trajan. Within 40 years, the life of Nero and his Golden House were erased from memory and the landscape of Rome.
Remarkable finds of the Domus Aurea at the Vatican
When you visit the Vatican Museum, you can see an amazing statue of ancient times. The Laocoön Group was found in 1500 on the sight of the Domus Aurea and has been on display in the Vatican Museum since. Although its original date varies between 400 BCE and 86 CE, it could very well be possible it belonged to the decorations of the Domus Aurea as Nero was a lover of fine arts and surrounded himself with statues like this.
If you go to the Vatican Museum, make sure to check it and tell me what you think of it!
How to get Domus Aurea Tickets?
The Domus Aurea can only be visited with a guided tour on Saturday or Sunday. Tours are in Italian, English, Spanish, and French. A tour lasts 1 hour and 15 minutes and will cost you €14 (Adult price). You need to reserve tickets in advance as they sell out quickly. You can find more details here.
But chances are tickets to visit the Domus Aurea are sold out. There are only limited spots and many tour agencies buy up tickets in bulk, leaving very little for independent travelers. Luckily, I can recommend a tour company for you. Roma Experience Tours has a great tour of the Colosseum, the Roman Forum and a visit to the Domus Aurea.
Colosseum & Domus Aurea Tour
A visit to the Colosseum is a must-do when you’re in Rome. Roma Experience Tours combines a skip-the-line tour of the Colosseum with a visit to the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. To top things off, they give you skip-the-line tickets to the Domus Aurea too.
Their tour mixes the highlights of Imperial Rome in one comprehensive tour. You do not have to worry about getting tickets or audio guides or waiting in line. Their guide takes you directly on a tour of the most impressive ancient structure in Rome. You dig through the history and politics of Rome at the Roman Forum and explore the Palatine hill.
To top things off, they give you a tour of the Domus Aurea which is a great addition to the tour and fits perfectly in the historic time frame of the other sights. After a tour of 5 hours, you’ve seen the highlights of ancient Rome as well as off the beaten path newly discovered Golden House of Nero! I absolutely loved the tour and felt I really saw something unique.
What to see at the Domus Aurea?
We met at the gates and showed the nice ladies our Domus Aurea tickets. Everyone in our group was given yellow hard hats. I found these hilarious. I don’t know about you, but I’m not in a habit of wearing them (because I don’t work in construction or am a member of the YMCA).
The actual tour of the Domus Aurea is done by an archeologist who works on the excavation during the week. I found our guide offered an abundance of insightful information about excavation and why certain finds were of bigger significance than others.
We entered the excavation site. Pitch black around us, only small led lights to guide our way. The tour started with a projected video production on the main wall and we saw a glimpse of what Nero’s Golden Palace looked like.
As we continued underground, we slowly moved past the halls and walls. We carefully examined the flour plan of the Domus Aurea and the Baths of Trajan. The foundation of the baths is interwoven with the structure of the Domus Aurea. We learned to distinguish one from another and look for signs to recognize the “old” from the “new”.
Virtual Reality at Domus Aurea
After we walked through several hallways, I felt utterly lost. The place was dark and damp and there is a lot of brick and vanished mortar. Even for me, it was hard to imagine what it must have looked like in Nero’s time.
What I do know, is that the place was massive. We only skimmed through a few halls and corridors of the palace, but it felt like we walked through half of Rome. Finally, we arrived in a vaulted room. We each were given virtual reality goggles and put them on.
The augmented reality blew my mind away. As soon as we all put on our goggles and the images started, the whole groups exclaimed “owh’s” and “awh’s”!!
We were transported to the same room in the 1600s. Covered in dirt and gravel and 1600 years of neglect. It was as if we crawled through the room with torches in our hand as only the top of dirt has sunken in, giving room to the first ‘cave explorers’.
As you move your head around, you can ‘see’ via the glasses what is displayed. This was my first experience with augmented reality and it baffled me.
As the dirt was dug away from under our feet, the glory of the octagonal room of Nero’s Palace unraveled before our eyes. The immaculate details, slabs of marble, colorful patterns and the light flooding in from the open side.
You’re drawn outside, where the grass waves in the wind, flowers are blooming and the view of the hills of Rome is remarkable. I remember thinking: they even got the light exactly right as there is no other tone of light than the light of the city of Rome.
Unique Experience in Rome
I learned so much during the Domus Aurea Tour in Rome. The archaeologists explained the work they do on the sight. How the earth and the dirt actually protected the murals and decorations. How the pattern of holes to hold the slabs of marble tell them valuable information about the decorations at the Golden House.
In the end, we stood in another octagonal room with light pouring in from above. The whole room was illuminated with natural light, showing us the room, the niches and the remains of decoration.
After all the darkness of the underground halls and rooms, this felt like we resurfaced for air. With a few more years to come, more excavation work of the Domus Aurea will take place and more rooms will look like this one. Bright and shown in its former splendor.
Tips for your visit to Domus Aurea Rome
After almost 75 minutes, we reached the end of the tour. We traced our steps back and exited the excavation site. Here, the warm sunny Sunday in Rome greeted us. I gathered some tips for you to enjoy your visit to the Domus Aurea:
- Bring a sweater, the Domus Aurea is underground. It is dark and very damp in the halls and it gets cold quickly.
- Get your Domus Aurea tickets in time. You can only visit on weekends and tickets sell out quickly. Consider combining it with a Colosseum tour by Roma Experience Tours. Book your tour here.
- Bring sturdy walking shoes for the Colosseum and Domus Aurea tour. Rome involves a lot of walking and with uneven excavation sights and steps, closed sturdy shoes work best.
- Bring a small tripod or gorilla pod to take pictures in the Domus Aurea. It is very dark and snapping pictures will be difficult. Increase your chances of a good photo with high ISO, low aperture and a steady hand or gorilla pod.
- Do not use your flash when shooting pictures. It will make for very sinister pictures and will damage the decorations of the Domus Aurea.
Did you ever experience augmented reality on a tour? Did you know about Nero’s Domus Aurea? Have you been underground to see it? Share your thoughts in the comment subject below or share this post on social media.
Did you like this post? Why not share the image below. Obviously, the excavation did not have any gold left at the Domus Aurea. But this is my own imagination of what it might have looked like as a teaser.