If you’re planning a trip to Rome, you probably already know this fascinating city has centuries and millennia of history on show at just about every corner. Most tourists can list off the more popular attractions; the Colosseum, the Pantheon and the Vatican, among others – but The Eternal City has much more to offer.
Delve deeper into this historic city, and you’ll discover the fascinating Domus Aurea. Built after the Great Fire of Rome in 64AD, at the order of then-Emperor Nero, it was designed to be even larger and more ostentatious than the palace which had stood before it.
It was said Nero demanded an estate so grand that no king, queen, consul or emperor before or after him would match it. Alas, after 2000 years the shine has worn off somewhat. The site does stand mostly in ruin (for reasons we’ll discuss later), but the history of this complex makes the Domus Aurea a must-see in the city.
So how do we get there?
Getting to the Domus Aurea by train
The great news is that the Domus Aurea couldn’t be easier to find. If you’re staying in Rome’s historic centre and are happy getting around on foot, you’ll be best following directions for the Colosseum. The villa’s entrance is a little under 200 metres east of here. It sits at the edges of the Parco del Colle Oppio, which doubles up rather nicely as a picnic spot.
Which station is nearest to the Domus Aurea?
The closest metro stop is Colosseo, which you won’t be surprised to hear is right by the Colosseum. Hop off a train here, and you’re just 300 metres from the Domus’s entrance. Keep in mind, you may need to make a connection or two to reach this stop, as Colosseo Station sits on Metro line B, the blue line.
You can get even closer by bus. There’s a stop right outside Domus Aurea on Via Labicana, which is covered by services like the 85, 87, 117 and n3s routes. But if none of those is convenient, plenty more bus routes call just down the road by the Colosseum.
Meanwhile, your closest tram stop will also be the Colosseo stop, which is served by lines 3 and 8.
Ready for the good news? Almost all public transport in the city of Rome is managed by the same company. That means one ticket will be enough to cover your journey in to see the Domus and wherever else the day takes you. You can hop between buses, trams and trains as you please, through a range of ticketing options ranging from a 100-minute ticket through to one that lasts your entire trip.
What to see at the Domus Aurea
Once you breach the gates of the Domus Aurea, you’ll find yourself travelling beneath modern Rome into a network of tunnels and excavations that once made up the city’s grandest palace. Only select sections of the villa have been dug out and can be explored today. However, you can still spot beautiful architectural features, original paintwork and ornate ceilings as you move around the site.
There are a few sections of the Domus which should catch your eye in particular.
The octagonal complex
An obvious highlight is the striking octagonal complex. At the meeting point of several corridors, this octagonal room rises up into a dramatic curved dome. At its top is a circular and open oculus, allowing light to flood the otherwise pitch-black chamber beneath. It’s a feature you’ll spot at another iconic Rome landmark (guess which!), and the Domus’s octagonal complex is widely credited as its inspiration.
The mosaic ceilings
It’s fair to say mosaics were favoured in 1st century AD Rome. In his bid for opulence, Nero went one step further than covering the floors, having the ceilings tiled too! Once again, Nero and his architects are credited with breaking new ground here, with byzantine-style mosaics later becoming a common feature of Italian church apses.
The wall paintings
In its heyday, practically every surface within the Domus Aurea would have been delicately painted in beautiful, colourful patterns and murals. Unfortunately, two millennia beneath the surface of the earth has done its damage in many parts of the complex. However, there are some surprisingly intact sections of paintwork, and these give you just a sample of how the Domus Aurea would have looked upon its completion in 68AD.
These paintings are just another example of the Domus Aurea’s legacy in Italian art and architecture, despite its relatively short life as an imperial palace. That’s because the complex was rediscovered during the Renaissance. Many great artists were inspired by paintings at the newly-uncovered Domus.
The big dig
What you can explore today is thought to be just a fraction of the Domus Aurea’s full extent, which would have spanned four football fields or more. That’s why the site has been an active archaeological site for decades and remains so today. You can expect to see work ongoing when you visit. If you’re lucky enough to get close, catch a glimpse at what the archaeologists are working to uncover and ask your guide if they’ll explain what has been found recently.
Domus Aurea History and Facts
The story of the Domus Aurea is fraught and fascinating, interwoven with one of the most controversial figures in the history of the Empire; Emperor Nero.
A grand plan
It’s 64AD. For six days, a fire has ravaged through the heart of Rome, taking with it swathes of palaces and aristocratic villas in the area of Palatine Hill. Not able to escape the blaze was then-Emperor Nero’s Domus Transitoria, a palace complex he had purpose-built in the years before.
But from disaster, Nero sensed an opportunity. By this point, the Emperor was widely claimed to be descending into madness and experiencing a dizzying ego. This might explain why he ordered the construction of the Domus Aurea, or “Golden House” in English – set to be the grandest estate the Empire had ever known.
A monumental build
Construction began quickly, but things were deteriorating for Emperor Nero. By this time, he had killed his own mother and wife, and his behaviour had become increasingly erratic. Nonetheless, the estate continued to grow, spanning hundreds of rooms, atriums, marble pavilions, fountains, gardens and lakes. Decadent gold leaf detailing ensured the villa lived up to its name.
The complex was completed in four years, which for the time, was a speedy build. But in the end, Nero barely got a chance to enjoy the imperial palace of his deepest desires. In 68AD, Nero was banished from Rome and consequently took his own life.
A lost legacy
With Nero’s chaotic rule now over, the senate issued a ‘DamnatioMemoriae’ on the fallen Emperor, meaning to “condemn his memory”. As a result, sections of the Domus Aurea were gradually built upon by successive emperors, including the Colosseum which was constructed over the estate’s lake.
After all, the estate was considered so indulgent and decadent as to be embarrassing to Rome’s ruling class. In time, the Domus was lost beneath an evolving city. The final blow came when Emperor Trajan had the property’s remnants filled in with dirt and brick, so he could build his grand baths above it.
Quite how the Domus Aurea was rediscovered is unclear. Still, we do know that it happened during the Renaissance period in the 15th Century. One often-told tale suggests a young Roman accidentally fell through a crack in the nearby hillside, only to find himself in a cavern adorned with beautiful paintings. Before long, artists of Rome began to gather to marvel at the works, including a young Raphael and Michelangelo.
The Domus today
Unfortunately, the reopening of the Domus Aurea begun the process of damp and decay. What’s more, sections are struggling under their own weight and that of buildings which sit land above. Nonetheless, work has been ongoing to explore further into the complex and make areas structurally sound where possible. It’s thanks to this work that sections of the Domus can be examined by visitors today.
Restaurants, Bars, and Shops near the Domus Aurea
Being in the area of the Colosseum and Palatine Hill, you’ll mostly find landmarks and historical sights near the Domus. That means you’ll need to walk to get to bars, restaurants and shops, but you’ll discover these aren’t very far from you at all. Given some of this area’s draws, you may find it more touristy and commercial than other parts of the city; but there are still plenty of great places to grab a coffee or cocktail.
The best restaurants near the Domus Aurea
There are plenty of places to pick up some hearty local fare close to the Domus, and these include:
- Aroma – a Michelin starred spot serving up classic Italian dishes in the shadow of the Colosseum
- Divinostilita food & wine bar – a small and cosy family-run eatery pairing Italian cuisine with a vast selection of wines
- AlleCarrette – a traditional back-alley pizzeria that also serves up delicious Roman-style pies
- Il Bocconcino – a reasonably priced osteria lunch spot
- Caffe Propaganda – excellent Italian favourites served alongside classics like burgers and steaks
- Antica Gelateria de Matteis – a mouthwatering selection of gelato flavours for those with a sweet tooth
- Hostaria al Gladiatore – an outdoor terrace restaurant with great views of the Colosseum
The best bars near the Domus Aurea
If you’re visiting the Domus later in the day, a few drinks may be in order by the time you make your way out. Thankfully, you’ve plenty of good options in the surrounding area, particularly if you’re a lover of wine.
- Brewdog Roma – the UK-based brewery has made its way to Italian shores with a host of tantalising craft ales
- Coming Out – an LGBT+ venue with an extensive cocktail list
- Wineconcept Wine Shop – the perfect place to sample some beautiful wines
- The Race Club – a speakeasy-style offering with an eclectic décor
- Chiosco Da Nunzia – a quiet spot in Parco del Colle Oppio which offers a selection of bottled beers to enjoy al fresco
- Il Re del Tramezzino – a small locals’ bar with continental meats and bar snacks
Shopping near the Domus Aurea
With its central location, the Domus Aurea is well within reach of many of Rome’s hippest and swishiest retail spots. You’ll find a superb selection of stylish independents just a few hundred metres north in Monti, close to Cavour metro station. But in truth, wherever you are in Rome, you’re never far from a boutique.
Opening Times and Prices
To visit the Domus Aurea, you’ll need to book a ticket before you visit. This is best done online to avoid disappointment, and the website’s easy to use. You will need to pay a €2.00 reservation fee to do this, but it’s well worth it if it means guaranteeing your visit to the Domus.
The good thing to know is that kids under six can visit the attraction with you for free, but you’ll still need to book them their own ticket. From there, prices go up to €10.00 for kids under 12, and then €14.00 for all kids 12 and over and adults. That buys you a guided tour with added virtual reality goggles that allow you to see the palace in a digitised, fully-restored state. There’s an additional €6.00 charge per person if you’d like to view any of the temporary exhibits.
The Domus Aurea is open only on Saturday and Sunday, as lots of archaeological work takes place inside it during the week. You can book your tour for slots between 09:15 and 16:15.
With its infamous tale and scarcely-appreciated influence on Italian arts and culture over the last 2000 years, you simply can’t miss the Domus Aurea.
Travelling to Rome by train
Italy is blessed with a fantastic high-speed railway network, making it easy to travel to Rome by train. Roma Termini is the main railway station in the capital and it's served by several speedy services, including Trenitalia's Frecciarossa ("Red Arrow") services and Italo trains. Thanks to high-speed trains, you can get from Florence or Naples to Rome in under 1h 20m, Milan to Rome in 3h 10m and Venice to Rome in 3h 26m.
And if you're travelling onwards from Rome, why not continue by train? The capital has links to Venice, Florence, Milan, Verona and Genoa - to name but a few places you can reach by rail! So why not hop on a train and say arrivederci to Rome!