Why the Domus Aurea Tour is a Must-Do (Updated for 2017!)

Domus Aurea tour

For years, you were out of luck if you wanted to take a tour of the Domus Aurea tour — i.e. the famed “Golden House” of Nero. But in 2014, it reopened to the public (on guided tours only)… and the visit just keeps getting better and better. (More in my update at the bottom of the post).

I haven’t seen this much excitement over a site’s opening since the Colosseum’s underground was unveiled back in 2010. And you know what? Having toured both, the excitement over the Domus Aurea may be even more merited.

(PS: Don’t miss my article on the Domus Aurea in the Globe & Mail!).

First, the basics. Emperor Nero built his palace back in 64AD. (Yes, he’s the “fiddled while Rome burned” guy; although that’s an urban legend, you can’t deny his, erm, ingeniousness in using the land conveniently cleared by the fire for his dream palace). The property, which included open gardens and pastures as well as rooms and galleries, stretched all the way from the Palatine Hill to the Esquiline. Some scholars place it at 300 acres.

And let’s just say that the term “Golden House” doesn’t even begin to describe the property’s dazzle and opulence. “The vestibule of the house was so big it contained a colossal statue 120 feet high, the image of Nero; and it was so extensive that it had three colonnades a mile long. There was a lake too, in fact a sea, surrounded with buildings as big as cities,” Suetonius wrote. (Nota bene: The Colosseum later was built on the site of that lake). “Behind it were villas with fields, vineyards and pastures, woods filled with all kinds of wild and domestic animals. In the rest of the house everything was coated with gold and adorned with gems and shells. The dining-rooms had fretted ceilings made of ivory, with panels that turned and shed flowers and perfumes on those below. The main banquet hall was circular and constantly revolved day and night, like the heavens. He had baths supplied with sea water and sulphur water.”

In other words: Nero would have killed on MTV’s Cribs.

The Domus Aurea tour in Rome
From the outside, the entrance to the Domus Aurea is unassuming. Misleadingly so.

Buried underground (and with other structures, including Trajan’s baths, later constructed on top of it), the Domus Aurea was largely forgotten until its rediscovery in the 15th century. Visitors included the artists Perugino, Ghirlandaio, and Raphael — all of whom were inspired by the palace’s frescoes and decorations and whose resulting work helped shape the direction of the Renaissance.

But the Domus Aurea has struggled since then. Among the biggest issues has been water drainage: whenever it rained hard (and sometimes when it didn’t), water would soak through the park, right above the Domus Aurea, into the palace’s 2,000-year-old ceiling. The site closed in 2005; it reopened in 2007, but out of concerns for visitors’ security, was closed again almost immediately. And in 2010, after heavy rains, a 645-square-foot section of the ceiling caved in.

On the Domus Aurea tour
Just some of the lovely stucco decorations, still with original colors intact, that grace the Domus Aurea’s galleries.

When I heard about the latest collapse, I figured the Domus Aurea would never be properly restored enough to recover. And I definitely didn’t think they’d be opening any Domus Aurea tours anytime soon.

But sometimes, Rome surprises you. And, while seven years isn’t exactly “soon,” the Domus Aurea has (partly) reopened. And it is being restored, to the tune of $39 million. (One of the projects underway is a plan to decrease the weight, and burden, of the park above on the ancient structure below).

And! Yes, you can now do a Domus Aurea tour. Even though the restoration remains underway, sections that have been secured, including an enormous octagonal, domed room, long galleries and rooms with plenty of frescoes and stucco, are open to visitors on guided tours.

On the tour at the Domus Aurea
Our archaeologist/tour guide leads us through the Domus Aurea’s long-hidden rooms.

I went last week, and it was fantastic. The Domus Aurea tours are led by archaeologists working on the site. Although the guides don’t go into the juicy stories and anecdotes they could include (a general problem with tours run by the sites themselves, I’ve noticed, is that the guides tend to focus on raw facts, timelines and archaeological details, not on the nutty stories that can bring the sites to life), they really know their stuff.

Plus, there’s nothing like being led, hard-hat in place, through an opulent, 2,000-year-old palace that has been pretty much off-limits for the past 15 years.

In the Domus Aurea of Rome
Peeking into one of the Domus Aurea’s frescoed rooms

Tours, which must be pre-booked, take place only on the weekends until March 8 (March 2015 update: They’re now running through August!)  (April 2016 update: now until June 2016… likely to be extended!) (March 2017 update: the tour is now regularly run in English, Italian, Spanish and French, on Saturdays and Sundays only; it costs €16 each to reserve and now includes a virtual-reality headset to bring the site to life).

You can book your Domus Aurea tour online here. Since the entrance is on the Colle Oppio, right across from the Colosseum, and since the Colosseum was built on the Domus Aurea’s former lake, I recommend doing both in the same day — the two sites together will give you a great sense of Roman history in its first two centuries of empire.

If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here! I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.

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4 comments

  1. The google maps marker for Domus Aurea is in the wrong place, causing some (myself included) to get lost looking for the entrance and miss their tours. Since it isn’t signposted and as you say, the entrance is “unassuming” it might be good to point this out in big bold letters, since the people running the show don’t seem to care whether you find it or not.

  2. I was there the second weekend of October 2016. It is a fantastic experience and I really enjoyed the guide. I wish they would get their act together, though, and hire an experienced fundraiser rather than depend on 20-person tours to get the word out about crowd-funding. I highly recommend adding this stop to your itinerary in Rome.

  3. They have recently reopened the Domus Aurea for 2017 tours and this year they’re going through with digital reconstructions of it that you view through an Occulus Rift head set. I’m seeing it next week and I’m super excited.

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