The Berkeley campus is famous for its setting in the city of Berkeley's Telegraph area, once a sort of "Hippie Mecca". Today, trendy stores like American Apparel and Urban Outfitters sit beside smoke shops and Westfield shopping mall staples like Hot Topic and Sheikh literally across the street from campus. There is a decent selection of record stores and second-hand vintage shops and coffee shops with students bent over notebooks and laptops abound. A block or two west of campus lies the Downtown Berkeley area that houses an array of bars, shops, eateries, mail stations, print shops, and at least a dozen stores that peddle Cal paraphernalia. The large number of homeless people can be intimidating at times, but in my experience they're all non-violent burnouts who will still wish you a good day if you decline their requests for monetary handouts or cigarettes. And decline you will, because you will be asked 3-4 times on every block. The Berkeley weather and local attitudes are conducive to a healthy homeless population and they fade into the background as a part of life as you spend more time here.
Depends on which direction you're heading. CAL is right in the middle of the city of Berkeley, so when you step off campus you are in the middle of the city. The neighborhoods differ depending on what side of campus you are on. In the South there is Telegraph Avenue, bustling with street vendors and quirky shops. In the West you find Downtown Berkeley where the movie theaters, BART station, and many of the bars are. In the North there is North Berkeley, a quaint neighborhood with delicious food, lush parks, and Berkeley Student Co-ops. To the East you can find Frat row, the football stadium, and the international house, and to the Southeast there is Rockridge, another quaint neighborhood on the border of Berkeley and Oakland.
On the northside you would see an array of homes, surrounded by tranquil people with small gardens. On the southside you see restaurants all over, homelessness in certain pockets (which you will easily learn to live with and hopefully you will attempt to understand the issue), and loud drunken parties on the weekends. Berkeley truly is a diverse city, and as a college town functions at its best in bringing people together. The sights are well worth the visit.
When you step off campus at UC Berkeley (assuming you are at the Telegraph main entrance), you see Telegraph Avenue. A historic street with plenty of cute shops and boutiques, lots of street vendors, and some homeless people. It's gorgeous.