The city acquired free town status in 1321 (it lost it again during the 15th century), and Hungarian King Louis I the Great published the "Privilegium for Slavis" in 1381, which gave the same rights to the city's Slovak inhabitants as to the German colonists.
The highlights of the historical core - which was declared a Protected Urban Area in 1987 - are its two main squares (the smaller Hlinkovo Square and the larger Mariánske), separated by the Church of the Holy Trinity. The church was built on the site of a 13th century castle, originally in a Gothic style, but which, typically, has been damaged and renovated numerous times since, most recently in 1942. Inside, the most eye-catching assets are its altar, dating from 1697, and a portrait of the holy trinity, by J.B. Klemens, the nineteenth century Slovak painter. The church's 51-metre spire dominates the city skyline, beside the slightly shorter Burian's bell tower, built in 1530 and fashioned after Italian designs.
Mariánske Square, is the de facto centre of Žilina. Much of the city's history is represented here: the square dates from the 13th century and some of the oldest buildings are the burghers houses lining the square, often possessing well-preserved Gothic cellars and originally occupied by the Germanic settlers of Zilina. The main church here is the St. Paul Jesuit church. More interesting is another church away from the square – the 18th-century St. Barbora Franciscan church, which has impressive, huge wooden carved altars.
One of the most popular sights in contemporary Žilina is the tinker museum, housed in the Budatín castle in one of the city suburbs. It was constructed in the late 13th century and rebuilt in the 1920s by its noble owners at the time, the Csáky family.
Since 1990, the city centre has undergone a massive reconstruction. In 2006, the Korean car manufacturer, Kia, took advantage of government subsidies, tax breaks and affordable, qualified labour to open a €1 billion production plant in the area. The Kia operation created thousands of jobs for residents. Today Žilina feels, in two words, western and provincial.