How to Visit Domus Aurea: What to Know Before You Tour Nero’s Golden House

A trip to Rome, Italy simply wouldn’t be complete without visiting a few of the archaeological sites spread all over the city!

From the Colosseum and Roman Forum to underground sites, you have many choices worthy of your time on your Rome itinerary, whether it’s a long visit or just one day in Rome.

The city has maintained vivid and fascinating traces of its long history, some better preserved than others.

One riveting place to visit in Rome is the archaeological site of the Domus Aurea, the former home of Emperor Nero.

What remains of the most grandiose building in Rome, Nero’s Domus Aurea is now buried under the Oppian Hill Park.

Once a magnificent palace, the Domus Aurea is now a relic standing witness of Ancient Rome’s splendor.

If you are curious to learn more about the history of Rome and this fascinating place, read on and add the Domus Aurea to your Rome itinerary!

A Quick History of the Domus Aurea

The lit-up entrance to the Domus Aurea building with arched ceiling and lanterns
Photo Credit: Roxana Fanaru
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In 64 CE, a great fire destroyed most buildings in the center of Rome, and for centuries Nero was considered responsible for the fire, although this theory was never proven true.

However, what is clear is that the Roman emperor took advantage of the fire to further his personal and political plans.

The fire also destroyed Nero’s prior residence, the Domus Transitoria.

As a result, the emperor decided to take advantage of the now empty space across the Oppian, Palatine, and Esquiline Hills.

As a result, he built a palace unlike any other Rome had ever seen!

About the Domus Aurea (Nero’s Golden House)

Fragment of the painted part of a ceiling inside the Domus Aurea house tour
Photo Credit: Roxana Fanaru

The Domus Area (which is Latin for Golden House) truly was the most magnificent palace in Rome.

Spreading over 300 acres, the vast complex covered an area now corresponding to the Colosseum / Colosseo (rione Celio), part of rione Monti, and part of rione Campitelli.

It was not only the size and magnificence of the Domus Aurea that was so impressive. What is striking is that the massive complex only took four years to build.

This is especially wild when you learn that the original Domus Aurea is believed to have contained over 300 hundred rooms!

However, the Domus Aurea was never completed. Nero died by suicide in 68 CE after finding out that the Roman senate had declared him an enemy of the state and sentenced him to death.

Despite not being completed, the Domus Aurea was still nothing short of majestic.

According to the testimony of several figures of the time, including the historian Suetonius, the palace featured a mile-long triple columned portico, several bathrooms, quite a few pavilions, and many dining rooms.

It also reportedly had a vestibule with a colossal statue of Nero that was 120 feet tall and supposedly inspired by the Colossus of Rhodes!

One of the most evocative areas described was the coenatio rotunda, a dining room that would constantly rotate, like the world… think of it as the original rotating restaurant!

Not only would the room rotate on itself (caused by water movement underneath the floor), but the ceiling also had panels that would open to let rose petals and perfume drop on the guests.

In the valley now occupied by the Colosseum, a huge artificial lake was created.

All around the lake, there were imposingly tall buildings, beautiful gardens, and forests with all kinds of animals.

The Domus Aurea was designed by the architectural engineers Severus and Celer.

The decoration of the Domus is attributed to the master painter Fabullus, who oversaw the works and painted some of the rooms.

The word Aurea refers to the golden effect of the sunlight on the decorated walls.

Although it may be hard to imagine it nowadays when you visit the subterranean site, the Domus Aurea used to be flooded by light.

The architecture was designed in a way to allow sunlight to penetrate indirectly and hit the decorated walls which were covered in gold leaf and precious gems, making them sparkle. Aurea refers to the reflection of the sunlight on the golden decorations.

According to Suetonius, when Nero entered the nearly completed Domus Aurea for the first time, he exclaimed “I can finally live like a human being”. (Emperors, they’re just like us?!)

The Domus Aurea After Nero’s Death

Colonnades in the courtyard with dark lighting in the Domus Aurea archaeological site
Photo Credit: Roxana Fanaru

After Nero died in 68 CE, three emperors succeeded him for brief periods between 68 and 69 CE. Each of them was either killed or died by suicide. That’s some pretty high turnover!

This was until Vespasian became emperor in 69 CE. He decided to drain Nero’s lake and, in its place, build an amphitheater for the Roman people. In 80 CE, the Colosseum was inaugurated.

In 104 CE, another fire destroyed part of the Domus Aurea. What remained of the complex was filled with rubble and used as a foundation by Emperor Trajan to build his bathing complex known as the Baths of Trajan.

The baths required strong foundations, so new walls were erected within the Domus Aurea in between existing walls, often crossing several rooms and creating strange shapes and angles.

Before burying the Domus Aurea under tons of rubble, Trajan thought well to empty the palace of all useful materials, like the marble that he used to decorate parts of the baths.

Little did he know that, by filling the rooms of the Domus Aurea with rubble, he was actually allowing its preservation through the centuries!

The Baths of Trajan remained in use for roughly four centuries.

Remains of a cemetery dating to the 5th century were found in the area, suggesting that, by that time, the baths were no longer functional.

The Discovery of the Domus Aurea

A decorative vase within the Domus Aurea complex displayed in the low light of the underground site
Photo Credit: Roxana Fanaru

The ruins of the Domus Area was randomly discovered by painters who believed they stumbled across some decorated caves… little did they know what they really found!

While the first discovery of Domus Aurea happened in the 15th century, it wasn’t until the 18th century that the actual works of restoration of the Domus Aurea began.

Many areas were emptied of the rubble that filled them to uncover what was at first believed to be parts of the Trajan Baths.

Only in the 19th century did archaeologists realize that the ruins actually belonged to the Domus Aurea!

During the 20th century, archaeological investigations continued as more rooms were being emptied of the rubble.

Over the years, the underground space was used for other purposes too. At the end of World War II, the Domus Aurea became a refuge area for displaced people.

It was only recently that archaeological works have started to focus not just on discovering the remains of the sumptuous palace, but also on the recovery and preservation of the remaining frescoes.

Preserving the Heritage of the Domus Aurea

View of a portion of the Domus Aurea where water infiltration has started to cause problems with the restoration work and fresco paintings
Photo Credit: Roxana Fanaru

Preservation works at Domus Aurea are not easy due to the site being completely underground!

The pressure of the park above and the waterways make it harder to preserve the monument from further decay.

While the rubble that filled the rooms for centuries had allowed for the preservation of such unique art, the creation of the park above the site has been threatening the integrity of the Domus Aurea.

The Oppian Hill Park, which currently incorporates ruins of the Trajan Baths, was first built in 1871.

The park was later expanded during Mussolini’s reign, and many trees were planted, adding strain to the Domus Aurea site below it.

The recent reconstruction works of the park have been focusing on relieving the pressure the park puts on the archaeological site below it.

Many heavy trees were removed to avoid further damage created by the roots sinking into the structure of the Domus Aurea. The trees were replaced with shrubs and lighter vegetation.

Additionally, a lighter layer of terrain alongside a sophisticated drainage system was implemented to ensure the preservation of the valuable piece of history lying underground.

The Domus Aurea remained closed for many years, but it’s since reopened to the public.

As archaeologists are still working on exploring new areas and preserving those already uncovered, the space is only open on a few days of the week.

The Art of the Domus Aurea

The Birthplace of Grotesque Painting

Fresco paintings on the walls in the Grotesque style with lots of red, yellow, detailed work
Photo Credit: Roxana Fanaru

Before archaeologists began excavating and studying the site, the remains of the Domus Aurea were randomly discovered by a local in the 15th century.

As he was strolling on the Esquiline Hill, he fell into a small opening and landed in what looked like a cave. The walls of this cave were covered in beautiful frescoes.

It was not long until local artists started descending into the cave to admire the frescoes and take inspiration from them.

Some of these painters who visited this site were quite famous, including Raphael, Pinturicchio, Ghirlandaio, and Giulio Romano.

Some even mention Michelangelo, the artist behind the Sistine Chapel, among the artists that visited the “cave”!

Of course, these Renaissance artists did not know that what they were admiring were the frescoes inside Nero’s palace.

These decorated grottoes inspired a new artistic style called Grotesque painting.

In English, from the 18th century, the word was used to indicate something strange, usually hideous.

In reality, the word had a different meaning in the 15th century context as well as in Italian, where the word grottesco means from a cave.

So the word for this artistic style does not translate easily from Italian to English. In this context, the word grotesque simply referred to the birthplace of the painting style.

As they descended into the caves to admire the painted walls and take inspiration for their works, these painters left inscriptions of their names on the walls that can still be seen today.

Soon, the grotesque style became representative of Renaissance art.

The style was reflected not only in the decorations of churches, important buildings, or noble family homes but also in decorative objects.

Woodwork, pottery, and furniture were all decorated in grotesque style.

Elements of the grotesque style included fantastic animal or human figures, garlands, ornamental arrangements, and flowers. These are usually painted with delicate lines.

The figures are small and often enclosed within frames, with elements like columns, curly leaves, and other decorative elements surrounding them.

Painting Styles in the Domus Area

Photo of the eagle and other decorations that are part of the Domus Aurea archaeological site
Photo Credit: Roxana Fanaru

The Domus Aurea presents examples of several different painting styles.

In fact, ancient Roman frescoes are divided into four styles, also known as Pompeian Styles because they were identified during the excavations of Pompeii.

Examples of the first style, known as the incrustation style, include decorations representing fake marble and other elements.

The second style was called the architectural style, and it included trompe-l’oeil wall paintings that aimed at giving a three-dimensional effect.

The third style, or ornate style, is predominant in the Domus Aurea and includes the use of bright colors and delicate decorations, which is part of what made ‘the Golden House’ so brilliant.

The use of the color red was very widespread, and so was the presence of semi-fantastical animals.

It is believed that the fourth style, or intricate style, was born in the Domus Aurea at the hand of Fabullus.

This painting style included elements of the previous styles with the addition of relief stucco decoration to create what is widely considered the first example of 3D painting.

Despite being faded and mostly destroyed by the constant humidity at around 90% inside the Domus Aurea, you can still see many examples of these frescoes.

Some of these are surprisingly well-preserved, given that they are nearly 2,000 years old and were abandoned for a large portion of that time!

What to Expect on a Domus Aurea Tour

People on a guided tour watching a multimedia video presentation about how the nympheum used to look. A bunch of people standing looking at a screen in a room.
Photo Credit: Roxana Fanaru

The only way to visit Domus Aurea is with a guided tour.

Since the Domus Aurea is an underground site with constant restoration works going on, you cannot visit it on your own.

The importance and fragility of the site are additional reasons to only allow visitors access if they are accompanied by a tour guide.

Tour Options and Practical Information

Tours in the Octagonal Room in Domus Aurea looking up at the beautiful vaulted ceiling and ornate architecture
Photo Credit: Roxana Fanaru

You currently have two tour options to choose from. Most tourists will pick a guided tour like this one in English, which incorporates virtual reality and multimedia elements.

There is also one in Italian where you speak with archaeological officers, architects, and restoration workers.

The guided walking tour with VR and audio guide takes place on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday while the one with archaeologists is only available on Thursday.

Book your guided tour of the Domus Aurea here!

Note that there is no entry option from Monday to Wednesday, and the site is always closed on January 1st, May 1st, and December 25th, regardless of the day of the week.

The VR tours depart every 15 minutes, the first at 9:15 AM and the last at 5:15 PM. It lasts about one hour and 15 minutes.

The tour includes a video projection, a guided tour in your chosen language, and a virtual reality experience.

Domus Aurea Tour Itinerary

The video introduction shown at the beginning of the tour which gives you a visual of how the Domus Aurea used to look before it was ruined
Photo Credit: Roxana Fanaru

You will start the small group tour by entering one of the tunnels created for the foundations of the Trajan Baths.

This is where your guide will explain the layout of the Domus Area in front of the map so you have an idea of what to expect.

A few steps down the tunnel, a video will be projected on the wall to briefly explain the history of the Domus Area.

It tells the story from its construction as desired by Emperor Nero to its destruction and the discovery of its remains several centuries later.

After the video, your guide will take you through some of the most important areas currently accessible.

You will see the difference between the original structure of the Domus Area and the walls added for the Trajan Baths foundation.

You’ll also be able to admire impressive decorations on the walls dating back as far as nearly two millennia, and remains of sculptures retrieved during the excavations.

Highlights of Visiting Domus Aurea

A photo of a painting on the ceiling in the nymphaeum in the Domus Aurea
Photo Credit: Roxana Fanaru

Of the hypothetical 300 rooms of the original Domus Aurea, only a few are able to be visited now.

That being said, you will still have the chance to traverse many corridors and enter several rooms, each decorated in different styles.

Here are just a few highlights of my visit to Domus Aurea!

Colonnade Courtyard

Colonnades in the courtyard with dark lighting in the Domus Aurea archaeological site
Photo Credit: Roxana Fanaru

The first area you will see right after watching the video is the Colonnade Courtyard.

The space used to feature ionic columns and a roof that covered the area.

With the construction of the Trajan Baths foundations, the roof was replaced by a vaulted ceiling, and more walls were added for support.

The courtyard was decorated all around with a fake portico (cryptoportico) painted on the walls without perspective.

Adjacent to the courtyard, there was a dining room and, next to it, a nymphaeum (a shrine dedicated to nymphs).

Although the columns were replaced by the Trajan walls, remains were found during the excavations and are now on display.

Corridor of Eagles

Photo of the eagle and other decorations that are part of the Domus Aurea archaeological site
Photo Credit: Roxana Fanaru

As you proceed tour visit, you will pass through the so-called Corridor of Eagles.

The name of this hallway is due to the decorated walls featuring several eagles within small rectangles.

Although the frescoes are faded, you can still see some of the eagles as well as two peacocks.

The reason for the faded frescoes and mostly naked walls is the water infiltration that happened to the site.

The water would seep through between the wall and the paintings, which led to the detachment of the outer layer containing the pigment from the frescoes.

In the corridor, you will see the detrimental effects of water infiltration.

This is the main reason why the Domus Aurea requires constant preservation works and why what you see is just a fraction of the splendor that used to exist!

Nymphaeum

Detail of the Nympheum room in the Domus Aurea with some lighting on the details
Photo Credit: Roxana Fanaru

The nymphaeum was an area that included a small body of water and a fake grotto decorated with natural elements.

The nymphaeum was next to the dining room and featured columns that would allow sunlight to enter the building, making it especially beautiful.

The nymphaeum walls were decorated with mother-of-pearl and seashells.

On the ceiling covered in fake stalactites, you can still see the remains of a mosaic depicting Odysseus and Polyphemus.

The two lateral walls featured windows that opened into lush gardens.

After Nero’s death, the emperors that lived shortly in the Domus Aurea closed the windows and used them as niches for statues.

When Trajan ordered the building of his Baths, the marble contained in the nymphaeum was repurposed to decorate some areas.

Gilded Vault or Room of the Gilded Ceiling

People doing virtual reality in the Guilded Vault room on a Domus Aurea tour
Photo Credit: Roxana Fanaru

In my opinion, this is the best part of the Domus Aurea tour!

The Gilded Vault is the area that was first discovered in the 15th century.

It was in this room that artists would lower themselves through the holes in the ceiling, which you can still see, and admire the frescoes from the feeble light of their torches.

This is also the room where you will travel back in time and see how the Domus Aurea must have looked like in 68 CE!

Here, you will wear the VR headset and see how magnificent the place was when flooded by sunlight: the frescoes in all their vivid colors and the columns opening onto a beautiful garden that overlooked the lake and the city in the background.

Honestly, the VR part alone makes this tour worth your money!

The reconstruction is spectacular in every detail, from the frescoes on the walls to the flowers in the garden swaying in the gentle wind.

Octagonal Room

Empty view of the Octagonal Room on the Domus Aurea guided tour
Photo Credit: Roxana Fanaru

This is perhaps the most famous and impressive room in the Domus Aurea!

It is also among the best-preserved areas of Nero’s palace, because it was left intact by Trajan’s foundations.

The wide room opens onto five small chambers and has an opening in the dome that lets the light inside.

Although it is now empty of any decorative elements, the room is thought to have been the most lavishly decorated.

Small remains of frescoes are present in some of the chambers. Historians believe this space was probably used as a dining room and to host parties.

Glass remains found on the floor led historians to believe the dome was covered in mosaics, likely depicting the stars and planets.

Room of Achilles on Skyros

The detail of the Achilles on Skyros room with beautiful painted walls and detail of the Greek myth
Photo Credit: Roxana Fanaru

This room, to the west of the Octagonal Room, takes its name from the fresco on the ceiling, attributed to Fabullus.

At the center of the fresco, you can see a small depiction of Achilles among the daughters of Lycomedes on the island of Skyros.

The scene narrates the moment in which the hero, that had been disguised as a girl, reveals his identity to Odysseus.

Room of Hector and Andromache

Detail of the Hector and Andromache room with detail destroyed by erosion over time
Photo Credit: Roxana Fanaru

This room is just opposite the Room of Achilles on Skyros, on the other side of the Octagonal Room.

It is probably not by chance that the two rooms narrate the feats of two opposing heroes!

This room used to contain illustrations of Homer’s Iliad, in particular focusing on Hector, the hero of Troy killed by Achilles.

Tips for Planning A Visit to Domus Area

Statue of a Terpsichore bust in the Nymphaeum room in the Domus Aurea
Photo Credit: Roxana Fanaru

Before visiting the Domus Aurea, you should keep in mind a few things.

Like many other landmarks in Rome, it is a well-visited place and tours do sell out!

Booking a skip-the-line ticket in advance is vital, and so is being aware of a few rules and recommendations!

Book your tour online in advance.

Animal decorations as you'll see on the many walls of the Domus Aurea site
Photo Credit: Roxana Fanaru

This is the most important tip for your visit to the Domus Aurea!

Each guided tour allows a limited number of visitors, so you must reserve the slot online in advance.

Remember that tours are only available from Thursday to Sunday, so make sure you’ll be in Rome during one of these days.

The earlier you book, the more slots you will find available! However, in low season, sometimes you can find a few slots, even one day before.

If you don’t want to risk it, check at least one week in advance, especially if you are traveling during the summer high season.

Book your guided tour and skip-the-line tickets to the Domus Aurea here!

Bring a sweater — no matter the time of year!

Dark corridors in the archaeological site of Domus Aurea
Photo Credit: Roxana Fanaru

Even on the warmest summer days, the temperature in the Domus Area can be quite low because the site is underground and maintains a constant temperature.

You’ll descend several meters underground and spend over one hour walking around the site, so if you’re cold, you’ll be uncomfortable.

Remember to bring a sweater or jacket that you can wear if you start to get chilly.

Don’t forget to take pictures!

Yes, it is allowed to take pictures during the visit. So bring your camera and don’t forget to snap a few pictures!

However, remember to also pay attention to your guide.

This is a truly memorable experience and their historical background will help a lot in your understanding of this majestic site.

Wear comfortable shoes.

The lit-up entrance to the Domus Aurea building with arched ceiling and lanterns
Photo Credit: Roxana Fanaru

The areas you can walk around have flat pavement, but it is still useful to wear comfortable shoes like sneakers or walking shoes.

Remember that you will be walking around quite a bit, so avoid uncomfortable shoes like flip-flops or high heels.

Don’t bring big backpacks or suitcases.

Avoid bringing big backpacks or suitcases as there is no luggage storage on site.

If you don’t have a choice, check for a nearby storage facility to leave your bigger luggage.

When you enter the Domus Aurea, security will check your bags, similar to how you would at other sites like the Colosseum or the Vatican Museums.

How to Get to Domus Aurea

View of the Colosseum from afar on a sunny day

The location on Google Maps is not very accurate so take note of these directions!

The easiest way to reach the Domus Aurea is to head to the Colosseum by metro line B or bus.

The entrance to the site is inside the Oppian Hill Park (Parco del Colle Oppio).

From the Colosseum, walk north in direction of Via Labicana. On the left side, right before Via Labicana starts, you will notice a big gate leading to the park.

Pass the gate, and after just a few steps, you will find the entrance to the Domus Area on the left-hand side. Make sure you arrive at the selected time slot for your visit.

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